A physician with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who helped investigate one of the country’s first COVID-19 outbreaks has been named Utah’s new state epidemiologist, the Utah Department of Health announced Thursday.
Dr. Leisha Nolen, who starts in the job on July 6, will succeed Dr. Angela Dunn, who left the state agency in May to become executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department.
According to a UDOH news release, Nolen now works in the CDC’s Arctic Investigations Program, based in Anchorage, Alaska. The program deals with health disparities in the Alaska Native population.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, UDOH said, Nolen was one of the first responders on the ground in Seattle, investigating a cluster of COVID-19 cases in a nursing home.
During the pandemic, Nolen has worked to help establish a national system to track “breakthrough” cases — people who contracted COVID-19 after getting vaccinated. She also helped evaluate the accuracy of rapid tests and partnered with Alaska Native villages to find ways to protect those communities from the coronavirus.
In a statement, Nolen said UDOH “has such an outstanding reputation among public health professionals, and I am excited to get to work with this great group of individuals to help improve the health of the residents of Utah.”
Nolen earned her medical degree and doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, and completed her pediatric residency at Boston Children’s Hospital. She has been involved in several major disease investigations, including working with agencies in West Africa during the CDC’s response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
“We’re fortunate to have Dr. Nolen joining our team,” Rich Saunders, UDOH’s executive director, said in a statement. “Her background and previous experience ensures she’ll be able to smoothly and quickly integrate with our pandemic response team and also with our broader public health priorities and partners.”
Dunn, who started her new job with Salt Lake County this week, said in a statement through UDOH that “I think I speak for all local health officers in welcoming Dr. Nolen to Utah and offering our support to help ensure her success.”
Dunn was named the state epidemiologist in 2014. Since the pandemic began, Dunn has been recognized as a respected adviser to two governors, recommending science-based strategies to combat the coronavirus — including wearing face masks and keeping restrictions on businesses and public gatherings. Her advice drew protesters to her house and criticism from lawmakers, but also gained her fans who bought “I [heart] Dr. Dunn” T-shirts and posted yard signs to declare their support.