More leadership changes at the Utah Department of Health, as its director moves to a new state ‘innovation’ job

Rich Saunders had led UDOH for less than a year, through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

(Scott G Winterton | Deseret News, pool photo) Rich Saunders, speaking at a COVID-19 briefing in September 2020, is leaving as executive director of the Utah Department of Health to take a new job in Gov. Spencer Cox's administration — "chief innovation officer."

The leadership of the Utah Department of Health is changing again — with executive director Rich Saunders leaving after less than a year in the job to take on a newly created role in Gov. Spencer Cox’s administration.

Cox has named Saunders the state’s first chief innovation officer, to join the governor’s senior staff starting June 21. Saunders, according to a statement Friday from Cox’s office, will be in charge of Cox’s plans “to aggressively upgrade state government efficiencies, innovations and responsiveness to Utah residents.”

Saunders will continue to be incident commander over the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response, the statement said. He also will be involved in the Cox administration’s efforts to merge UDOH with the Department of Human Services, which is expected to be completed by July 2022.

Tracy Gruber, the current executive director of the Department of Human Services, has been named executive director of the merged department. She was previously director of the Office of Child Care at the Utah Department of Workforce Services, and a senior adviser for the Intergenerational Poverty Institute.

Nate Checketts, now a deputy director at Department of Human Services, will be the new interim director of UDOH, where he used to be a deputy director. Checketts is credited with coordinating Utah’s COVID-19 testing efforts for the first year of the pandemic, and was the state’s Medicaid director.

Saunders started in UDOH in 2015, as a consultant on Medicaid. He joined UDOH’s executive leadership team in 2017. As the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, and UDOH’s director, Dr. Joseph Miner, was sidelined from day-to-day leadership due to illness, Saunders was appointed chief deputy to then-acting director Jefferson Burton.

When Burton left the department last August, Saunders was named the interim executive director — and served in the state’s Unified Command to react to the pandemic. The Utah Legislature approved an easing of state law to allow Saunders, who is not a medical doctor and does not have a degree in public health, to lead UDOH.

Miner retired in December. In February, the Utah Senate approved Saunders’ permanent appointment to the UDOH directorship. Dr. Michelle Hofmann, a pediatrician at the University of Utah, was named a deputy director in February.

Cox, who chaired the state’s coronavirus task force when he was lieutenant governor, expressed his “respect and gratitude” for Saunders. “As we worked closely together, I saw how he counseled, streamlined processes and guided his team through some very rough waters,” Cox said in a statement. “As chief innovation officer, he will bring that same creative energy and collaborative approach to all of state government.”

In May, the state’s epidemiologist, Dr. Angela Dunn, left UDOH to become director of the Salt Lake County Health Department — a job she started this month. A new epidemiologist, Dr. Leisha Nolen, will start in that job on July 6.