Robert Gehrke: Angela Dunn was much more than a capable expert during an unprecedented pandemic

She was able to ‘dance that fine dance’ between scientific fact and political realities

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Tuesday afternoon I had to pull out my t-shirt, the one I got not long after a reprehensible group of protesters, angry about being asked to wear a mask in order to save lives, started showing up outside the home of Dr. Angela Dunn.

It’s the shirt with a big red heart wearing a mask and says “I ❤️ Dr. Dunn.” It felt like a fitting gesture, as she announced she was leaving her role as state epidemiologist to become the head of the Salt Lake County Health Department.

Over what is closing in on 14 months of this pandemic, Dunn took on a role well beyond the norm for someone with her job title. But these, of course, were not normal times.

She was, of course, the trusted adviser.

Justin Harding, then Gov. Gary Herbert’s chief of staff, met Dunn in late February, as the threat of the pandemic was spreading to the West. The night that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive and the NBA suspended its season, they huddled until nearly 2 a.m.

“She has always been a very confident and competent voice,” Harding told me.

Not the only voice

Publicly, she was a team player, lending her support to the decisions made, even in those instances when she disagreed — like spending $8 million on the then-unproven and later debunked hydroxychloroquine treatments.

She managed to tip-toe through the political pandemic minefield, advocating for what the science indicated were the best public health practices, while, for the most part, avoiding the wrath of Republicans who believed those practices were harming businesses.

“Angela recognized her voice was an important voice at the table, but it wasn’t the only voice,” Harding said. “She would give her counsel and then we would work together in a collaborative way to get consensus among the group.”

Dr. Emily Spivak, an infectious disease physician at the University of Utah, served with Dunn on a task force on pandemic policies for schools, and said she “was able to dance that fine dance.”

“She’s done an amazing job dancing through a lot of politics,” Spivak said, “but also being the voice of reason and holding to what is the recognized science, the evidence, what she believes and her professional opinion.”

She was our trusted source of information.

Research shows the public trusts health information from an expert, not a politician, so in scores of press briefings, day-in and day-out, Dunn stuck to just the facts of what we knew and, equally as important, what we didn’t know. She offered it clearly, concisely and authoritatively — even a little robotically.

She was resilient.

Despite not having actual decision-making authority, her public profile made her a target of withering criticism, culminating in the protests at her home, something no public servant should be subjected to.

And she was an important role model.

“I’ll tell you, as a woman, I hope and I think she will have a lasting impact on Utah,” Spivak said. “Here’s this tall woman with short hair who isn’t from here, but is powerful and has a presence. It was really inspiring as a woman to watch that and I think there were a lot of people like myself who she motivated and made feel more comfortable speaking out on things.”

Thanks in no small part to Dunn’s tireless service, Utah’s pandemic response, while certainly not perfect, has been better than most. We have the sixth lowest rate of death in the United States, our economy has recovered better than just about any in the country, and our vaccination push has run into surprisingly few problems.

“It is hard to overstate the truly life-saving contributions Dr. Dunn has made to Utah’s COVID-19 response,” the Health Department said in a statement announcing her departure.

That’s the crux: In all those roles she played, she saved lives.

While we’re not out of the woods, within a few weeks we should cross the thresholds set by the Legislature, meaning most of our mandatory precautions will go away. I’m optimistic, given our weeks of low transmission and high vaccination, the end isn’t too far off.

Looking out for the underserved

At the helm of the Salt Lake County Health Department, Dunn will have a more hands-on role on issues she cares about. One of them, I suspect, will be disparities among the county’s minority population.

During a press briefing about a year ago, Dunn broke out of her normal restrained manner when she discussed the toll the coronavirus was taking on underserved communities.

“We know that our health care system has disparities, and this pandemic is shining a particular bright light on those.”

It makes sense. Her mother was a nurse who worked in underserved communities. Dunn worked at a hospital that treated patients who otherwise wouldn’t get care. she worked with refugees, and she did a fellowship controlling an Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.

That’s where her heart is and it’s where she can do tremendous good.

And for her past service, all of Utah should be grateful the state had such a capable expert.

We ❤️ Dr. Dunn.

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