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Without enough qualified applicants, Tacoma-Pierce County Public Health splits top job in two

A middle-aged man with a tie on stands in front of a screen with a health department logo. Words under him on a lower-third say 'Tacoma Pierce County Public Health Department.'
Dr. Anthony Chen, director of health for Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, addresses reporters about the first reported COVID-19 fatality in Pierce County.

Public health departments have felt the brunt of COVID’s divisive politics, and some, like Tacoma-Pierce County Public Health, are still struggling to fill positions. One survey found almost half of all public health employees nationwide left their departments between 2017 and 2021.

The problem is so bad in Pierce County, in fact, that the agency couldn't find a new director this summer; so it's changing the job.

At a Pierce County Board of Health meeting last week, one employee spoke of coming to work near vacant desks for positions left unfilled — partially because of the labor market, and also because of budget constraints. With the county looking at budget cuts next year, a preliminary projection at public health said around 15 vacancies may continue to go unfilled with a budget shortfall next year (although a spokesperson said that's changed since the projection came out in July, and will be clearer in October).

When longtime director Dr. Anthony Chen retired this summer, the search committee couldn’t find a sufficient pool of qualified candidates.

"It's really hard to find somebody with the administrative skills, the people skills, the communication skills, who's also a medical doctor with a specific number of years of a degree," said Board of Health vice-chair Jani Hitchen. "So that's like a huge resume, in a time when so many public health officials at that level are leaving public health."

Last week, Hitchen and the board endorsed splitting the job in two: A director who manages strategy and day-to-day, and a health officer who's licensed to practice medicine and can sign off on water quality, restaurant inspections, and things like that. This is the way the majority of health departments in the state work.

"COVID made it more challenging for people to be willing to put their name on a piece of paper to say 'yes, I agree,'" Hitchen said, "because of the things that we asked them to make as far as decisions, and the political pushback that sadly got in the way of some of that work."

Tacoma-Pierce County Public Health is no stranger to divisiveness: In 2020, Republican county councilmembers proposed splitting the health department, which has existed as a joint agreement between the city of Tacoma and Pierce County for over 50 years, in two, and severing ties with the city of Tacoma.

That didn't happen, but the county has budget cuts looming in 2024, and changing the director's job will mean two top-salaried positions at the department instead of one.

Emily Holloway works in the communicable disease division, and at the Board of Health meeting last week she said employees appreciated changing from one top job to two — but now the department is paying an interim director (who just got a raise to $200,000 a year), keeping Dr. Chen on as health officer ($90,000 for four months), and looking at conducting two more nationwide searches on top of the unsuccessful one that was just completed.

"Quite frankly, it's disheartening. And I wonder how and if we can honestly say we are being good stewards of time and financial resources in this budget shortfall," Holloway said.

Scott Greenstone reports on under-covered communities, and spotlights the powerful people making decisions that affect all of us throughout Western Washington. Email him with story ideas at