Snohomish County’s ‘Top Doc’ reflects after 18 grueling months at pandemic’s ground zero

Dr. Chris Spitters

For 18 months – more than 500 days – Dr. Chris Spitters was at ‘ground zero’ of the COVID pandemic. Spitters, Snohomish County’s Chief Health Officer, and his staff scrambled to confront this deadly unknown and help county residents through it.

Spitters had been the Snohomish Health District’s “interim” chief health officer for seven months; he wasn’t named to the permanent position until two months after the pandemic started. All he and his staff knew for sure was that they were in uncharted waters.

“When that second case unfolded a month later and we could see the fires burning, all around the state, there’s a lot of anxiety,” Spitters said in a one-on-one interview. “This is something that we haven’t dealt with,” he added. “With most diseases — tuberculosis, measles, mumps, whooping cough –we have a playbook. There was no playbook for this.”

But Chris Spitters was well prepared to help create that playbook. The doctor had been the Snohomish Health District’s tuberculosis control expert for two decades. He also worked at the Washington State Department of Health and had been medical director for Public Health – Seattle & King County’s tuberculosis clinic. When he got the promotion to chief health officer, the health district board chair — County Councilmember Stephanie Wright — offered high praise: “Dr. Spitters’ leadership and grace under pressure over the last severalmonths have clearly demonstrated how qualified he is to be our county’s lead doctor,” she said.

Spitters earned a doctor of medicine degree from Stanford University and received his masters of public health and did a preventive medicine residency at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Spitters also holds a masters from Tufts University’s School of Law and Diplomacy.

When the pandemic hit, Spitters said his staff was already on alert, trying to control a Hepatitis A outbreak among the county’s homeless. But he admitted the scope of the pandemic “was unnerving for everyone; we weren’t spared that.” Spitters confessed that “those first few months was one of the most stressful stretches of my professional career.”

Spitters presided over live-streamed COVID briefings.

As the virus took hold, he said that — like the rest of us — he hoped it might last three or four months and “then, we’d be out of this.” Then, the analyses started to come in and he saw virus experts were predicting multiple waves of illness, and that “nobody wanted to think about that at first,” he admitted.

Maybe, said Spitters, “it’s good we were spared that reality, or we would have gotten overwhelmed emotionally,” adding that “sometimes, it’s better to get the bad news slowly.”

The doctor quickly found himself talking, not to a few patients, but through live-streamed briefings to tens of thousands of residents and news media members every Tuesday. Each week, from March on, he and County Executive Dave Somers updated  viewers on the spread of the virus; on plans to fight it; on the bad news and the good, as the county tried to keep people safe. Spitters kept his cool on camera, a voice of calm week after week. He also briefed Gov. Jay Inslee and appeared with state health officials throughout the pandemic.

During an early in-person news conference, Spitters briefs Gov. Jay Inslee.

There were critics of the county’s COVID efforts, Spitteres acknowledged, but the doctor said there were never any threats against him or the staff. It was, Spitters said, criticism of the policy, not people. When he got an angry email or read a harsh quote, he said it never occurred to him it could be a personal attack.

“Not everyone has to agree with me or our policies,” said Spitters. “Respectful disagreement is part of life and I think part of democracy.” He said he hopes he and the health department staff managed their work to keep the community together rather than splitting it apart.

They succeeded, said Spitters, because of the full-time staff and the part-timers brought in to help handle a crushing workload. Health Department statistics show staff members spent 240,000 hours on COVID efforts. It is, he added, a “testament to the commitment and professionalism of the people at the health district.”

COVID and the future

In our interview, Spitters warned that we are not done with COVID — not even close. He said that as a rapidly spreading ‘Delta’ variant takes hold in the U.S., coronavirus cases are spiking again, on the way to a fifth wave of infection. He hoped it will be a “small wave.”

That wave is reflected in a 30% increase in cases in the county each of the past few weeks; 280 new cases two weeks ago, then 380 last week, and now, they have topped 500 again. The increase is driven, said Spitters, by the appearance of that new, easily transmissible Delta variant and by our rush to liberate ourselves from distancing and masks.

His advice now: The same message he drummed into every one of his briefings: keep wearing that mask, especially in busy indoor spaces. He still masks up in crowds. Keep your social distancing as well, he urged, adding “we’re not done with this.” Could we go backwards and mandate mask wearing or more restrictions again? Yes, he warned – if we have an extreme scenario — a runaway variant that does not respond to vaccines.

Spitters is not surprised by the slowdown in vaccinations; now at 70% of those eligible in the county. He had hoped we would hit 80-90% coverage. To reach that now, he suggested, will be a long slog with health care providers going one-on-one with patients to ease their concerns about the shots.

How will COVID affect our future? That is the “million-dollar question,” he said. He hopes that it recedes into the background, adding “that is my hope, but hope is a slim plan.” He said the county and the state are prepared; that all the partnerships and supply lines are still available and ready to respond.

What happens next, said Spitters, is largely up to you and me. He praised the support residents showed when the pandemic broke: “Although it was painful, the vast majority of people took a
big-picture view of the community and made sacrifices and made efforts to protect one another and thousands of people they don’t know and will never meet,” he said. Chris Spitters knows we could need that sacrifice again.

— By Bob Throndsen

  1. Great article. Thank you Dr. Spitters, for bearing up under this tremendous pressure on our behalf.

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