SEATTLE — King County Executive Dow Constantine selected Dr. Faisal Khan, the former director of public health in St. Louis County, to be the next director of Public Health — Seattle & King County.
Khan, who had two stints leading the health department in suburban St. Louis, Missouri’s largest county, gained national attention last year after he clashed with protesters upset about a mask mandate that he was urging the county to keep in place.
Constantine and Khan both emphasized that the new director’s most important task will be leading the public health department out of the emergency mode it’s been in for the past two-plus years of the pandemic and onto a more stable foundation.
“It’s been demonstrated now that public health, which used to be a relatively low profile agency, is critically important to the quality of life in our community,” Constantine said.
Earlier this month, Snohomish County appointed a new health officer, Dr. James Lewis, who will replace Dr. Chris Spitters, who is stepping down after more than 20 years.
Lewis had been an epidemiologist with Public Health — Seattle & King County and had previously worked for the North Carolina Division of Public Health.
Khan, 48, had been acting director of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health since February 2021. He’d previously worked for the department from 2010-2018, first as director of communicable disease control and later as director. From 2018-2021 he was CEO of the Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center in Kansas City, which provides primary care services to 25,000 patients.
Khan was born in Pakistan, grew up in Indonesia and returned to Pakistan for medical school. He has worked in Pakistan, Australia, Vietnam, South Africa Botswana and the U.S. on communicable disease control issues, specializing in HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. He received his medical degree from Quaid-e-Azam University in Pakistan.
He moved to the U.S. in 1999, after his wife got a medical residency in West Virginia.
Khan plans to move to the Seattle area later this summer and start Sept. 6. The position requires the approval of the Metropolitan King County Council. He will replace Dennis Worsham, who has served as interim director for the past year.
“From navigating through this stage of the pandemic to addressing public health crises like the disparate impacts of gun violence, Dr. Khan’s decades of public health leadership will enhance the good work our strong team at Seattle-King County Public Health is doing to support vulnerable communities,” Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said in a statement.
Khan said he plans no major changes to the department, calling it one of the best in the country.
“Whenever we sit around the table and discuss any complex public health issue, one of the questions we ask ourselves is what would Seattle-King County, New York City Department of Health and L.A. County do,” Khan said. “And then work backwards to scale the possible solutions to our resources and elements.”
He said he wants to focus on helping the department recover from the pandemic, particularly on retaining public health employees in a field where people “are leaving in droves because of all the burnout.”
That will involve listening to employees, making them feel valued and giving them academic and professional flexibility and career paths.
“I do not subscribe to the simplistic idea that, you know, putting massage tables out in the lobby just raises morale,” Khan said.
He said the pandemic is still with us, but we’re “in an infinitely better stage” than we were six months ago. He hopes we won’t have to see any more pandemic-related mandates or closures, but “everyone who has tried to make a prediction about pandemic has ended up with egg on their face.”
Khan, last summer, was shouted at by protesters as he gave testimony supporting a mask mandate at a St. Louis County Council meeting.
In a later letter to the council chair, Khan accused protesters of “racist, xenophobic and threatening behavior” and said he was berated with racial slurs. He gave one protester the middle finger on his way out of the meeting.
Khan wrote that he was “shoulder-bumped and pushed” as he left the meeting. Videos of the meeting did not show any physical contact, according to media reports. Khan said Tuesday that he stands by everything he wrote in the letter.
“The vitriol directed at me really was jarring,” Khan said. “The language I used in that letter was designed to highlight the fact that it is unacceptable for a public servant, a public official or a technocrat to be subjected to that form of abuse and for the worst public health emergency in a century to be turned into a political spectacle to score cheap political points.”
A few months after the incident, the St. Louis County Council declined to confirm Khan as permanent director. He announced his resignation earlier this month.