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Washington Department of Health’s Dr. Bob Lutz resigns days after talking about Spokane opioid crisis,

By Ellen Dennis, The Spokesman-Review
Published: March 20, 2024, 7:54am

SPOKANE — One week after he spoke to Spokane City Council and presented data about the county’s opioid epidemic, former Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz stepped down from his job at the state Department of Health.

Lutz spent more than three years working for the state health agency. The exact reasons for his resignation remained unclear Tuesday afternoon, and the doctor did not respond to a Spokesman-Review reporter’s requests for comments this week.

In his presentation to the council, Lutz showed staggering data about Spokane’s opioid fatalities and hospitalizations and called on his former employer, the Spokane Regional Health District, to make its overdose data more up-to-date and accessible to the public in line with some other densely populated counties in the state, such as King and Snohomish.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Health this week confirmed Lutz resigned from his job at the state agency on March 11.

“We wish Dr. Lutz the best and would like to thank him for his service to public health,” the state health department wrote in a statement sent to The Spokesman-Review on Monday.

Public records requests submitted by The Spokesman-Review to the state agency this week requesting Lutz’s resignation letter, any complaints filed about Lutz and internal communications about the doctor were met with a response that the agency anticipates providing the requested records “on or before Sept. 17, 2024.”

Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown told The Spokesman she was surprised to hear of Lutz’s resignation.

“I’m disappointed,” Brown said. “I value his role with the Department of Health and in our community.”

On March 4, Lutz showed a 42-slide PowerPoint presentation to the City Council’s Public Safety & Community Health Committee about drug overdoses in Spokane County. In it, Lutz outlined data showing Spokane County’s synthetic opioid deaths surpassed Washington’s statewide average in the years 2021 and 2022.

Spokane County saw a 2,000% increase in synthetic opioid deaths between 2019 and 2022, Lutz told the city council.

“I will certainly expect to see an even greater (increase) when we see the 2023 data,” Lutz said at the meeting.

Toward the end of his presentation, Lutz mentioned that the Spokane Regional Health District does not currently make public all of its 2023 data about overdose deaths or hospitalizations, adding that the data out there is “preliminary” and will not be finalized by the state until later this year.

Lutz then presented a slide showing an overdose database made public by the health district of Seattle and King County that shows reported deaths spanning into 2024.

“I just wanted to present this as what could be,” Lutz said in reference to King County’s overdose website. “What they’ve been able to do is to combine the best of resources. You have medical examiner data, you have (emergency medical services) data, you have hospital data, you have all the data sources that Washington state provides, and I would argue provides a very vital source of information to the community.”

After the March 4 presentation, Councilman Paul Dillon asked Lutz what counties he believes have a strong response to the opioid crisis.

King and Snohomish are two counties that stand out in Lutz’s eyes, the doctor responded.

“They have really made the data available, and, again they have got a lot of resources,” Lutz said.

Lutz pointed out some counties in the state have classified fatal drug overdoses as what’s called a “notifiable” condition in the health care world. Notifiable conditions are diseases that require health providers to report them to state or local public health officials, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Notifiable diseases are of public interest by reason of their contagiousness, severity, or frequency,” the CDC definition reads.

“Those are opportunities that could be looked at more closely,” he said. “I would argue that Spokane, really given the size of the community, given the magnitude, the burden of disease that we see here … I really encourage us to really, you know, come to the fore, really address this crisis going forward.”

Online overdose dashboards for King and Snohomish counties both list county numbers of fatal overdoses that involved fentanyl in 2023 as well as to-date in 2024.

On Spokane County’s online overdose dashboard, there is not currently any data listed for the number of fatal overdoses involving fentanyl in 2023 or 2024.

Counties that post more up-to-date data, such as Snohomish and King counties, have agreements with their respective medical examiner’s offices to make fatal overdose death data public before it’s verified by the state, said Kelli Hawkins, spokesperson for the Spokane Regional Health District.

Hawkins called this preliminary data “inaccurate.”

“That’s something that we’re reviewing,” Hawkins said, “if we want to release data that isn’t accurate to the community. It puts risk on us … it doesn’t help the community if we have to change data after we’ve published it.”

Hawkins said she wasn’t sure why the number of fatal overdoses in the county involving fentanyl in 2023 was not listed on the Spokane County dashboard.

On March 5, one day after Lutz’s presentation to the city council, Mayor Lisa Brown sent a letter to the Spokane Regional Health District, calling on the agency to get its opioid overdose data up-to-date and make it more publicly accessible.

“It has come to my attention that there is no single agency or department that is holistically providing this data to policymakers and responders throughout Spokane County,” the letter reads. “Without comprehensive and reliable information, it becomes challenging to properly allocate resources and implement targeted strategies to help those suffering from substance abuse in our community.”

Brown went on to ask the county agency to make sure all overdose incidents are “properly documented and reported,” noting that Public Health — Seattle & King County provides a public-facing dashboard with overdose information.

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Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez responded to Brown’s letter via email on March 8, thanking the mayor for her letter and asking to schedule a time to meet.

As of Tuesday evening, agency spokesperson Hawkins reported the mayor’s office had yet to set up a time to meet with the Spokane Regional Health District despite two follow-up emails after the initial March 8 reply.

“We invite collaboration and sharing of information with the City of Spokane and other municipalities in Spokane County,” Hawkins wrote in a statement.

Dillon said he heard there were limitations on Lutz’s ability to practice public health in Spokane County.

On Oct. 29, 2020, Lutz was abruptly fired from his job as the Spokane County health officer. About a year later, Lutz filed suit with the county, asking for his job back and for compensation for his termination, which he maintained violated state law. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lutz drew ire from community members who wanted to loosen lockdown restrictions such as remote schooling and business operation guidelines.

Dillon said he finds any limitations on Lutz’s ability to practice public health “absolutely absurd.”

“Dr. Lutz has so much expertise and experience, and he’s had to step in at times where we’re not getting answers. That was really sad and disappointing to hear,” Dillon said in reference to Lutz’s resignation.