PHOENIX — The state’s top health official is quitting.
Dr. Cara Christ is leaving as director of the Department of Health Services to become chief medical officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona. Her last day will be Aug. 27.
The announcement comes less than 24 hours after Christ, who has been a loyal ally of Gov. Doug Ducey, took a position on masks that could be seen as conflicting with the governor’s own position.
On Tuesday, Ducey poked fun at the recommendations by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that everyone wear a mask when indoors or in school, whether vaccinated or not.
“This is just another example of the Biden-Harris administration’s inability to effectively control the COVID-19 pandemic,” the governor said. He cited Arizona’s 46% vaccination rate, even though it is lower than the national average, and said his goal is to work to get more people inoculated “despite this unnecessary and helpful ‘guidance’ from Washington, D.C.”
Christ, however, said her agency’s recommendations for the 13 Arizona counties with “substantial” spread of the virus will echo that of the CDC.
“Everyone, whether you’re fully vaccinated or not vaccinated, should wear a mask when you are indoors or around others that you do not live with,” she said.
And Christ has made a point of saying that she requires her two youngest children to wear masks when they go to school. Both are younger than 12 and therefore ineligible to get vaccinated.
It also comes a week after Christ took a somewhat different position than Ducey on whether schools should be able to quarantine unvaccinated students who have been exposed to the virus. The governor’s education adviser even sent letters to two school districts telling them that such policies are contrary to state law.
The districts, through their attorneys, have said Ducey is misreading the law. And so far the governor has taken no action against them.
But Christ said schools should be able to quarantine unvaccinated students and keep them out of class in at least some cases where they have been exposed.
“Isolation and quarantine does remain a tool that’s available to local public health (agencies) when they are working with school districts,” she said, saying those guidelines remain in place.
Will Humble, who had the job before Christ, said those recent stances are notable because, up until now, she has been loath to take any position that differed from that of her boss.
In fact Christ has been subject to some criticism for refusing to question various Ducey edicts during the pandemic, ranging from his refusal to allow counties to impose their own mask mandates to balking at various mitigation measures even as new daily cases hit 12,400 a day in January and COVID patients were taking up two-thirds of the available beds in intensive-care units.
To date, 18,185 people have died from the virus.
So what changed for Christ?
“She had a different position in the bag, which afforded her the liberty to disagree with the governor,” Humble said.
“It wasn’t a flat-out disagreement,” he said. “But it was more of a disagreement than anything in the previous six years.”
Ducey’s positions — and Christ’s announcement — also come as the number of COVID-19 infections, which had been declining since the vaccine became available, is again on the upswing.
If there was any friction between Ducey and Christ it did not show up in his press release in which he praised her 13 years at the agency and more than six as director.
“She’s dedicated countless hours to protecting millions of Arizonans from the COVID-19 pandemic, and she’s done it with grace, stability and confidence,” the governor said in a prepared statement. He cited implementation of statewide testing and what he called “internationally recognized mass vaccination sites.”
Christ, in her own prepared statement — an agency spokesman said she was not doing interviews on Wednesday — praised her team at the health department and said she was honored to lead the agency and work to keep Arizonans healthy and safe, regardless of age, backgrounds and unique needs.
“I thank Gov. Ducey for entrusting me with responsibility for public health in Arizona and for working with me closely in the state’s response to COVID-19,” she said.
Christ also was praised by Pam Kehaly, president and CEO of her new employer.
“Even before the pandemic, Dr. Christ had a reputation for thinking big, approaching health strategically, and leveraging the best of medicine and science to improve life and health for Arizonans,” she said in her own statement.