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King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin to retire this year

Seattle Times - 5/19/2024

May 19—Dr. Jeff Duchin is accustomed to 100-mile bike rides through the Pacific Northwest mountains, beside its rivers and along its coast. He's spent the last few decades exploring the region this way, whenever he has free time outside of running King County's public health department.

His social media feed offers glimpses into his passion for both these worlds: mostly filled with the latest updates on infectious disease research, local virus trends and public health news — along with the occasional bike selfie.

Then in early 2020, he slid into the worst physical condition of his adult life, as he set his bike aside and threw himself into the battle against a mysterious virus that would require nearly all his attention for the next four years.

"This has been the most difficult four years for me physically, emotionally and physiologically," Duchin said. "It felt more like 40 years, at times, than four."

Over the next several years, Public Health — Seattle & King County would help lead the state in supplying free, rapid COVID testing to the public at in-person sites and through the mail, while running mass vaccination sites, distributing portable air filters, organizing virtual educational seminars and more.

Duchin has overseen it all. At times throughout the pandemic, he'd be awake until 2 or 3 a.m. reading up on evolving science around the virus before starting early the next day to brief his staff, said Patty Hayes, the department's former director who retired in 2021.

"Jeff is a good example of someone that puts his whole heart into everything he does," Hayes said.

Now, after more than 30 years of working in public health, the 66-year-old plans to retire from his post.

Duchin, who grew up on the Jersey Shore, arrived at King County's public health department in 1994 as a medical epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, set to focus on the county's tuberculosis program. From there, he later studied HIV/AIDS before moving into a role as the department's chief of communicable disease epidemiology and immunization, where he stayed for 17 years. In 2015, he became King County's health officer.

"He was the obvious person to step into the health officer role," Hayes said. "He's so well respected, and basically when he speaks, the whole state will listen."

Even before the pandemic, Duchin was fairly well-known in infectious disease circles throughout the country, serving on multiple national boards and committees for the CDC, National Academy of Medicine and Infectious Diseases Society of America.

"Jeff is a leader among his peers, and not only in the state," said former state Health Secretary John Wiesman, who left Washington for a job at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2021.

"I could go to many national conferences, and if it was a discussion around infectious disease, bioterrorism, HIV/AIDS, certainly COVID, Jeff's name would come up as one of those who was leading in that space," Wiesman said.

Duchin's "great depth of experience" has helped him lead the region through various public health emergencies and fears over the years, Wiesman said. He addressed issues like anthrax, swine flu and Ebola — each time aiming to quell panic and communicate to the public by telling them what experts know and, perhaps more importantly, what they don't know.

"He never lost sight of why we were doing this, and that this was for people whom he doesn't know and who have no idea who Jeff Duchin is," Wiesman said.

Duchin vividly remembers the 1999 World Trade Organization conference in Seattle, when bioterrorism was a growing concern. Rumors of outbreaks among the crowds were widespread, and Duchin and a team of hospital leaders and epidemiologists worked to set up a "drop-in syndromic surveillance system," a system used to collect and analyze health data, like influenza cases, in real time during urgent public health incidents.

This surveillance is now widely used as an early warning system, including to track COVID, but it was a new idea then, he said.

Around the same time, there also emerged a need to develop an outbreak response work group — the first collaboration of area hospitals to respond to bio emergencies and other infectious disease threats, Duchin said. The group he led eventually evolved into the Northwest Healthcare Response Network, a nonprofit that collaborates with regional health care systems around emergency response — and was particularly significant during the pandemic, when hospitals were in a crunch to transfer COVID patients to open beds.

Other priorities through the years, Duchin said, included researching hospital-associated infections, establishing public-facing data dashboards and partnering with academic institutions, like the University of Washington, to share resources. All these will continue to be important in the face of potential future pandemics or public health crises, he said.

His thoughts on COVID haven't always made him popular in the public eye. In the last few years, criticisms from multiple sides weren't uncommon — from those who hoped he and others in public health would push harder for the return of indoor masking requirements after they were pulled back, as well as those who grew frustrated with his cautious guidance and insistence on masking, distancing and getting vaccinated during particularly infectious waves.

But Duchin has stood firm in his direction, and says he's proud that King County at one point had one of the lowest COVID death rates in the country, compared with other large metropolitan areas.

"We know that the vaccine is the best way to protect against severe illness, hospitalization and death," he reiterated recently. "It's very sad to me that the fact that your risk of dying from COVID can be related to your political views and whether you're in a Republican- or Democratic-leaning county."

A path toward public health

Although Duchin has developed a deep love for his work, his public health path emerged somewhat serendipitously.

He received his medical training in internal and emergency medicine in Philadelphia in the 1980s, and was working as a doctor at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania before coming to Seattle.

He loved clinical medicine and patient care, he said, but there were challenges.

"I was seeing a lot of people coming into the health care system with preventable conditions," Duchin said, remembering those with infectious diseases that could have been avoided through vaccination or treatment, or those who didn't have good access to care.

Then some advice from a good friend, Rich Besser — who would go on to lead the CDC for a time — changed his trajectory.

At the time, Besser was an officer for the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service program, or EIS, a two-year postdoctoral fellowship that provides training in investigating disease outbreaks and other public health threats. EIS officers travel all over the country conducting field investigations, interpreting epidemiological analyses and evaluating public health surveillance systems. The role piqued Duchin's interest.

"I really wanted to get upstream and be more on the prevention side than the downstream treatment end of things after people develop these conditions," he said.

His two years as an EIS officer were the best of his career, Duchin said. His time investigating a wide range of outbreaks, from hantavirus to Legionnaires' disease, provided him with extensive hands-on training and allowed him to work with "great mentors" who solidified his future in public health.

"Whatever success I may have seen during my professional career" was thanks to the mentors and colleagues "I've had the good fortune to have worked with," he added.

State Secretary of Health Dr. Umair A. Shah recently praised Duchin's own mentorship work, highlighting his efforts to help establish Seattle as its own EIS field location where officers could receive epidemiology training.

"King County, Washington state, and our nation are better prepared for future emergencies because of Dr. Duchin's admirable work over the last 30 plus years," Shah said in a statement.

While Duchin is pleased with his department's work in the last several decades, there's more that he hopes public health teams will tackle in the future, particularly around closing health equity gaps and taking stronger measures to combat effects of climate change.

"Most of our health is not determined by whether we take medicines or have access to health care, and those are really important, but it's also the conditions in which we live our lives," he said, referencing how much things like economic stability, education access, safe housing, polluted air and water, and racism and discrimination can affect someone's long-term health.

"This varies tremendously from community to community, and it's not equitable," he said.

He also acknowledged an "age-old burden for public health practitioners" — securing enough funding to maintain community testing, treatment and vaccine programs.

Duchin's last day with Public Health — Seattle & King County is July 1. He's looking forward to enjoying the Seattle summer, spending more time with his family and friends and getting back to his favorite outdoor activity.

He may return to public health work in some capacity in the future, but for now, he's got his eye on the next challenge: a 300-mile bike ride up to Vancouver Island later this year.

"I think people are paying a lot more attention to work-life balance and healthy work environments ... and trying to align how they're spending their time with what their values are," he said. "I think that's a really good thing that probably came out of the last four years."


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