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. Fun fact, Edmonds is also the home of the Infectious Disease expert who diagnosed the first COVID case in the US, Dr. George Diaz (Providence Medical Group). He would be a great follow-up profile piece to this one. Thank you for sharing these stories! So important not to relax our protocols too soon as this mess is not done.

  2. According to the statistics there were 41,500 “cases” in Snohomish County with 614 deaths “with or from” and state wide 465,000 cases and 6,112 deaths “with or from” . For me this never did nor does it now warrant the killing of thousands upon thousands of jobs ( peoples livelihoods ) and thousands of businesses and left thousands of small businesses barely alive. When Dr. Spitters says the Covid will never go away and we may have to go back to mask mandates and lockdowns, confirms for me that politicians and unelected medical bureaucrats usurping our freedoms and mandating how we live our lives for a virus that will never go away and mathematically is no more significant than the seasonal flu and less deadly than heart disease or cancer should never happen again. It is not anywhere in the constitution or law ( except for politicians claiming emergency powers ) that the government is responsible for our health. The socio-economic damage done on the alter of covid -19 in my mind is borderline criminal.

    1. Frank, Can you share a source for the mathematics behind your claim that COVID-19 is no worse than the seasonal flu? Fun fact: you cannot catch heart disease OR cancer by sitting next to someone at work for 10 minutes. /PSA

      1. Hi Chris.
        Covid showed up and seasonal flu almost disappeared. Curious. Not everyone got covid and if you compare “cases” to deaths ( with or from) you see most recovered and became naturally immune. Also in a population of 7.5 million in the state the occurrence of “catching” and especially dying from / with is not very significant and so I presume many are naturally immune. Also the far majority of deaths are among the population that are ancient and or seriously compromised health wise, which is the same group most affected by seasonal flu. My bottom line is the socio-economic structure of this state as well as much of the nation and around the world was trashed for something billed by politicians and unelected health bureaucrats as “Captain Tripps” and it is not that by a long shot.

        1. Frank, seasonal flu “almost disappeared” because steps taken to fight COVID also successfully fought the flu. Noting curious about that.

          Anybody doubting the lethality of COVID should look into the phenomenon of “excess deaths”~ the number of deaths over and above the number predicted based on historical patterns. The numbers are sobering. I suggest looking at

        2. Roger, I haven’t ever heard someone question excess mortality. People are questioning if flu deaths are being counted as CV-19. Both my kids have been sneezing and have had flu-like symptoms in the past few months. Flu spreads through kids, primarily. Neither flu or CV-19 is dangerous to kids. If the argument is that CV-19 protocols have eliminated the flu and that is more validation of the protocol, then really that means kids should never again go to school or play with friends. I’m being anecdotal, but I’m also aligning with the science which knows kids are the primary spreaders of the flu (not cv-19). Now that said, considering the fact that the most affected states (such as UK and NY) were also very locked down, masked up, and vaccinated, it begs the question if the protocols did any good. It dangerous misinformation to say the protocols (masks, isolation, vaccines) work. Maybe masked people had a false sense of security and really should have been even more locked down (not my theory). Plenty of volcanoes that had virgins thrown in still erupted, some didn’t. It doesn’t seem as though the volcanoe cares. What good is praising our covid-19 response while also present excess deaths data? The protocols failed.

        3. Great analogy Matt. Yes, Frank has a “right” to speak out Chris; you would not like someone saying to you what you said to him. Nor would I support someone telling you to “remove your comments”. What is it about Freedom of Speech that you do not understand? Oh, that it does not reflect your opinion? This topic is definitely controversial; therefore should be debated and talked about for decades to come. I’m not yet sure where my thoughts are, BUT I want all info and opinions to be able to make my own “decision”, which might not bring the truth for years. Good for all of us! Good for My Edmonds News keeping our First Amendment in play! Where I was born and raised we did not have this very precious Right. God Bless America!

  3. I just read somewhere that the American average life span has just decreased by 1 and 1/2 years because of Covid 19, so it seems a little dishonest to say this has been no more significant than the seasonal flu. Also, one of the biggest problems with Covid 19, especially when it was attacking and fatally impacting thousands of old and already sick people, was the severe toll it took on our hospitals, care givers, first responders and even funeral service persons. Often there was literally no place to even temporarily store all the dead bodies and not enough time or resources to bury them in a timely and respectful manner.

    It’s easy to say that we should have just ignored all this and kept the economy rolling, but I seriously doubt if that approach was either feasible or advisable when you look at what the impact of that action would probably have been. For one thing, millions of people would have just refused to keep going to work. We would have been bulldozing mass graves everywhere and just tossing bodies in with other more millions of people suffering the effects of long term Covid and that impact on national health care. Millions more people would probably have become unable to work for some time. You can’t prove any of my points, of course, but you also can’t prove that ignoring the disease (unless you had it, in which case you couldn’t) would have had any better outcome than what we did to fight it.

  4. FRANK- I do think, at this point, it would be appropriate for you to consider removing your comments that dangerously spread misinformation about our public health crisis. Pretty please?

    1. Hi Chris- One person’s misinformation can be another persons truth and as a free born American, it is not only my right but my obligation to ask questions around anything that may seem illogical or odd. Especially when those things have an adverse impact on my life and the community at large. For instance, over the past 1.5 years we have all been told we must wear masks ( or other facial covering) everywhere in public and even outdoors to prevent catching or spreading the C-19. 99% of the people wore masks or facial coverings that protect against a viral particle equivalent to putting a chain link fence over your windows to keep mosquitos out. Children are still mandated to wear masks when school starts back up and it has been proven that children ( by and large ) do not get or carry or spread the C-19. The masks have shown , however, to have a serious psychological effect on them with long term downside we do not yet know. I would like to know how these things ( 2 of many) seem logical to any rational observer, and why so many just take what politicians and medical bureaucrats say as 24 carat truths and submit without question? So, am I spreading misinformation, or simply questioning the veracity of mandates that are destructive in themselves based upon information that is suspect handed out by authorities that do not want any questions asked, just obedience? There has been a decades long “opioid” death crisis in this country fueled by big pharma that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and neither the government nor medical bureaucrats have cared at all or done anything ( until now ) to address it. Hmmmmmm.

  5. Frank, as a “free born American” you aren’t obligated to do anything except die and pay taxes.” You are totally free to spew any “truth” as you see it (as long as Teresa thinks it’s fit for her paper) and other people are totally free to think you are peddling misinformation and nonsense. Count me in with the misinformation and nonsense folks.

    Like I said before, neither one of us can prove our points of view inconclusively, we can only surmise the correctness of our viewpoints. Science is an attempt to make sense of things that have great impact on us. It is a process. You can believe in devils, demons and dictators or you can believe in Science, accumulated knowledge and popularly chosen leaders. I’ll take the latter and you can take whatever theory or process you want for what makes the World go round. Peace Brother.

  6. Hey Clint,
    You and I , as free born Americans , have for the past 1.5 years been “obligated” to do as we are told and participate and watch the socio- economic destruction of this nation. I have many questions about this and I have yet to get any answers beyond ” well, if we didn’t do that , we would all have died”. Sorry, but that dog just doesn’t hunt too well, and it is seemingly becoming an “everlasting gobbstopper” policy by the politicians and ( unelected by no one ) medical bureaucrats who should never have been put in charge of this debacle. Medical people know as much about how to run a nation as a cow knows about vacations. The leaders at the national level and governors ( mostly in blue states) did not lead, never calculated the risk / benefit of locking down economies and took advice from professionals who’s only concern was saving lives of C-19 victims. The death , economic destruction, youth traumatization, drug addiction/ overdose, domestic abuse and general despair from the lockdown dwarfs the C-19 losses in my opinion. My opinion yes, but I believe the question is a valid one to ask. If we as Americans do not ask our elected officials what the hell they think they are doing from time to time, tyranny follows. Peace back at ya.

    1. Absolutely you should share your FEELINGS and OPINIONS about policies, but it is completely irresponsible and unethical to publish factually untrue statements about vaccines and masking and children in the middle of a pandemic. This is also not a freedom of speech issue, as you can glean from actually reading what that freedom actually pertains to and how that LITERALLY does not apply here.

      Spreading misinformation is dangerous to our community, especially vulnerable populations who don’t have the time or resources to fact-check you in the comments section. There are at least ten false claims in these comments regarding COVID-19 and you do not have a constitutional right to have those lies published.

    2. Frank, it sounds like you would’ve preferred government do nothing in response to the COVID pandemic~ no mask mandates, no shutdowns, everybody free to just do their own thing. You apparently believe there would’ve been no more hospitalizations and deaths from such a do-nothing strategy, and perhaps even fewer? I have not seen or read anything to support such thinking.

      From everything I have seen and read, I’ve concluded that masking, social distancing, and shutdowns did slow the spread of the virus and resulted in fewer hospitalizations and deaths than would’ve occurred via a do-nothing strategy. I further believe that vaccines, while not perfect, reduce the odds of my getting really sick or dying from this contagion. That’s why I got my Pfizer shots last March. I’m less likely to catch the virus, and if I do catch it, I’m less likely to suffer or die from it. I don’t need to know the size of those odds to feel some comfort in my situation.

      Yes, people are free to believe whatever they want (even that our sitting President was not fairly elected and will be replaced in August) but from time to time I do remember the words of of Sen. Moynihan~ “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

      1. I’ve closed the discussion on this one. I think all viewpoints have been represented.

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