Gov. Dunleavy says he stands by Zink as attacks on Alaska’s chief medical officer escalate
By Nathaniel Herz
Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy says the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, still has his confidence even as she’s become the focus of escalating attacks by the anti-vaccine movement and other critics of the governor’s pandemic response.
Wasilla GOP Rep. Christopher Kurka, who’s running for governor as a conservative alternative to Dunleavy, this week launched a “Fire Anne Zink” petition, saying he’s committed to removing her “on Day 1 of my administration.”
At a Dunleavy constituent event Saturday in the deeply conservative Mat-Su, audience members applauded calls for Zink’s removal.
The governor, at the event, appeared to suggest that Zink’s position in his administration was uncertain, telling a participant who asked about Zink that he will “make a decision” about several members of his administration — not just one.
In a phone interview Wednesday, after some of Dunleavy’s critics attacked the governor for not defending Zink more aggressively, Dunleavy said she has “served Alaskans well” and that he “should have been clear.”
“There is no reason for me to fire Dr. Zink. Dr. Zink has my confidence,” Dunleavy said.
“Is Dr. Zink guilty of dispensing advice? Yeah, that’s her job,” he added. “I don’t think she should be held accountable for folks not liking information. I think the whole thing’s been politicized.”
For her part, Zink, in a phone interview, said “it’s been a hard week.”
“This hasn’t been new, but it’s escalated,” she said.
The attacks on her include physical threats, Zink said, which have also increased recently. But she also added that she continues to have a good working relationship with Dunleavy, even if they don’t always agree.
“I can’t ever speak to someone’s intentions as to why they do or don’t respond in a situation — particularly a live situation, in the moment. All I can speak to is my interactions and my relationship,” she said. “We continue to have regular conversations — we’ve never seen eye to eye on lots of things, and that’s what I think has made us both stronger. And I appreciate the way we continue to work through those challenges together and collaboratively.”
The attacks on Zink come amid a hostile climate nationwide for public health officials.
Hundreds of top medical officers like Zink have left the field in the past two years, as the pandemic has increasingly polarized their work and made them targets for conservative-leaning elected officials and activists. Just 17 of the 50 state medical officers in place at the start of the pandemic are still in their jobs, according to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
Zink, a Mat-Su emergency room doctor, was hired just before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, she’s drawn a loyal following of Alaskans with her plain-spoken advice and lively social media presence.
Public opinion surveys suggest that more than half of Alaskans — 57% of respondents early last year — think she’s handled the pandemic well, while only about 10% think she hasn’t. Just 6% of people called Zink’s performance “pretty bad” in an August survey, which showed that even the majority of conservatives approve of her work.
Zink’s critics are “a very small group of people,” said Jennifer Meyer, assistant professor of public health at University of Alaska Anchorage.
“And the vast majority of us are very grateful for her service throughout this pandemic,” she said. “There are more of us that are with her than against her.”
Dunleavy himself nominated Zink for a national award in November, saying she’s “worked tirelessly” during the pandemic and that her work has “saved thousands of Alaskans.”
Even as a minority, though, Zink’s critics are vocal and represent a slice of Dunleavy’s base in the Mat-Su, where he lives. In an election year, they’ve been putting increasing pressure on the governor to remove her.
At the weekend constituent event, organized by conservative activist Mike Coons, the audience broke into applause at least twice when participants said Zink should be fired, with no direct response from Dunleavy.