SALT LAKE CITY — As state epidemiologist, Dr. Angela Dunn became the trusted voice of authority for thousands of Utahns, especially during the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She surprised many when she left Utah's Department of Health to lead the Salt Lake County Health Department.
"I would have applied for the Salt Lake County Health Department director job if COVID had happened or not," Dr. Dunn said in an interview Thursday with FOX 13.
She is now leading Utah's largest local health department, which has a significant influence on the rest of the state when it comes to public health policy. But COVID-19 continues to overshadow things.
"It is really kind of heartbreaking that we are in this again with the surge coming right before school," she said. "The good news is we’ve got vaccines out there that are effective."
But Dr. Dunn said she believes more precautions need to be taken, especially for those who are ineligible to get the vaccine.
"For us, that’s going to be kids under 12 years," she said.
Dr. Dunn told FOX 13 she is considering whether to seek a mask mandate, but limit it to schools and those in grades K-6.
"We’re exploring that option definitely," she said in an interview Thursday with FOX 13, adding: "It’s tough, I have to be honest. Because I don’t know the right way to go here. And I’m wrestling with it every day. Mandates, we have shown in the past work better than recommendations. We saw that last year. However, you have to have the public behind you for a mandate to work, right?"
The Salt Lake County Board of Health on Thursday voted to support a K-6 mask mandate. The board sent a letter requesting Mayor Jenny Wilson and the Salt Lake County Council approve it.
Under the law the legislature passed, Dr. Dunn can issue a mandate. However, it can be overturned by the council. The council was inundated with anti-mask demonstrators at its Tuesday meeting, protesting a mask mandate that had not even been sought.
"To be honest, it’s still under discussion. It’s something I wrestle with constantly," Dr. Dunn said.
Asked why she decided to leave the Utah Department of Health earlier this year, Dr. Dunn said there was no one thing.
"There were a lot of changes going on within the health department and then with state government as a whole," she said. "I just felt like I wasn’t being effective anymore in my ability to lead not only my staff, but also the people of Utah to being the healthiest people they could. I felt like my voice would be better served and stronger at the county level."
The Utah Department of Health last year saw changes in the pandemic, with not only shifting leadership but also a merger with Utah's Department of Human Services. Dr. Dunn said she does have concerns that public health will be sidelined in it.
"I just wasn’t part of the discussion in the direction it was going and I really feel like I have something to contribute in terms of leadership and public health beyond just disease surveillance," she said.
Dr. Dunn said she had no criticism of Governor Spencer Cox, or her colleagues at the state health department.
"Lt. Governor Henderson and Governor Cox have open conversations, they bring all stakeholders together and really take into consideration the opinions of experts," she said. "And then they own the decisions they make."
But in her new role, she can make recommendations and set policy to help communities beyond COVID-19. It's something Dr. Dunn said she is excited about.
"For public health to focus on populations and communities, not just diseases," she said. "So we can really create resilient communities that can thrive and especially weather the storm when the next emergency comes."
That includes equity and access to health care and social determinants of health, which are defined as conditions people live in that affect a wide range of risks and outcomes.
"COVID put a spotlight on it and once again the communities we knew were going to suffer the most did. But now let’s do something about it," she said. "We’re now getting more funding to specifically address it and more flexible funding to be able to do that and more political will to be able to do innovative approaches to address health equity and social determinants of health."