PHOENIX — Dr. Cara Christ will no longer be the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) beginning on Aug. 27, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said.
"By mid-August, Dr. Christ will be the longest-serving ADHS director," the governor's office said in a press release. "I am deeply grateful for her years of leadership and service to our state, and I wish her continued success at her new opportunity with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona.”
The move comes a day after Christ and Ducey made differing statements when it came to changing the state's health policy after the CDC updated its recommendations on masking due to COVID-19.
Christ said that the state's health department would be updating its guidance based on the center's new recommendations while Ducey called the CDC's new mask recommendations "discrimination."
Christ will start at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona as their chief medical officer on Aug. 30.
"...Dr. Christ will continue the excellent work of her predecessor in the areas of medical policy and provider relations. She will also work with the BCBSAZ team to design a future where health is more affordable, convenient, and personalized for members, providers, and employers who rely on BCBSAZ to help deliver value and improve health," said BCBS of Arizona in a news release.
Navigating Arizona through the Covid-19 pandemic
Throughout her tenure as director, Dr. Christ developed the state's Opioid Action Plan and the Maternal Mortality Breakthrough Action Plan. She also led the way on responses to the 2009 H1N1 Pandemic Influenza, the 2014 West Africa Ebola Outbreak, and the 2015 and 2016 Measles Outbreaks.
But COVID-19 was a defining moment in her career.
"This pandemic presented a lot of challenges that we did not expect," said Christ. "It was just different."
She credited her team at the department for how the state worked throughout the pandemic.
"The team really stepped up to the challenge and there were a lot of innovative things from developing the Arizona surge line to staffing contracts," said Christ.
Under her watch, Arizona set up state-run vaccination sites which became a national model. Throughout the pandemic, Christ has faced harsh public criticism for how she and Gov. Doug Ducey have handled the pandemic.
12 News asked her if she has any regrets.
"We are really good here [at ADHS] at making sure people have that work-life balance," said Christ. "I didn't do a good job through the pandemic at modeling that and I know the toll it takes on the team and the public health system."
Christ compared the pandemic to a marathon and said she wishes she had reminded her staff to take time and spend time with family.
"It seemed like we were always going from one challenge to the next," said Christ. "Most people in the pandemic this has highlighted the need to spend time with family and highlighted what was important; looking back I regret not encouraging that more."
Pandemic hits home, taking a toll on family
Christ remembered her six-year-old asking her if work was more important than her.
"My 6-year-old asked me, 'Mom, why is work more important than me?' And I said, 'It’s not more important, it’s just there’s important work that needs to get done and we don’t want people to be in danger,'” said Christ. "They saw that I was gone and absent and never complained about it but voiced it."
Working with Gov. Ducey and decisions made throughout the pandemic
Christ agreed with how Gov. Ducey has handled the pandemic, while also understanding those critical of her recommendations and his decisions and policies. She knew recommending a stay-at-home order would have consequences.
"We were making the best decisions we could with the information we had," said Christ. "One of my concerns, when I made the recommendation for that stay-at-home order, was the impact it would have on Arizonans, the social isolation."
Behind the order was the hope hospitalizations would go down and that it would prevent more surges.
"I've enjoyed working with them [Gov. Ducey's Office], I have got a great relationship with them and felt like being in the room, I made a difference," said Christ.
Christ said she was surprised at the public perception that her and Ducey may have disagreed on his policy decisions.
"He's never said not to wear masks," said Christ.
Arizona is one of several states with laws preventing school districts from implementing mask mandates.
After the recent guidance from the Center for Disease Control to recommend all Americans wear masks in highly transmissible and low vaccinations areas, Christ appeared to part ways with Ducey's response to the CDC guidelines as a failure of the Biden-Harris administration to effectively confront the pandemic.
Christ recognized how political the pandemic became.
"I understand that the data shows people who are fully vaccinated can get it [COVID-19], luckily you are not likely to be hospitalized or die but the data shows you can pass it to others and that is why they are recommending masks," said Christ. "I think that was disheartening with all of the work we have done over the last 16 months."
Christ will follow the CDC guidance and her kids will wear masks
"Schools have a unique opportunity to educate and encourage families to make the choice to mask, and understand parents who feel differently," said Christ. "My children are wearing masks. Even now my fully vaccinated kid is going to wear it at school because I don’t want them to bring delta variant home to me or my mom or anyone I love.”
What will life look like going forward if vaccination rates don't improve?
"If we don't get to a community level of herd immunity, I imagine we would see periods of increase cases, especially when a new variant shows up and it's going to be something we are living within our community similar to the flu but all year round," said Christ.
However, Christ said the vaccines will hopefully prevent surges prior to the vaccines.
"We got the majority of our vulnerable population vaccinated and so hopefully we won't see the same devastating hospitalizations," said Christ.
The director's last plea to Arizonans is to get vaccinated.
"We have a tool we didn't have before and I remember this crushing devastation last summer and during the winter," said Christ. "No one should die of COVID-19, the vaccine is free and readily available. If you are not fully vaccinated please take advantage of that. We don't want to lose anybody else to this."
An Infectious Disease Epidemiologist, Christ earned her Bachelor's and Master's of Science in Microbiology from ASU. She then went on to earn her Doctor of Medicine from the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson.
“Before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, my number one priority has been protecting the health of Arizonans all across our state,” Christ said in the press release. "I thank Governor 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.”
12 News is following this developing story. Check back here for updates.
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