Health chief says his background helps him deal with pandemic, but nothing could prepare him fully for what’s like ‘Groundhog Day’

Dr. Steven Stack, commissioner of the state Department for Public Health, has become a familiar face to many Kentuckians during the covid-19 pandemic, but he has offered the public little information about himself and how he’s dealt with it—until now.

Stack told writer Sara Berg of the American Medical Association, of which he was president a few years ago, that the experience had helped him deal with the pandemic, as has his background as an emergency physician, student of history and recent earner of a business degree—but nothing could fully prepare him for the task.

“It’s been like a baptism by fire. It’s been drinking through a fire hose. It’s been all those things,” he said. “I had about three weeks to be a normal health commissioner, where I was learning—and then the whole world changed. My life has been consumed with trying to address and solve unsolvable problems, participating in the shutdown of most of society and then the reopening of some of society in trying to navigate all sorts of unknowns and uncertainties.”

Asked if thinking on his feet as an emergency-room doctor gave him useful experience, he said. “My life clinically has been, frequently, making high-stakes decisions with limited, imperfect information and having to still be accountable for a high-quality decision and accept the consequences of those decisions.”

Stack said his AMA presidency gave me familiarity with government interactions with it, and “an appreciation for the complexity of policy and health care policy, specifically, and the MBA degree has helped him “negotiate contracts and create very complicated solutions to difficult problems.”

He said his love of history has helped “because with so much disruption in society, having perspective really is helpful. There’s a lot in my background that has helped me. Now, all of that being said … there’s just no way to be entirely prepared for the kind of magnitude of things we’re having to do right now.”

Berg asked Stack if he has felt overwhelmed, and if so how he has dealt with it.

“It’s been going on long enough now that there have been cycles . . . There are the weeks where I managed to get enough rest and be refreshed, and I feel like a burst of creative energy, or I can see a path to maybe try to address or improve some of the challenges. There are weeks where I’m just totally exhausted. It does feel like the movie Groundhog Day, where every day is the same thing . . . Then you get to the weekend and the weekend is the time to do reading . . . try to catch up on news and lift your head up from underwater a little bit, just to see what else is going on and spend some time with family. Some weeks it feels like it’s all you can do just to keep up. Other weeks you feel like you’re constantly 10 feet underwater and you never even see the surface, let alone reach to get above it.”

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