Pandemic thrusts Health Commissioner Steven Stack from usually low-profile job into often harsh spotlight of public scrutiny

Less than a month after Dr. Steven Stack moved from running a hospital emergency department to running the state Department for Public Health, the first case of the novel coronavirus was reported in Kentucky and he immediately became the point person for handling it.

“I had no idea I was signing up for this,” Stack told Deborah Yetter of the Louisville Courier Journal. “There was no way to anticipate this once-in-a-century pandemic, the likes of which no one alive has had to confront.”
Yetter writes that the pandemic also thrust Stack from a job that “tended to be occupied by low-profile bureaucrats . . into the glare of public scrutiny,” to which he wasn’t accustomed, though he had been president of the American Medical Association in 2015.
“I didn’t expect to be a TV personality,” Stack told a legislative committee in August, Yetter notes. “I expect most governors forget their public-health commissioner once they announce the appointment.”
Stack, 48, “said he has no regrets about taking on the job that has come with grueling hours and political firestorms over restrictions the state imposes, often on his advice, to try to limit the spread of Covid-19,” Yetter reports.

“Yes, I would do it again,” Stack said. “How many times do each of us have an opportunity in our lives to have such a meaningful impact?”

Stack was the second youngest president of the AMA and brought an unusual background to his medical and governmental career.
“Bespectacled and scholarly, partial to bow ties, Stack looks and speaks like the classics major he was at College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit liberal arts school in Massachusetts he attended after attending St. Ignatius High in Cleveland, Ohio, also a Jesuit school,” writes Yetter, a fellow Catholic.
“Holy Cross is the same college attended by the nation’s top public infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, 79 — though several decades apart, Stack once noted at a news conference. Stack often mentions his undergraduate studies, which included Greek, Latin and history as good preparation for the political heat he sometimes encounters as he seeks to convince a skeptical public and politicians about steps to curb the spread of Covid-19.”

Stack asked, “Am I surprised by the by the intensity of the feelings expressed and the accusatory nature in which it is sometimes communicated? That’s well-established throughout history. That’s not new.”

The strongest criticism of Stack has come from Republicans who control the General Assembly and are poised to cut back Beshear’s emergency powers in the legislative session that begins Tuesday, Jan. 5.
At legislative committee meetings, Stack has been the lightning rod for criticism of Beshear’s pandemic restrictions, on which he has advised, and more directly on his lack of responsiveness to emails and phone calls from legislators and the state’s use of data that measures the pandemic.

When a deputy acknowledged at an August meeting that the reported positivity rate — the percentage of Kentuckians testing positive for the virus in the previous seven days — was imperfect because negative tests don’t have to be reported, Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Paducah called the rate “totally inaccurate.”

Stack replied that while the number is not perfect, does show trends, and is just one data point on which decisions are made. A few weeks later, the state started basing the rate only on electronically reported test results, and it did not appear to make a significant difference in the percentage.

Yetter’s story ends with a statement Stack made to the committee: “I’m not here trying to save everybody. I can’t save everyone. We’re all dying, just some a little more quickly than others. I’m not here to separate people from their deaths, but I do want to prevent it from happening on a mass scale in people who should not have to or would not have to die.”

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