Goodbye, Cara Christ: The ADHS Director Is Stepping Down

Governor Doug Ducey gets a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine from DHS Director Dr. Cara Christ.
Governor's Office
Governor Doug Ducey gets a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine from DHS Director Dr. Cara Christ.
Dr. Cara Christ, the longtime director of the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) who served as the face of Arizona's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is leaving her position at the agency, Governor Doug Ducey announced today.

Christ, who has served as director of ADHS since 2015, will vacate the post on August 27 to work as chief medical officer for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona. The turnover at the top of the state's chief health services agency comes as new COVID-19 cases in Arizona surge due to the highly transmissible Delta variant.

During the peak of the global COVID-19 pandemic, when Arizona was a global hotspot for new infections, Christ was a highly public figure who regularly defended the Ducey administration's handling of the crisis.

During a June 2020 press conference, Christ found herself supporting Ducey's decision to quickly lift his emergency statewide lock-down order  — a decision that experts said contributed to a surge in cases — and to ban local governments from enacting mask mandates by saying, "We're not going to be able to stop the spread, and so we can't stop living as well."

In November 2020, Christ stood by the governor's refusal to impose restrictions on bars, restaurants, and nightclubs as cases surged yet again. She also took center stage during the state's initially rocky effort to distribute COVID-19 vaccines at its mass vaccination sites.

Over the course of the pandemic, Arizona has recorded over 18,000 deaths due to COVID-19, giving it the grim ranking as the state with the 12th highest total death toll in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It also experienced one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the nation.

In a news release issued today, Ducey praised Christ's tenure as ADHS director.

click to enlarge Dr. Cara Christ - PHOTO COURTESY THE GOVERNOR'S OFFICE.
Dr. Cara Christ
Photo courtesy the governor's office.
“When Cara Christ became a doctor, she did it to help others and save lives. That’s exactly what she’s done,” he said. “She dedicated countless hours to protecting millions of Arizonans from the COVID-19 pandemic — and she’s done it with grace, stability and confidence. She implemented effective statewide testing and internationally-recognized mass vaccination sites, established the national model Arizona SurgeLine, worked hard to increase vaccinations for communities in need, and so much more."

In her own statement, Christ said that her "number one priority" during the COVID-19 pandemic was "protecting the health of Arizonans all across our state” and that she is "so proud to have been a part of this administration."

C.J. Karamargin, a spokesperson for Ducey, told Phoenix New Times that an announcement regarding an interim director for the position will be coming "soon."

Will Humble, the executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association who previously served as the ADHS director between 2009 and 2015, and a frequent Ducey critic, said that Christ should have publicly challenged Ducey on the effectiveness of his COVID-19 policies.

"When you’re linked up with a governor who is pushing you in directions that you fundamentally disagree with, you have a responsibility to do your job, not to keep your job," he said. "You may report to the governor, but you work for the people of Arizona."

Humble added that the "most lethal" position adopted by the Ducey administration during the pandemic was its refusal to impose mitigation measures on bars and nightclubs when cases were surging last winter.

"They made a conscious decision not to do any non-pharmaceutical interventions at all, no social distancing, no statewide mask mandate, no requirements on businesses on how they operate," he said.

The announcement that Christ is leaving ADHS also comes one day after she and Ducey seemingly diverged on their messaging regarding the CDC's guidance that vaccinated people wear masks indoors in certain parts of the country where transmission of the virus is high, such as Arizona.

In a statement, Ducey said that the guidance will "only diminish confidence in the vaccine" and slammed "mask mandates," which he banned local governments from implementing in an executive order issued last March. That same day, Christ announced that ADHS is updating its guidelines to align with the new CDC recommendations.

“If you're going out to public places, we would recommend that you wear a mask even if you're fully vaccinated,” Christ said, according to the Arizona Republic, adding that "the majority of our state is in high or substantial transmission."

Karamargin vigorously disputed the notion that there was disagreement between Ducey and Christ or that any rift between them influenced Christ's decision to leave. He said that her departure has been "in the works for a while." Daniel Ruiz, Ducey's chief operating officer, also posted on Twitter that Christ "approached" him about leaving "a few weeks ago."

"Governor Ducey has nothing but the highest respect and admiration for Dr. Christ," Karamargin said. "He has relied on her expertise and guidance throughout this pandemic and believes she has done an outstanding job as director of the Department of Health Services. We have big shoes to fill finding her successor."