Returning home was always a goal for Alicia Thompson, the new administrator of the Spokane Regional Health District.
Nearly 50 years after arriving in Spokane, she returned to Spokane after a long career as a public health administrator. When she was 15, her father moved to Spokane to serve as marketing director for Expo ’74. She graduated from Lewis and Clark High School and eventually became an epidemiologist for the health district in the 1990s.
In Thompson’s telling, she left the health district almost against her will as she pursued career opportunities elsewhere.
“When I left, I didn’t want to leave. I loved working here,” she said. “But I wanted to get into leadership. So I applied elsewhere and that started my leadership journey to gain the experience, knowledge and abilities that I have now to prepare me for my position.”
Late last year, she resigned as chief operating officer of Chiricahua Community Health Center and returned to Spokane, where “it felt like home.”
The Spokane Regional Health District’s leadership has been in turmoil in recent years, with former administrator Amelia Clark firing former health officer Bob Santos without board of health approval at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. ·Bob Lutz. Clark resigned in 2022 after facing multiple complaints of violations of state law and agreed with state health officials to no longer serve in the position.
Since Clark’s departure, the public health agency has been overseen by a team of interim administrators. As the first administrator appointed since Clark stepped down, Thompson hopes to bring a “sense of stability” to the health district.
“This is a difficult time for SRHD. I would say the last three years have been really difficult for these wonderful staff. I take that fact very seriously and I hope to provide a very stable, collaborative, calm and thoughtful leadership,” she said.
Thompson’s top priority is making sure her employees have opportunities within the health district so they don’t have to move elsewhere for promotions, like she did. She also wants a succession plan in place so that there will be “strong internal candidates” to take her position should she leave. To provide the stability the school district needs, Thompson hopes to stay on the job for 10 years or more.
The Spokane Regional Health District, like other health districts, has strict boundaries between administrative officials who oversee actual operations and health officials who direct public health tasks. Thompson describes himself as a “maestro” who oversees an orchestra delivering public health services.
Dr. Francisco Velázquez has served as health officer since 2021. Thompson said she “loves” Velazquez and has full confidence in him.
“I’m going to let Dr. Velazquez do his job. Because he’s very good at it,” she said.
In 2024, the health district will develop a new strategic plan outlining the organization’s goals for the next three to five years. Thompson said the health district’s financial situation is “very strong,” although she does hope to make changes through her leadership.
“I’m a quality improvement guy. I’m not a stagnant guy. There’s always room for improvement. So it’s an amazing organization that’s run extremely well. But there’s very little opportunity for us to do something different.” , it will make us better,” she said.
With more than two weeks until the first confirmed case of the coronavirus, Thompson wants the public to know the outbreak is still spreading in Spokane.
“People are still dying. Yes. They are still dying. They are still being treated in the hospital,” she said.
But coming out of the crisis, Thompson hopes the health district can improve its communication with the public. Health districts should not rely on the authority of their expertise and should communicate in a way that “community members can hear.”
“We’re getting our messages out in a way that really appeals to us,” Thompson said of public health officials. “They’re not as appealing to our community members.”
Thompson said many public health officials thought they would be believed by the public before the pandemic. Right now, many people are distrustful of public health officials—rightly or wrongly. In future crises, Thompson hopes the district will be able to develop public health recommendations more closely aligned with Spokane conditions.
“If a recommendation doesn’t make sense for our community, then we need to figure out what does make sense for our community.”
Based on her experience as a public health official during the pandemic, Thompson will be “deep-thinking” and “relatively reluctant to take advice and implement it.”
In 2020, Thompson oversaw public health efforts in Cochise County, Arizona. When small amounts of coronavirus vaccines become available, Thompson strictly enforces age requirements to make sure seniors receive them first. She later learned that those federal recommendations were based on the average life expectancy of white people, and Cochise County’s population is 38 percent Hispanic.
“We followed that advice firmly and quickly. As a result, Hispanic seniors experienced extremely high mortality rates,” she said, noting that Hispanics have significantly lower life expectancy than whites.
Thompson learned this during her department’s equity and inclusion training. She “just kept crying” because she felt responsible for the deaths and “didn’t even think about it.”
“When you know that you made decisions that resulted in the death of many, many elderly grandparents in the Hispanic community because you said they weren’t old enough,” she said with tears in her eyes. “Not realizing that the chances of them reaching that age are so slim. It’s really difficult to bear the weight of those who are dying because they don’t have access to the vaccine.”
Thompson hopes to bring the same equity training to the Spokane area.
When asked what she wants the public to know about her, Thompson said she wants everyone in the city to know she cares.
“As I take on this role, I feel responsible for everyone who lives in this county and their health and well-being. My heart goes out to our community members.”