Dr. Malcolm Butler to step down as Chelan-Douglas health officer

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Dr. Malcolm Butler

EAST WENATCHEE — Dr. Malcolm Butler, the Wenatchee physician who helped steer the Chelan-Douglas Health District through the COVID-19 pandemic as its public health officer, will resign that post effective Aug. 31.

Butler announced his resignation Monday in the monthly meeting of the Chelan-Douglas Board of Health, which administers the two-county district. He read from a letter he had previously submitted to health board leaders and health district Administrator Luke Davies.

“It has been an honor serving with you and the rest of the team during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Butler, the chief medical officer for Columbia Valley Community Health for the last 28 years. “Prior to my appointment, I had never considered service as a health officer.”

Butler, 58, was tapped by then-health district Administrator Barry Kling as the pandemic took hold in central Washington in spring 2020. He began a round of near-weekly online video chats to educate the public about the disease and methods to counter it, including masking, social distancing, and vaccines.

“Although I have had no formal public health training, I felt I had enough experience as a long-serving community physician, and health system executive, to help out in what most of us believed would be a six-month assignment,” he said.

Under state law, a health officer is appointed by and advises local health boards on matters of public health, and executes relevant state laws and local health policies.

While in the office, Butler found himself caught up in a controversy after Marc Straub, a Douglas County commissioner and member of the Board of Health, asked him to sign off on an eight-point statement endorsing the two counties’ ability to handle the COVID-19 pandemic using existing anti-influenza strategies. Butler revised and signed a statement, which Straub then filed as part of a lawsuit by the three Douglas County commissioners challenging Gov. Jay Inslee’s authority to decree COVID-19 a public health emergency.

The lawsuit and another identical case failed in court. The Washington Attorney General’s Office alleged in response that Straub had abused his office to elicit a statement from Butler. In his own deposition, Butler testified that he felt “deceived” by Straub: “… What is most upsetting and frustrating to me is the way that the information was gained from me with clear forethought and planning to be used in a way that was not made clear to me.”

Straub denied intentionally misleading Butler. He and fellow Douglas County Commissioner Dan Sutton, who was also a plaintiff in the original lawsuit, remain on the health board.

The board must now choose a new health officer. Davies said he’s seeking an interim health officer from a neighboring jurisdiction to serve until a new appointment is made.

“Dr. Butler has done a fantastic job of stepping in and being the face of the response to COVID in the Chelan-Douglas Health District, and we are very grateful for his work,” Davies said.