February 7, 2023

Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department on Tuesday announced that its director of health is retiring at the end of June.

Dr. Anthony Chen said in a statement Tuesday, “We have plenty of work ahead of us to protect and improve the health of all people and places in Pierce County. I look forward to seeing where the next leader will take our local health department.”

Chen has served in the position since 2008 when he was selected by the Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health.

“When I reflect on my time at the Department, I am especially proud of our work to create an innovative and leading local public health agency,” Chen said Tuesday.

Dr. Anthony Chen, Director of Health for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, has lived around the world and across the county, but says Tacoma is his home. He is shown in downtown Tacoma, Washington on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Tony Overman [email protected]

Lengthy career in state, area

Chen is a Duke University medical school graduate. He completed family medicine residency at the University of Cincinnati and a faculty development fellowship at Duke University and a fellowship in minority health policy at Harvard University, according to his TPCHD biography. He received his master’s in public health at Harvard School of Public Health.

Chen came to Washington in 1993 to serve as faculty for the Swedish Family Medicine Residency Program. One its satellite programs soon caught his eye: a public health clinic.

“This site had a huge refugee and immigrant population, which was what I was just really attracted to,” he told The News Tribune in an interview in 2021. As an immigrant, Chen could relate to their experiences.

Chen faced an array of challenges during his tenure at TPCHD, including at least two separate attempts to break up the health department from city-county combined oversight, including in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Neither effort took hold.

Like other health department leaders, he faced critics over COVID-19 policies, including those involving masks and schools.

When he approved school reopenings, others said it was too soon. He told The News Tribune he received hate mail “from both sides … about schools. I think that’s been (one of) the most difficult things that’s happened.”

In 2021, Chen was attacked by an unknown assailant on Tacoma’s Bridge of Glass.

At the time, Chen told reporters the assault happened after he saw a man riding a BMX bike and doing maneuvers he felt were damaging the benches on the bridge. He said he was subsequently attacked.

The attack led to a News Tribune investigation that ultimately revealed security cameras on the bridge had long been out of operation.

Despite the tumult, Chen remained committed to the job and continued overseeing the department’s efforts in vaccine distribution and pursuing programs focusing on health equity in the area.

Speaking with The News Tribune in 2021, he praised his TPCHD staff as dedicated and mission-driven.

“My nurses could go with MultiCare and get paid a lot more,” he noted. “My epidemiologists could go work for a private company and get paid a lot more. But they all work at the health department because they really believe in our mission.”

What’s next

Edie Jeffers, health department spokesperson, told The News Tribune via email that Chen is set to take a break following his departure.

“Today’s announcement is notice so the Board of Health can start the search process now,” said Jeffers. “Dr. Chen is looking forward to taking some time off after June. He’s also committed to solving complex problems and wants to be part of solutions. We look forward to seeing where his next adventure will take him.”

Newly elected Board of Health Chairperson Catherine Ushka will lead a nationwide recruitment effort for Chen’s successor. TPCHD said she will appoint a selection committee of board members which will hire an outside recruiting firm to assist.

Once someone is chosen, the board will recommend a candidate to the city’s mayor and Pierce County executive, to then be confirmed in the final hiring step by the county and city councils.

Ushka said Tuesday in a statement that Chen “has led a generation of innovative health policy and practice, pioneering new models of service delivery, bringing together community and leaders, and embedding compassion and care for all residents into everything we do.

“Dr. Chen can be proud that his legacy in Tacoma and Pierce County will serve generations to come,” Ushka said.

The News Tribune’s Craig Sailor contributed to this report.

This story was originally published January 24, 2023 11:49 AM.

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Debbie Cockrell has been with The News Tribune since 2009. She reports on business and development, local and regional issues.

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