Rich Saunders had led UDOH for less than a year, through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The leadership of the Utah Department of Health is changing again – with executive director Rich Saunders leaving after less than a year in office to take on a newly created role in Governor Spencer Cox’s administration.
Cox appointed Saunders the state’s first chief innovation officer, to join the governor’s senior staff effective June 21. Saunders, according to a statement released Friday by Cox’s office, will be in charge of Cox’s plans “to aggressively improve the efficiency, innovations and responsiveness of state government.” to residents of Utah.
Saunders will continue to be the incident commander of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the statement said. He will also be involved in the Cox administration’s efforts to merge UDOH with the Department of Social Services, which is expected to be completed by July 2022.
Tracy Gruber, the current executive director of the Department of Social Services, has been appointed executive director of the merged department. She was previously the Director of the Office of Child Care in the Utah Department of Workforce Services and a Senior Advisor for the Institute of Intergenerational Poverty.
Nate Checketts, now deputy director in the Department of Social Services, will be the new interim director of UDOH, where he was previously deputy director. Checketts is credited with coordinating Utah’s COVID-19 testing efforts during the first year of the pandemic and was the state’s director of Medicaid.
Saunders started at UDOH in 2015, as a consultant on Medicaid. He joined the UDOH leadership team in 2017. As the COVID-19 pandemic began last year and UDOH director Dr Joseph Miner was removed from the leadership in On a day-to-day basis due to illness, Saunders was appointed then interim chief deputy. director Jefferson Burton.
When Burton left the department last August, Saunders was appointed interim executive director – and served in the unified state command to respond to the pandemic. The Utah legislature has approved a relaxation of state law to allow Saunders, who is not a doctor and does not have a public health degree, to lead UDOH.
Miner retired in December. In February, the Utah Senate approved Saunders’ permanent appointment as UDOH leader. Dr. Michelle Hofmann, a pediatrician at the University of Utah, was appointed deputy director in February.
Cox, who chaired the state coronavirus task force when he was lieutenant governor, expressed his “respect and gratitude” for Saunders. “As we worked closely together, I saw how he advised, streamlined processes and guided his team through very rough waters,” Cox said in a statement. “As Director of Innovation, he will bring the same creative energy and the same collaborative approach to all of state government.”
In May, state epidemiologist Dr Angela Dunn left UDOH to become director of the Salt Lake County Department of Health – a job she started this month. A new epidemiologist, Dr Leisha Nolen, will take office on July 6.