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Cullen scuttled as Az state health chief as Republicans blast Pima's pandemic measures

Cullen scuttled as Az state health chief as Republicans blast Pima's pandemic measures

Hobbs withdraws nomination, blasts GOP senators for 'vicious personal attacks' on county health director

  • Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department, outside of the Abrams Public Health Center.
    Pima County.Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department, outside of the Abrams Public Health Center.
  • Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department, at a COVID vaccination site managed by FEMA in May 2021.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comDr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department, at a COVID vaccination site managed by FEMA in May 2021.

Despite a "mountain of expertise," Dr. Theresa Cullen will not lead the Arizona Department of Health Services after Gov. Katie Hobbs withdrew her nomination Tuesday. Cullen was blasted during a hearing by Republican legislators for measures Pima County took during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Democratic governor fired back that they should be "ashamed" of the "harassment."

While Hobbs withdrew Cullen from consideration, GOP leaders in the Senate said that move had not been filed with the secretary in that chamber, and held a voice vote Tuesday, rejecting her nomination.

Instead of assuming the post in state government, Cullen will remain the head of the Pima County Health Department.

In December, Cullen was one of several people tapped to lead statewide agencies by Hobbs. However, while some nominees have moved forward, Cullen's shift from Tucson to Phoenix was derailed after Republicans on the state Senate's newly-formed Committee on Director Nominations voted against her after a long and contentious hearing over Pima County's efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Cullen said Tuesday afternoon she withdrew her nomination, and will continue to serve as the director of the county's Health Department.

"I was honored to be hired as Pima County health director and I was honored to be considered to lead the state’s public health agency," Cullen said. "While the state job hasn’t worked out, I love being Pima County’s public health director and there remains a lot of work to do making Pima County one of the healthiest counties in the country."

Hobbs defended Cullen's expertise and sharply criticized state Republicans.

"While I am deeply concerned that Dr. Cullen has chosen not to proceed as the nominee for AzDHS director, I understand and respect her decision," Hobbs said. "The way some Republicans on the state Senate’s committee on director nominations was nothing short of harassment and those who participated in it should be ashamed of their behavior — we all should."

"Her actions and her decisions saved countless lives during the COVID-19 pandemic," Hobbs said. "In December 2022, Arizona became the state with the single highest number of COVID deaths per capita across the country. Dr. Cullen’s leadership during those tumultuous years directly resulted in more Arizonans being alive and with us today."

Nearly 33,000 people died in Arizona because of COVID-19, and the state lost 452 people per 100,000—the worst rate in the country.

However, this widely varied by county.

In Mohave County, the death rate was as high as 763 people per 100,000, and in Navajo County, the rate reached nearly 897 per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, Pima County had the lowest rate in the state, losing about 403 people per 100,000.

So far, Pima County has seen 313,914 reported cases of the disease, and lost 4,275 people to COVID-19, according to ADHS figures.

“But even with this mountain of expertise, and an immense track record of public health success, some lawmakers have decided that they should instead participate in vicious personal attacks and criticism over a tweet thanking front-line healthcare workers several years ago," Hobbs wrote. "This is not only foolish, it detracts from the important work we have in front of us."

The Senate panel, set up by Republican leadership, is headed by Sen. Jake Hoffman, a Queen Creek Republican who is a member of the far-right Arizona Freedom Caucus.

Hoffman said during the hearing that Cullen was responsible for an increase in "depression" and "suicide" among children due to school closures that occurred early in the pandemic. Hoffman also claimed that "thousands" of jobs were lost due to Pima County's push for businesses to be comply with state and local COVID-19 regulations.

“I don’t have a great response to you, I just know that there were many moving pieces and we were making decisions on what we believed what would be best to save lives,” Cullen said to Hoffman when asked about implementing school closures that Hoffman claimed "compounded" issues of depression and suicide.

Cullen also faced criticism for curfews that were put in place in Pima County during the pandemic which were later ruled to violate state law. Hoffman and Sen. Janae Shamp, R-Surprise, both called Cullen "arrogant," with Hoffman adding that he felt Cullen treated businesses like they were "beneath" her. 

Both Hoffman and Shamp have been adamantly against COVID lockdowns, vaccines and other pandemic public health measures.

Although Senate Minority Leader Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix, said that the governor had pulled Cullen's name from her list of nominees Tuesday, Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, ordered a vote be held, saying that Hobbs' determination had not been filed with the Senate secretary.

Petersen received a letter from Hobbs as the full Senate began its meeting to vote on Cullen’s appointment, the Arizona Mirror confirmed with the Governor's Office.

Despite Terán's procedural motion to moot the vote, Petersen said he had not seen the letter yet and was unaware and that the Senate needed to receive notice in order to do so, the Mirror reported.

Cullen's nomination failed on a voice vote. A recorded vote was not held.

ADHS has not had a permanent leader since August 2021, when Dr. Cara Christ left for a job at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona. Christ was replaced by Don Harrington, who served as interim director until his retirement. Jennie Cunico, the deputy director of operations, is currently leading the state-wide agency.

Cullen, 68, led the Pima County Health Department throughout most of COVID-19 pandemic, after taking the top job in June 2020. She spent 25 years in the U.S. Public Health Service from 1984 to 2012 and rose to the rank of rear admiral and assistant surgeon general. During that time, she also worked in several roles with the Indian Health Services, including as chief information officer for the agency, and as a clinical director at the Sells Hospital on the Tohono O’odham Nation. Cullen also worked at hospitals on the San Carlos Apache Reservation and in San Xavier on the Tohono O’odham Nation.

In 2014, Cullen ran the only maternity Ebola clinic in Sierra Leon, one of only 1,500 U.S. civilian volunteers deployed to the area during the outbreak.

Last year, Cullen received the Public Health Service Award from ADHS and the Arizona Medical Association, for her "tremendous and unwavering commitment, expertise and compassion in local, regional and statewide responses to the pandemic."

The Arizona Public Health Association supported Cullen’s nomination, and Will Humble, the group’s executive director (an himself a former ADHS director), called last week’s hearing "more like a prosecution than a hearing designed to determine qualification of a candidate for an important job."

'State’s loss will be Pima County’s gain'

Pima County officials praised Cullen's leadership, and said under her aegis Pima County was a "national leader in pandemic response, mitigation, vaccination, and recovery."

Cullen "has earned the right to continue as the county health director through her inspired leadership of the department during historic times, her tireless work ethic and most importantly, her big heart," Lesher said in a statement.

“Terry Cullen deeply cares about the health and well-being of every county resident," Lesher said. "Every decision she has made since she’s been here, cussed or discussed, has been to protect lives and livelihoods. We hired her because she’s one of the finest public health physicians in the country who has had a distinguished career. She remains so, as does her career. Of course we want her to continue leading our public health agency."

Adelita Grijalva, the chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, said she was disappointed that a "thin Republican majority chose a deplorably long character assassination of Dr. Cullen before rejecting her nomination on party lines."

"The state’s loss will be Pima County’s gain," Grijalva said. "I am proud of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and Dr. Cullen’s excellent leadership. We had lower transmission and death rates than most counties and the highest vaccination rate of all."

"All I have ever wanted to do was to prevent suffering, help people live healthy lives, and treat people with respect and dignity. I’m happy I still have the opportunity to do that in Pima County,” Cullen said.

Arizona Mirror reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy contributed background on the legislative meetings to this report.

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