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A ‘creature of schedule,’ HSD secretary keeps to routine during pandemic

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico Human Services Secretary David Scrase speaks during the governor’s April 15 update on the COVID-19 outbreak. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – Even during a pandemic, David Scrase is a man of routine.

The head of the state’s Human Services Department – who was recently described by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham as “our very own New Mexico Dr. Fauci” – is reliably up by 4 a.m., and has had coffee, done some reading, meditated and exercised by the time his daily meetings start a few hours later.

“For me, that’s like filling up the gas tank,” Scrase said in a recent interview. “I feel like if I do that, I’m good.”

The licensed geriatrician, who was the primary physician for the governor’s late father and her mother, says that scripted schedule has helped him get through workweeks that have sometimes exceeded 80 hours during the coronavirus outbreak.

Since New Mexico’s first COVID-19 case was confirmed on March 11, Scrase has emerged as a recognizable figure due to his regular appearance with the governor at news briefings and his data-focused approach to the pandemic.

A former health care system executive, a published author and a public speaker, Scrase said he’s leaned on his past experiences during the pandemic.

“I do feel like everything I’ve done in my career has kind of prepared me for this moment,” Scrase told the Journal.

Scrase is the only physician in the governor’s Cabinet, and his background came in handy even before the pandemic began wreaking havoc on countries worldwide.

In January, Scrase rushed to help an elderly woman who collapsed at the Capitol during a crowded news conference. As people shouted for someone to call 911, Scrase quickly made his way through the crowd and attended to the woman.

She was later helped into a chair and visited briefly with Lujan Grisham before other medical personnel arrived.

Scrase also continued seeing patients, on a pro bono basis, at least twice a month since the governor picked him to run the Human Services Department in 2018. But he said he’s had to put that practice on hold during the current outbreak.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said some previous Human Services Department secretaries have struggled under the weight of running New Mexico’s Medicaid program, which currently covers about 40% of the state’s residents.

In contrast, Scrase has shown a quiet confidence when it comes to running the joint federal-state health care program, the senator said.

“With great calmness and efficiency, he just gets things done,” said Ortiz y Pino, who chairs the Legislature’s interim Health and Human Services Committee. “It’s been very refreshing.”

Health care career

Scrase, 67, is a Michigan native who moved to New Mexico in 1998.

He had traveled to New Mexico a few years before that time and, during a trip full of hiking and camping, decided he’d found his future home.

Once in New Mexico, he worked for more than 17 years with Presbyterian Healthcare Services in Albuquerque, first as the health care system’s president and later as its chief operating officer.

Scrase eventually landed at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, and he was a professor there and chief of geriatrics at the time of his appointment as HSD secretary.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Human Services Secretary David Scrase talk after an April 24 news conference on the COVID-19 outbreak. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

He described senior citizens as “my people” during one recent television interview and said the elderly have been foremost in his mind during the COVID-19 outbreak.

But his career has not been totally orthodox.

In 2013, under the pen name of David Roberts, which he said he adopted to protect his patients’ privacy, he published a book that details some of the complex cases he faced during his first years as a doctor in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

He said he has already written outlines for “five or six” other books but hasn’t gotten around to finishing them yet.

Scrase also delivers annual talks at meetings of the American College of Physicians, in which attendees try to solve hard-to-diagnose cases.

One such case, he recounts, involved a patient in her 70s with high blood pressure readings that were stumping doctors. Eventually, doctors discovered the patient’s family members had been occasionally slipping her cocaine.

Extensive briefings

At the governor’s COVID-19 news briefings, Lujan Grisham typically delivers the latest New Mexico coronavirus case figures, hospitalizations and deaths.

She then turns to Scrase for a deep dive into the state’s latest statistical models, including the disease’s spread rate and how many other people may be infected by those who have tested positive.

That data plays a prominent role in guiding the Lujan Grisham administration’s strategy for battling the COVID-19 outbreak, including a gradual reopening of the state’s economy when certain criteria are met.

“We have to learn to live in a COVID-positive world,” Scrase said during a briefing last week.

However, Scrase and other state health officials faced criticism for not publicly releasing their own modeling assumptions.

After Scrase vowed to be more transparent, state officials are now publicly posting weekly modeling reports, which include input from New Mexico’s national laboratories and health care experts.

The latest version projects New Mexico COVID-19 cases will continue to increase over the next six weeks, with between 4,685 and 21,443 confirmed cases projected by June 14, depending on whether social distancing guidelines are relaxed and other criteria.

Both Scrase and Lujan Grisham have insisted outside modeling about New Mexico coronavirus cases and deaths cannot be trusted, saying such projections do not include enough state-specific data.

“If you went to buy a car and they wouldn’t let you test-drive it, you probably wouldn’t want to buy the car,” Scrase said during one recent briefing, referring to the state having limited input into how such models are formulated.

Helpful presence

Governor’s Office staffers describe Scrase’s outlook as one of grounded positivity.

They also say he’s been helpful on a personal level with tips and suggestions for dealing with the stresses of life during the coronavirus era.

“Everybody is having a hard time dealing with the exhaustion, stress and mental health side of things, and he’s got his antenna up for that,” one Lujan Grisham staffer said.

For his part, Scrase wears a face covering when he’s out in public, washes his hands regularly and has even brought a forehead thermometer to the governor’s briefings to get quick, precautionary readings from those present.

He’s been mostly working from home during the pandemic, traveling to Santa Fe only on days when the governor holds news briefings.

But he recently went to a home goods store to buy some supplies and said he was struck by how few people were wearing masks.

Before that outing, Scrase had not been anywhere in the last two months other than his home – and a few brisk walks around his neighborhood – and the state Capitol, according to an agency spokeswoman.

Given his early morning tendencies, Scrase said he’s usually in bed every night at 9 p.m. in order to get ready for the next day.

But on Friday evenings, he sometimes has a glass or two of champagne with his wife in order to decompress after a long week.

“One of my theories is that every person needs to have a set of coping mechanisms,” Scrase said. “I am a creature of schedule.”


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