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State health secretary to retire, will remain till replacement found

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Secretary Kathy Kunkel

Citing the rigors of being on the front lines as New Mexico and the rest of the country battle the coronavirus pandemic, state Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel announced Friday that she will be retiring – though she plans to remain in her post until a replacement is found.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham plans to launch a national search for a new health secretary, her office announced in a news release, which also noted that Kunkel plans to remain in her position “through the current wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Every single day of this public health crisis has been a physically and mentally exhausting ordeal – not just for the Department of Health, not just for the thousands of health care professionals putting their lives and livelihoods on the line to protect New Mexicans, but for all of us as the people of this state,” Kunkel said in a statement.

She said the decision to retire was personal, not professional.

“I look forward to continuing to work as hard as I can every day … until such time as I can step aside with peace of mind and begin my next chapter with the appropriate leadership to take my place,” she said.

To reduce the spread of germs, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, left, bumps elbows with Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel in the Governor’s Office on March 4 – before the COVID-19 outbreak in New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Kunkel has served as Department of Health secretary since she was appointed by Lujan Grisham in January 2019.

In an interview with the Journal earlier this year, Kunkel said that 14- or 15-hour work days and “sleepless nights” were not uncommon for her since the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in New Mexico on March 11.

She said she was grateful for the dedication and experience of employees at the Health Department, which has the largest workforce of any state department.

“But it would not be truthful if I said (fighting the pandemic) is not a problem,” Kunkel told the Journal. “It is hard to find balance in my life. It is very stressful, emotionally draining.”

To address the pandemic, New Mexico has closed schools, canceled events, restricted public gatherings, mandated face coverings in public, and ramped up testing and contact tracing.

But responding to the public health crisis has not been without its challenges, especially early on in the pandemic.

“It was a struggle to get supplies,” Kunkel said. “It was a struggle to get nasal swabs for collecting specimens and then to get the ingredients for testing the specimens at the lab. We were competing with our sister states, which was really painful.”

As of Friday, the virus had infected 12,776 people in New Mexico, and 511 people in the state have died from the disease.

In her statement Friday, Kunkel said she was proud of the work done by her department and the state to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. She said New Mexico would ultimately defeat the virus and “get the job done.”

“At the same time, I know in my heart that the moment has come for me to begin the next phase of my life,” Kunkel said. “… The work of battling this pandemic has been challenging to say the least.”

Lujan Grisham said that she is “immensely grateful” for Kunkel’s work during the pandemic, and said Kunkel “will remain part of the team until we can get to a point where we have a seamless transition.”

“I have known Kathy Kunkel for decades in both a professional and personal capacity, and my longstanding respect for her, her work ethic, her intellect, her problem-solving ability and her compassion has only grown during these months of crisis,” Lujan Grisham said in the news release.

Kunkel, 69, holds a master’s degree in social work from Michigan State University. She earned a law degree from the University of New Mexico in 2003. She worked at UNM’s Health Sciences Center for eight years as a pediatric social worker and then as the assistant director of care management services.

She is the widow of Dr. James Michael Kunkel, who was chief of vascular surgery at University of New Mexico Hospital.

Kunkel was an assistant attorney general for New Mexico from 2004 to 2007. She worked at NMDOH for seven years in different divisions before her appointment to department secretary.

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