Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE — A New Mexico doctor with a research background and a self-described interest in social justice issues will take the reins of the state Department of Health, a state agency on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Tracie Collins, the dean of the University of New Mexico’s College of Population Health, was appointed on Wednesday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and will start her new job next month.
She will succeed former DOH Secretary Kathy Kunkel, who stepped down this fall.
The Lujan Grisham administration launched a nationwide search for a new health secretary but ultimately settled on a New Mexico resident for the high-profile position.
“New Mexico has never needed experienced and compassionate public health leadership more than right now,” the governor said in a statement Wednesday. “Dr. Collins will hit the ground running as part of our state’s COVID-19 response effort with the Department of Health and indeed all of state government.”
Collins, who has guided COVID-19 testing and contact tracing efforts as part of her current UNM job, will take over the DOH post at a time of record high virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths across New Mexico.
She said on Wednesday that many state residents have “COVID fatigue” eight months into the pandemic, and she cited private gatherings as a likely trouble spot behind the state’s recent increase in cases.
“People are just really worn out, both physically and mentally,” Collins told the Journal.
In working with Lujan Grisham and other Cabinet secretaries to lead the state’s response to the pandemic, she said she would try to make the data guiding public health orders clear and would seek to get more input from New Mexicans.
“We really have to make sure that we’re working with our communities so that people understand what their individual responsibilities are to contain this virus and make really good decisions, limiting the amount of people they are hanging out with, making sure that they’re adhering to the recommendations,” she said.
The newly appointed DOH secretary also expressed optimism that New Mexico would receive more support from President-elect Joe Biden’s administration to deal with COVID-19, including increasing testing capacity.
Collins, who is African American, also said she plans to seek to address disparities in the state’s health care delivery system.
She said the experience of watching doctors not listen to her mother, who was dealing with a serious health issue, was one of the reasons she decided to pursue a career in health care policy.
Before coming to New Mexico in 2019, Collins chaired the Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at the University of Kansas’ School of Medicine in Wichita.
Collins, who has an M.D., also worked as a researcher at universities in Texas and Minnesota, and maintains a clinical practice as a blood circulation specialist.
As health secretary, Collins will take over a state agency with a roughly $315.8 million budget. The agency is also in charge of running the state’s medical cannabis program, which has about 100,000 enrolled members.
Collins acknowledged the post, with a salary of $156,000 per year, will not be an “easy job,” but she said her background has prepared her for the challenge.
“I feel like I have the opportunity to make a difference,” she said.
Her appointment as health secretary is subject to Senate confirmation, which could occur during the 60-day legislative session that starts in January.
Among other duties, the DOH secretary is in charge of formally issuing public health orders and has broad powers under the state’s Public Health Emergency Response Act.
The Lujan Grisham administration has aggressively invoked the law during the pandemic to close businesses, impose a mandatory travel quarantine on out-of-state visitors and restrict maximum capacity levels, prompting several lawsuits.
But courts have upheld the governor’s use of the emergency powers, ruling the orders were allowable under state law.