Exit interview: David Scrase, the face of New Mexico's pandemic response - Albuquerque Journal

Exit interview: David Scrase, the face of New Mexico’s pandemic response

Human Services Secretary David Scrase watches as people share stories about him during his retirement party Friday in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – As a physician and Cabinet secretary, it was often up to David Scrase to explain the mechanics of virus transmission and medical care as the pandemic arrived in New Mexico.

He was the state’s own “Dr. Fauci” — as the governor called him — appearing in public briefings to speak about infection rates, face masks and hospital capacity.

But as Scrase, 70, enters retirement, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t top his list of proudest accomplishments.

Instead, he is most proud, he said, of the state’s work to end what was once a decade-long wait for families seeking services under the Developmental Disabilities Waiver program. In October, the state — backed by extra federal funding — offered help to the remaining 3,450 people on the waiting list.

Now Scrase is turning to less-expansive goals. In retirement, which started last week, he plans to catch up on seeing patients as a physician in geriatric medicine at the University of New Mexico Hospital, travel with his family and sleep in an extra hour — to 5 a.m.

Retirement comes after more than four years as secretary of the Human Services Department and more than one year leading the Department of Health, making him the rare Cabinet head to lead two agencies at once.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d work more hours in a week than when I was a medical intern,” Scrase told the Journal in a recent interview.

Medical residents and trainees have been known to put in 100 hours during a work week.

‘Not everybody’s cup of tea’

The departure of Scrase comes at a critical time for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has lost three Cabinet secretaries since the 60-day legislative session started last month.

Some agencies, such as the Public Education and Health departments, have had a revolving-door of leadership changes, prompting bipartisan concern among lawmakers about the stability atop key agencies.

“It sounds like she’s a little hard to work with,” Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said last month.

Scrase, for his part, said he didn’t find Lujan Grisham difficult to work for.

But “I think she has really, really high standards,” he said. “She’s obsessed with making things better for New Mexicans and has a sense of urgency to get things done that I think is not everybody’s cup of tea.”

New Mexico Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase, right, checks the temperature of everyone in the room, including certified deaf interpreter Nixo Lanning, before the start of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s update on the COVID-19 outbreak in New Mexico in April 2020. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

At HSD, Scrase led the agency that administers the state’s Medicaid program and grocery assistance for needy families, providing services that reach about 1.1 million people, or half the state’s population.

Two days after the announcement of Scrase’s retirement plans, the state canceled its procurement process for awarding new contracts to deliver Medicaid services. The Lujan Grisham administration cited the departure of Scrase and Medicaid Director Nicole Comeaux — who had announced plans to leave a few days before Scrase — in halting the process, a move intended to let new HSD leadership evaluate the design of the procurement.

Deputy Secretary Kari Armijo is now the agency’s interim leader.

Scrase said the timing of his departure was tied to a family health emergency that took him out of town.

He had talked to the governor about retirement last summer, he said, and had initially planned to step down after the session. But the family matter required immediate attention, he said.

Explaining the science

Scrase was in the first group of Cabinet secretaries announced by Lujan Grisham in 2018, a month after she won election.

But it was the pandemic that thrust him into public view.

Starting in March 2020, Scrase participated in high-profile public briefings — broadcast online, often more than once a week.

He was often the state official charged with explaining statistical analysis and medical research.

“We joked sometimes that the COVID years are like dog years,” Scrase said, each one adding up to seven years.

Scrase said he handled the stress, in part, by waking up an hour earlier to make sure he had extra time to exercise, read, write in his journal and meditate.

In August 2020, Human Services Secretary David Scrase takes part in a weekly update on the COVID-19 health emergency in New Mexico from the Capitol in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Handling the pandemic, he said, took a toll on all public health workers, a factor in high vacancy rates in New Mexico and similar agencies throughout the country.

It may not top the list, but Scrase considers the state’s pandemic response as a significant accomplishment.

“There was a once-in-a-100-year event,” Scrase said. “The ability of everyone to come together in state government to be a team and get so much done and be as agile as we were is something I’ll always remember.”

But next on the agenda is some time with his grandchildren, perhaps travel to Europe, teaching and treating patients.

“I’ll be a busy guy,” Scrase said.

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