By Phill Casaus and Daniel J. Chacón
Dr. David Scrase, whose near-weekly briefings during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic often served as a barometer of the state’s desperate fight against the virus, announced he will retire from state government late next month.
The announcement came late Friday afternoon, often a time when officials release surprising or disquieting news. Scrase, the Cabinet secretary of the state Human Services Department, is one of the few holdovers remaining from the original members of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Cabinet in early 2019.
In 2021 and 2022, Scrase did double duty. He ran Human Services while also heading the Department of Health on an interim basis in the maw of the pandemic, as the state’s tenuous health care system teetered beneath the weight of critical cases.
Scrase’s final day will be Feb. 24, but in a news release the Governor’s Office said he is currently on leave due to a family emergency. Human Services Deputy Secretary Kari Armijo will serve as interim head of the department.
Lujan Grisham in late December appointed Patrick M. Allen, the former head of the Oregon Health Authority, to lead the Department of Health.
In a statement issued by the Governor’s Office, Scrase thanked Lujan Grisham for the opportunity to work in state government and praised the work that went into the battle against COVID.
“I am proud of all that we have accomplished together, particularly in managing the COVID pandemic in New Mexico,” he said. “I feel extremely privileged and cherish the four years working with the outstanding leaders and employees at HSD. Likewise, the several years that I spent with the Department of Health and their amazing leaders and staff was another high point in my life.”
Early in the pandemic, Scrase quickly became a clearinghouse for information and strategy on COVID-19. He headed the state’s Medical Advisory Team, a group of state officials and private health care leaders who helped devise New Mexico’s strategy for battling infections. Among their accomplishments were the state’s large-scale testing operations and high rate of vaccinations.
“It was such an honor to work with Dr. Scrase as he led the way, mobilizing our New Mexico hospitals in order to care for the entire state,” Christus St. Vincent President and CEO Lillian Montoya wrote in a text message. “It was impressive. There’s no finer legacy. I wish him a blessed retirement.”
During a chunk of the COVID crisis, Scrase’s face became familiar to New Mexicans, his ever-present bolo tie and reassuring tone buttressed by scads of statistics that at times revealed good news — and sometimes bad.
In a statement, Lujan Grisham said Scrase “was the face of the state’s pandemic response and his leadership contributed to countless New Mexican lives being saved.”
Scrase was lauded by those legislators and colleagues who said they appreciated his forthright approach regardless of the situation.
Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, said she learned about Scrase’s retirement while checking her email late Friday.
“I’m sad to see him go, but I feel like he probably needs a rest after running HSD and DOH for quite some time,” she said. “I think he’s really tried to make New Mexico healthier and better.”
Thomson described Scrase as dedicated.
“Was he perfect? I doubt it. I haven’t met the perfect human,” she said. “But he worked very hard, and he was collaborative with the Legislature. I just think he did a good job.”
Thomson said Scrase’s energy was unparalleled.
“I don’t know what kind of V8 he drank, but we all should have some of it,” she said.
Thomson credited Scrase with helping protect New Mexicans during the pandemic even when some of the state’s restrictions proved unpopular among some residents.
“I think he did so much during COVID that went unappreciated by a lot of people,” she said. “New Mexico was hit hard early, and I think he did a good job at keeping 27 billion balls in the air at the same time and getting New Mexicans vaccinated.”
State Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, noted Scrase “probably had the hardest hand ever dealt to any Cabinet secretary, and I applaud him for taking the worst situation at the Department of Health and Human Services any secretary has faced in the past 90 years.
“He was always a gentleman,” Moores said, “and I felt he was making decisions on what he truly felt was right.”
New Mexico’s successes and failures in the fight against COVID often drew praise and criticism to Scrase, an internist and geriatrician at the University of New Mexico who served as doctor to the governor’s late parents. Early in the pandemic, months before a coronavirus vaccine was available, he led efforts to map out a plan for who would receive a shot when one became available, targeting the state’s vulnerable elderly population and essential workers.
During Scrase’s time at the Human Services Department, the agency increased the number of Medicaid providers, and he also led an effort to modernize the state’s Child Support Program.
Mike Chicarelli, who worked alongside Scrase on the state’s Medical Advisory Team since the beginning of the pandemic, said Scrase is calm under pressure.
“I found that he was very inclusive, and he definitely seeks the advice of people who are experts; he’s just a really collaborative guy,” Chicarelli said. “He’s very level-headed, and he’s centered in his approach, and I think that helped him and us, frankly, through the pandemic.”
While many New Mexicans became acquainted with Scrase during the pandemic, Chicarelli said the side the public didn’t get to see was his sense of humor.
“He’s a really funny guy, and a lot of people didn’t get to see that because he’s very professional, too,” he said. “He’s just a nice man.”