KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Few people have had as much hands-on experience navigating the COVID-19 pandemic as Dr. Martha Buchanan. As cases began to be reported in East Tennessee and beyond, she led an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and protect the health of the Knoxville community.
On October 1, Buchanan stepped down from her role as the director of the Knox County Health Department after announcing her resignation in early August. That role sits vacant, but the county said Dr. Buchanan has indicated a willingness to remain with the department as the Public Health Officer a little longer than originally announced until the end of March 2022.
In her current role, she still has the authority to issue restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and state law requires Knox County to maintain a licensed physician in the public health officer role to make informed decisions.
"When I think about the past 17 years, what comes to mind is pride," she said. "Pride in the work that I've done personally, pride in the team at the health department and the expertise and passion they bring to public health every day. And where we've come and how we're reaching out to the community. I have a lot of pride in the progress we've made, in the team that we've built and the work that they do."
During a meeting with the Advisory Board of Health in Knox County on Sept. 22, she said that her administrative and directorial responsibilities would be divided among two people while officials search for a replacement.
Kevin Parton, the Chief Administrative Officer, will take on some duties while Katharine Killen, the department's Chief Strategy Officer, will take on other responsibilities.
Killen will represent the Knox County Health Department director at future meetings with the Advisory Board of Health, Buchanan said.
In the meantime, Knox County officials are working with the executive search firm Baker-Tilly to find candidates to decide who will succeed Buchanan. That person will have big shoes to fill, whoever it is.
Knox County said the search has not begun yet as of October 21, saying the search firm's contract is waiting to be approved by the Knox County Commission at its next general session in November.
"What's next for me is not written in stone yet," she said. "I'm still trying to work out the details."
Throughout the pandemic, she emphasized people wear masks and get vaccinated for COVID-19 to keep their communities healthy, even if masks were not mandated.
She also created a testing site at the health department when cases first started being reported in Knox County, helping collect information health leaders needed in order to respond to COVID-19.
Community leaders lamented that she was leaving, issuing statements that called her a strong leader and an expert in her field. Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon said that the people of Knoxville benefited from her knowledge and courage.
Meanwhile, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said that the community was fortunate she served the community for as long as she has — 17 years with the department.
"It's been an honor to serve this community, with the men and women at the health department all these years," she said. "It's just a real honor to serve with people who love the community they live in and want to come to work every day to try to make it a healthier place. It's been an honor to serve the community, it's been an honor to serve with the public health experts at the health department."