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.
Now, she is stepping down from her role as the director of the Knox County Health Department. She announced her resignation in early August, informing the office of Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs that her last day would be Oct. 1.
She also said that she plans to step down as the county's health officer on Dec. 31. In that role, she has the authority to issue restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"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 duties 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 will work with an executive search firm to find candidates and decide who will replace Buchanan. That person will have big shoes to fill, whoever it is.
"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."