KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – The search for a new top health official in Knox County is set to begin soon. Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan submitted her resignation Thursday to Mayor Glenn Jacobs.

In a statement, Buchanan wrote, in part:

“It has been my honor to serve with the Health Department team in service of the Knox County community these past 17 years. The excellence, expertise, and dedication they demonstrate every day is beyond comparison. I am incredibly proud of the work we have done together to improve health in Knox County. However, I believe it is time for me to move on to the next chapter of my life.”

Dr. Martha Buchanan

On Friday, Jacobs outlined how the search will occur. It will start with hiring a firm, which will launch a nationwide search for qualified candidates. Jacobs also plans to split Buchanan’s responsibilities into separate positions.

Dr. O’Brien: Buchanan was ‘selfless’ leader

Dr. Patrick O’Brien called the news sad, but not unexpected. He knows firsthand the pressures public health officials face, especially during a pandemic.

O’Brien served with Buchanan on the Knox County Board of Health before it was dissolved. He declined to serve on the newly-formed advisory board.

“I think she has reached a point where she could only do so much, given the current situation in our community,” he said.

O’Brien, who has known Buchanan for at least 20 years, described her as a good doctor and a good person.

He remembers when public opposition surrounding mask mandates, curfews, and other COVID-19 health restrictions turned to threats, which, he said, sometimes turned personal.

“She held on longer than I could see most people that I know holding on,” he said. “She really looked at our community and did what she felt was, I think, best for our community. She looks out more for others, sometimes, than herself. She is selfless.”

Jacobs splits Health Department director, health officer jobs

Buchanan announced she will vacate her position as senior director of the Health Department on Oct. 1. She’ll stay on as county health officer until the end of the year. Jacobs noted the positions were previously held by two employees in previous administrations.

While Jacobs is optimistic about filling the roles with qualified candidates, O’Brien fears the firm may run into trouble.

“I am very concerned, knowing the history of what has happened with her and our board of health, that it is going to be very difficult to hire somebody into this community who can carry that forward, knowing that they would have support from officials across the board, which we did not have, O’Brien said.

Jacobs acknowledged Buchanan’s contributions again Friday.

“I certainly understand. I’d like to thank Dr. Buchanan for all the work that she’s done. She’s been under a lot of pressure the past 16 months. She’s done an admirable job. It’s one of those things where it was surprising; but, certainly after all that’s she’s been through this past year, it kind of is what it is,” he said.

He also noted KCHD services will not be interrupted by the search for replacements. He said they’ll be able to fill positions internally until they secure a permanent senior director.

Once the list is narrowed, Jacobs plans to consult with Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, and local hospital systems, to select the best candidates.