Oklahoma’s top public health officer resigned Friday, a day after Gov. Kevin Stitt criticized “rogue activists” at the state Department of Health for settling a federal lawsuit to allow a non-binary gender designation on state-issued birth certificates.

Dr. Lance Frye said it was an honor to lead the agency during its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In his resignation letter, he said it was time for him to move on as the state moves into an endemic phase of the COVID-19 response and away from a pandemic response. 

“I admire the dedication, resilience and tenacity of the OSDH team,” Frye said in a statement Friday afternoon. “They have worked tirelessly over the last two years to ensure Oklahomans had access to not only COVID-19 testing, vaccinations and critical information, but to other life-saving services.”  

Stitt named Keith Reed as the interim health commissioner. Reed was a deputy commissioner under Frye and has worked at the agency for 19 years. Stitt lauded him earlier this year for Oklahoma’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout, which had early successes but stalled in recent months as other states caught up. 

“In my tenure with OSDH, I have always admired the resilience of our staff and their commitment to remaining focused on serving Oklahomans,” Reed said in a statement. “I look forward to continue working side-by-side with them as we continue to move forward.” 

A settlement in a federal lawsuit to get the state to recognize a non-binary gender designation on birth certificates on Thursday drew an unusual rebuke from Stitt to the health department, whose vital records division issues birth and death certificates. The case involved an Oregon resident, Kit Vivien Loreleid, who was born in Oklahoma and sought the designation on their birth certificate. 

Stitt said he didn’t believe in a non-binary gender designation and that “people are created by God to be male or female. Period.” 

“I wholeheartedly condemn the purported OSDH court settlement that was entered into by rogue activists who acted without receiving proper approval or oversight,” Stitt said in Thursday’s statement.  

GOP leaders in the House and Senate said such a change in policy for birth certificates should be up to the Legislature. The health department said Thursday it entered into the settlement on the advice of former Attorney General Mike Hunter, who left office in May. The attorney general’s office represents most state agencies in lawsuits. 

Stitt’s office declined to comment Friday on whether Frye’s resignation was voluntary or he was asked to resign by the governor. Still, Stitt praised Frye in a news release issued Friday afternoon, saying Frye provided steady leadership during the COVID-19 response. 

“With cases and hospitalizations down 60% in recent weeks, Dr. Frye has positioned the Oklahoma State Department of Health well to continue managing COVID effectively, and I am grateful for his service to our state during an unprecedented time,” Stitt said. 

Frye, in his resignation letter, touted the progress the health department made under his tenure, including a “modernization, transformation and reorganization” of the agency. 

“With Oklahoma’s current COVID-19 trends continuing to decrease, our state is now set on a path to recovery,” Frye wrote. “At this time, OSDH is transitioning from a pandemic response to endemic surveillance, and the agency’s transformation is well on its way. As Oklahoma and OSDH move into this next phase, I believe it is time for me to move forward as well.” 

Stitt appointed Frye as interim health commissioner in May 2020, and the state Senate confirmed him in April. Frye is an obstetrician/gynecologist who previously worked at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa. He also is a lieutenant colonel in the Oklahoma Air National Guard and is the State Air Surgeon. 

Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017. He covers state agencies and public health. Call or text him at (571) 319-3289 or email pmonies@oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @pmonies. 

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