Dr. Karen Shelton.
Dr. Karen Shelton.

Dr. Karen Shelton – a Bristol native who led three Southwest Virginia health districts during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — was named Thursday as the next state health commissioner by Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Shelton, who is currently vice president and chief medical officer at Bristol Regional Medical Center, will start her new position as head of the state’s Department of Health on May 1, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

“Experience and leadership matter,” Youngkin said in the release. “Dr. Shelton brings a wealth of knowledge in patient care and is positioned to recognize the individualized needs of all Virginians. Dr. Shelton will be a tremendous asset to public health across the Commonwealth.”

She served as medical director of the Mount Rogers Health District for more than five years and as acting director of the Cumberland Plateau and LENOWISCO health districts, and she led those districts to have the fastest rollouts of COVID testing and vaccinations in Virginia, according to the news release.

Shelton is also credited with helping students get back to the classroom, significantly mitigating learning loss for those in Bristol, the release states.

In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, her focus was on the region’s opioid epidemic and neonatal abstinence syndrome, which occurs when babies are born addicted to drugs as a result of their mothers’ use during pregnancy, according to the release.

Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, said Thursday night, “This is a win for Governor Youngkin, Southwest Virginia, and the entire Commonwealth! I worked with Dr. Shelton extensively throughout the pandemic, particularly on matters to help reopen our schools and businesses. She is a dedicated public servant and I couldn’t be more excited about this pick.”

In August 2021, Shelton became chief medical officer at the Bristol hospital, a position she will hold through Friday, according to a spokesperson for Ballad Health.

Ballad Health Chairman and CEO Alan Levine also had high praise for Shelton.

“Dr. Shelton did an incredible job as a regional health department leader during COVID,” he said Thursday night. “She led efforts to keep schools and businesses open, and she was a reliable partner for the region’s health care system. Governor Youngkin could not have chosen a better leader for the commonwealth’s health department.”

A board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist, Shelton treated patients in Bristol for nearly 20 years.

“As a healthcare provider, I look forward to helping Virginians lead healthier and happier lives with improved access to the right care for themselves and their families,” Shelton said in the release. “As an OB/GYN, it was an honor to care for patients, their babies, and their families one-on-one. Moving into public health again, I hope to harness the trust my patients had in me and advance the mission of the Virginia Department of Health alongside dedicated healthcare professionals.”

Shelton received a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Virginia and completed her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Eastern Virginia Medical School. She holds an undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University.

In May 2022, she was honored with the Woman of Distinction Award by the United Way of Southwest Virginia.

Shelton replaces Dr. Colin Greene, who was one of three Youngkin appointees whose confirmation was rejected in a vote by Senate Democrats in February. He accepted the job in April 2022.

Greene was reprimanded by the Board of Health last year for remarks he made in an interview with The Washington Post, in which he called gun violence a “Democratic talking point” and questioned the role of structural racism in health outcomes.

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia...