California public health director resigns abruptly
Dr. Sonia Angell, the director and state public health officer at the California Department of Public Health, has not given a reason for her sudden resignation, which came during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state’s top public health official resigned late Sunday night, effective immediately.
The top public health official in California did not provide the reason behind her resignation.
The resignation follows a technical error with the state’s reporting system, with 295,000 backlogged records that have yet to be added to public data. This caused inaccuracies in the daily number reports for COVID-19 cases.
The mistake was announced on Aug. 5, when Dr. Henning Ansorg of the Santa Barbara County Department of Public Health said the positive-case count over the past 10 days was inaccurate and underreported.
Santa Barbara County Public Health Department reported three additional deaths of individuals who tested positive for COVID-19. All three individuals were over 70 years of age with underlying health conditions and one individual was associated with a congregate living facility. Two individuals resided in Santa Maria, and one individual resided in the South County Unincorporated Area. The daily count of active COVID-19 cases for Santa Barbara County on Monday was 187.
Cottage Health is caring for a total of 283 patients across all campuses, and out of these patients, 226 are acute-care patients and 162 acute-care beds are still available.
In a press conference on Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom took responsibility for the error, saying a glitch in large scale Information Technology isn’t necessarily “novel” or “new” to anybody.
“The key is to be transparent, and the administration has been since we learned of it,” the governor said. “I won’t get into details about personnel issues out of respect … The buck stops with me. I am accountable … We are all accountable for what happens underneath us…We built a new team; we fixed the backlog and we’re moving forward.”
When asked why Dr. Angell resigned, the governor declined to go into detail other than that it was “appropriate.”
“She wrote a resignation letter, and I accepted her resignation,” he said. “If it’s not obvious … If someone resigns, we accept that resignation and I think it’s appropriate. I try not to have personnel conversations in public because I don’t know that it serves a larger purpose.
“I want to thank Dr. Angell,” Gov. Newsom continued. “It’s one of those difficult things when someone leaves that you consider a friend and someone I respect … (She was) a champion of racial and social justice.”
Sandra Shewry, the vice president of external engagement for the California Health Care Foundation, will take Dr. Angell’s place as acting health director. In addition, recently-appointed state epidemiologist, Dr. Erica Pan, will be the acting state public health officer.
California Health and Human Services secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said that the mistake was because of California’s outdated data system.
He announced at the conference that the state has added system capacity to better handle record volume, augmented supports and oversight to ensure data is timely and high quality and initiated effort to create a new laboratory reporting system.
Gov. Newsom and his team hope to have the updated numbers sometime this week.
In a copy of the resignation letter obtained by the News-Press, Dr. Angell thanked her colleagues she worked with for less than a year, and said as the first Latina who held that role, she was proud to serve the department and the state.
“This work is tough. The hours are long and the time for recovery short,” Dr. Angell wrote in her letter of resignation. “Over the past six months, I have been on the phone with too many of you, bearing witness as you recounted unjustified attacks on your professional integrity and threats to your own person or family. This, as you work 24/7 to save lives. I leave you with a reminder that you are all front line heroes in this pandemic, too many unsung, yet all deeply appreciated.”
She added that “the timing was never certain” in public health’s efforts to plan for the pandemic.
Dr. Van Do-Reynoso, the director of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, said she was “very shocked” when she received the news Sunday night.
“I’m professionally saddened that we have another resignation,” she told the News-Press. “That has an impact on us as a field because in the short time she’s been here, she brought caring integrity to the job.”
She went on to say that she is “confident in what’s ahead because the strong leadership infrastructure is there already.”
“We have been very free and open in sharing our needs here in Santa Barbara County and Dr. Angell and her team have always been very open to listening to the local perspective and I hope that will continue,” Dr. Do-Reynoso said. “I have full confidence that that relationship and that accessibility will continue.”
Dr. Angell’s resignation joins many others, including at least 49 local and state-level public health leaders who have either retired, resigned or been fired across 23 states since April, according to a review by the AP and Kaiser Health News.
Dr. Do-Reynoso said that parts of Dr. Angell’s resignation letter gave her pause and resonated with her, specifically when Dr. Angell said “this work is tough” and mentioned “unjustified numerous attacks.”
“It just resonates with me because I know that in talking with other health directors and officers, this is not an uncommon sentiment,” she told the News-Press. “For me, this is what we’re trained for. We love the work. But, you kind of get tapped out. There’s a big worry out there.”
For more information on the status of COVID-19 in the county, visit publichealthsbc.org/status-reports/.