Update: California public health director leaves job 5 months into COVID-19 pandemic

Sophia Bollag

California Department of Public Health Director Dr. Sonia Angell announced Sunday she is leaving her job, becoming the second top-ranking health official in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration to depart during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday, Newsom refused to answer questions about Angell’s departure, saying he did not want to discuss personnel matters publicly. He said she submitted a resignation letter, but he would not say if he asked her to resign.

Angell’s resignation follows human and technology errors that caused a significant undercount of coronavirus cases in the state’s infectious disease reporting database known as CalREDIE. Newsom declined to say if Angell resigned over the problem.

“At the end of the day, the buck stops with me,” he said during a press conference. “I want to thank Dr. Angell for her leadership, her stewardship. It’s one of those difficult things when someone leaves that you consider a friend, someone I respect, someone who was a real champion of racial justice and social justice.”

Sandra Shewry, an executive at the nonprofit California Health Care Foundation, replaces Angell as acting director of the Department of Public Health. Dr. Erica Pan, whom Newsom appointed state epidemiologist in June, will become the acting state public health officer.

Asked whether the Department of Public Health failed to inform him about the glitch immediately, Newsom didn’t directly answer but pointed to the department leadership changes.

“We’ve made adjustments to our team, a new approach to how we address the issue as it relates to CalREDIE and how we address these issues going forward, it’s absolutely true,” Newsom said. “That’s why we’re here, as transparent as we can be, in terms of the announcements we made today.”

Angell had been one of the most visible California officials during the pandemic, the public health crisis that has killed more than 10,000 Californians since March.

She frequently appeared alongside Newsom during his press conferences. In addition to leading the Department of Public Health, she also served as the State Public Health officer.

Angell did not give a reason for leaving in a note to her staff Sunday, and Health and Human Services Agency spokeswoman Kate Folmar declined to provide more information.

In the message, Angell thanked her colleagues for their work fighting the coronavirus and said she was honored to be the first Latina to serve in her role.

“Since I joined this department as director and state public health officer in October 2019, we have been responding to emergencies, from E-cigarette and vaping associated lung injury, to the public safety power shutoffs and wildfires, and now to a global infectious disease pandemic,” Angell wrote. “It is with deep appreciation and respect for all of this work that I share with you my own plans to depart from my position, effective today.”

Angell previously served as deputy commissioner for prevention and primary care at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene from 2014 to 2019.

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“I am grateful to Dr. Angell for her service to the people of California during this unprecedented public health crisis,” Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in a written statement Sunday. “She has worked tirelessly for all Californians, always keeping health equity in mind. Her leadership was instrumental as Californians flattened the curve once and in setting us on a path to do so again.”

Her departure follows that of Dr. Charity Dean, who served as assistant director of the Department of Public Health. Dean announced her resignation in June and officially left her role in July. In her resignation letter, Dean said she was moving on to a “new adventure,” but did not give further details.