One year later: San Francisco health director discusses COVID-19

"I think at that time while we were taking aggressive action and very concerned, it was still unfathomable to so many of us that we would be sitting here a year later with over half a million people in this country alone having died from COVID-19."

Video Transcript

- I want to share with you a clip, so I'm going to share my screen and bring in for you a look at the first major press conference addressing COVID-19 last year in San Francisco. This is on the 6th of March, 2020.

- After we learned yesterday of two coronavirus cases among San Francisco residents, we had proof that the virus is spreading in our community. We are taking swift action today. We are making strong recommendations for social distancing that are intended to reduce the spread of the virus and protect individual and community health.

- I know when I watched that last week in preparation for this interview, I got chills when I heard you say, two cases of coronavirus in San Francisco. What are your thoughts seeing that video?

- Well I think, first of all, it's been such a challenging year. And I think at that time, while we were taking aggressive action and very concerned, it was still unfathomable to so many of us that we would be sitting here a year later, nearly a year later, with over half a million people in this country alone having died from COVID-19, unfortunately including over 420 San Franciscans who have perished from COVID-19.

So acknowledging that and also acknowledging that I think because of the early actions that San Franciscans took under the leadership of Mayor Breed that, fortunately, our death rate has been lower than many other comparable jurisdictions. The other piece that really stands out is that how our understanding of the virus has dramatically evolved over these 12 months, understanding how to slow the spread of the virus, how to slow the spread through the masking, through the social distancing.

We got virtually no federal support to do testing. And I think also, looking back at this, the PPE supplies, the personal protective equipment for our frontline workers, we were literally running out because there were no supply chains. And different counties were literally competing with each other to get face shields, face masks for people who are literally working in our hospitals. And that's what just pains me, and I think that we need to acknowledge that that is something that was a failure on the federal side.

- I'm always curious when each person realized that COVID-19 was an emergency. Some people say it was when the NBA shut down or when I went to the store and nothing was there. Everyone has their own story. For you, what was that moment?

- Well, it was really the moment of looking at how quickly this virus took off in Wuhan, China and in certain parts of Italy very early on and the fact that it's what we call an exponential spread, so that once it takes off, it's incredibly hard to stop. And if you had told me a year ago that we would have three incredibly effective and safe vaccines now, I would have thought it was science fiction. So I think it's incredible how quickly we've advanced in that way.

And the vaccines may need to be adjusted and evolved as variants come in, but we have the technology to potentially do that. So I'm much more optimistic than I was just a few months ago. And that day that I woke up and read the news about that first vaccine study was just one-- I'm getting goosebumps now because it's such a game-changer.

- You don't want to say when or we will or will not be wearing masks or when we will be able to go on vacation. We're not quite there yet to have those discussions.

- Right. I don't think we're quite there yet, but I do think that when we get to a place where there are 70%, 80% of San Franciscans have been vaccinated, we look at the numbers of COVID-19 cases, we look at the number of people in the hospital, I am hopeful that we will be in a much better place a year from now.

- How are you? I don't think people probably ask that too much. But have you slept? What is keeping you up at night? How are you doing?

- Well, I think that one of the key things is we all need to make sure that we do self care and support our loved ones during this time from a social distanced way if they're not part of your household. But I also want to emphasize the importance of self care because this is a marathon. And we need to do the exercises, the healthy eating, the connecting that is safe to do during this year.

So I've really worked on that. So I'm doing well. I have an amazing public health team. And I think that across the city, the other city departments and the partnerships that have been developed help us all to be individually resilient and support our teams and our communities as much as possible. But I really appreciate the question. Thank you.