Governor gives few details on top California public health director's exit

A day after announcing that California’s public health director suddenly resigned, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday dodged questions about her departure even as he stressed the importance of transparency and accountability.

“Decisions were made, and we’re moving forward,” he said of the Sunday night resignation by Dr. Sonia Angell. “No one’s trying to hide that, no one’s trying to mask that. We’re owning that.”

The remarks came during Newsom’s first news conference since county and state health officials revealed the data error, which led to a lag in the reporting of nearly 300,000 coronavirus test results. He last spoke to the public one week earlier. The backlog has been resolved and the state expects to be able to finish updating its statewide virus trends in the next two to three days, he said.

In a letter to staff, Angell did not give a reason for her resignation as director and state public health officer at the California Department of Public Health. The state released the letter Sunday night.

Newsom did not answer Monday when reporters inquired whether he asked her to resign. But he said that he and Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, made “changes” and “adjustments” to the state’s leadership team. Angell could not be reached for comment.

Two county public health officials said Angell had been a collaborative partner to local officials throughout the pandemic.

“She wrote a resignation letter, and I accepted her resignation. We’re all accountable in our respective roles to what happens underneath us,” he said. “If it’s not obvious, then I encourage you to consider the fact that we accepted her resignation.”

When the pandemic began, Angell appeared often during news conferences about California’s response to the coronavirus, but her presence at Newsom’s briefings diminished as time went on.

Sandra Shewry, vice president of external engagement for California Health Care Foundation, will fill the role of acting health director, the health and human services department said. Dr. Erica Pan, who was recently appointed state epidemiologist, will be the acting state public health officer.

Ghaly announced the backlog in data last week. The problem affected the California Reportable Disease Information Exchange, known as CalREDIE. The state eliminated the backlog over the weekend and counties will now be able to process the data, he said.

Newsom said the newly added data doesn’t appear to change the positive trends he announced last week. As of Monday, the state’s hospitalizations decreased 19% over a two-week period and ICU admissions were down 13%. The state will recalculate the test positivity rate, a key indicator of how widespread the virus is, within two to three days after counties finish processing the backlogged data. All of those data pieces are used to determine when businesses and schools can reopen and which counties stay on the state’s “county watch” list.

Statewide, more than 10,300 people have died from the coronavirus, with the great majority in Los Angeles County. There are more than 560,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in California, according to state data.

The number of infections is thought to be higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Dr. Matt Willis, the health officer in Marin County, said he was shocked by the news of Angell’s departure.

“Speaking for at least the regional health officers, we had a lot of respect for her approach and felt supported by her,” Willis said.

Though the state has corrected the data error, Riverside County will perform quality assurance checks to make sure it’s perfect before updating the county’s virus trends, said Kim Saruwatari, the county’s public health director. She said the county is getting what seems to be good data now, without any duplicate or false positive test results.

“The state acted really quickly once it was raised to the high level,” she said.

Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego, said the data collection problem was part of a bigger issue: The state’s failure to stay closed longer.

California appeared to be on a “golden path” by shutting down early and leading the way nationally in efforts to contain the virus, but has made “one mistake after another” since Newsom began allowing more sectors of the economy to reopen, he said. The surge of cases that followed was compounded by more deaths, inadequate testing to identify cases and try to control the spread, and having more data than the state could process.

“It’s not just reopening early that led to a surge but reopening early led to a lack of data flow that was optimal. This is far from optimal. This is embarrassing,” he said.

He noted that it’s surprising that California, which has the best information technology concentration in the world, was unprepared.

Newsom said the state must improve its IT system around infectious disease reporting. Since his election, he’s undertaken numerous revamps of the IT systems. The Employment Development Department, which is under fire for slowly processing unemployment payments, is expected to put out a contract for a major IT overhaul in October.


Associated Press writer Janie Har contributed to this story from San Francisco.