Editorial: Another California heath official resigns amid COVID-19. Not a good sign for Gov. Newsom

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference at the California justice department on September 18, 2019, in Sacramento, California. - Justin Sullivan/Getty Images North America/TNS

One day, someone will calculate how many lives California Gov. Gavin Newsom could have saved by making wiser choices during the coronavirus pandemic. That terrible figure will likely stand as his political legacy.

Until that day comes, we must grapple with another horrifying number: 10,365. This is how many Californians have died from COVID-19 so far. More will die in the days and weeks ahead. Strong and decisive leadership could save countless lives, but — like testing kits and contact tracing capability — it appears to be in short supply.

Bizarrely, as the death toll climbs, Newsom keeps trying to find good news to announce. Last Monday, for instance, he chirpily informed Californians that infections and hospitalizations were decreasing. The next day, California Public Health Director Dr. Mark Ghaly dropped a bomb: a data glitch had resulted in an undercount of infections and hospitalizations, calling into question Newsom’s burst of attempted optimism.

Then, late Sunday night, Dr. Sonia Angell — the state’s deputy director for public health who frequently appeared with Newsom during his regular briefings — abruptly resigned. She gave no reason, but her decision to step down during a deadly pandemic, after less than a year on the job, seems like yet another bad verdict on the Newsom administration’s competence.

On June 4, Dr. Charity Dean — a top state health expert who Newsom appointed as co-chair of the state’s COVID-19 testing task force in April — also submitted her resignation. Did these distinguished health professionals simply decide to bail out on the people of California when their service is most needed? Or do their untimely departures indicate the Newsom administration’s status as a sinking ship?

Dr. Angell’s resignation is especially poignant since she’s the first Latina to serve as California’s director and state public health officer at the Department of Public Health. The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately sickened and killed Latinos and Latinas, who make up the bulk of the state’s essential workforce. Angell’s resignation letter did not specify any reason for leaving, but it comes in the aftermath of last week’s data reporting problems.

Dr. Dean announced her departure shortly after Newsom rushed to reopen the state, but right before deaths in California began to spike.

“It’s just math and microbiology,” reads her biography on Twitter. “We know what the virus will do. What we don’t know is what humans will do.”

California’s initial success in reducing infections became a disaster of historic proportions after Newsom abandoned the scientific approach in order to hastily reopen the state.

On Monday, Newsom once again tried to put a happy face on the latest developments. He said that, despite the data glitch, infections and hospitalizations have continued to trend downward. He refused to directly say whether Angell had been fired, but he indicated that his acceptance of her resignation was a clue.

“To the extent that someone does resign, we accept that resignation if we feel it appropriate,” Newsom said. “I accepted that resignation.”

If the data problems are being fixed and the infection numbers are trending in a good direction, however, it’s still not clear why Angell had to leave. Even President Donald Trump, whose complete mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in more than 160,000 deaths, has somehow managed to retain his top health officers.

Newsom’s fumbling pandemic response, coupled with these troubling resignations, portend more trouble and death ahead for California.

Newsom must stop fishing for pleasant news in this apocalypse and face harsh realities. The COVID-19 death toll is not a poll. Newsom can’t present fluctuations in the daily death and hospitalization rates as a vindication of incoherent strategy. The numbers are cumulative. Those 10,365 Californians who have died of COVID-19 are gone forever.

The resignations of California’s top public health officials are troubling. Are the right people stepping down? Perhaps a bigger shakeup of Newsom’s administration is necessary to get California’s pandemic response under control as the death toll climbs toward 11,000 and beyond.


©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)