California public health director abruptly resigns as state manages data snafu

Gavin Newsom

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference. | Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo

OAKLAND — California Public Health Director Sonia Angell resigned Sunday evening without explanation, an abrupt departure that came amid a major data glitch affecting hundreds of thousands of Covid-19 test records, which has hampered counties’ response to the virus.

Angell, who took over as health officer and director of the California Department of Public Health in October, did not give a reason for her departure. Officials from the state Health and Human Services Agency, which oversees the public health department, declined to elaborate.


Her resignation follows a tumultuous week for state health officials. POLITICO reported Friday that the two top state leaders managing the pandemic — Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly and Gov. Gavin Newsom — may have been left in the dark about the test problems despite Angell’s department knowing about them.

Ghaly on Friday detailed problems with the California Reportable Disease Information Exchange, known as CalREDIE, that have led to a backlog of 250,000 to 300,000 records. He explained that he did not learn of the issue until Monday afternoon — after Newsom announced the state’s seven-day average daily case count had dropped 21 percent, a figure that was likely overstated given the backlog.

The HHS secretary on Friday said he was looking into the apparent miscommunication both within the state HHS Agency as well as the Department of Public Health, under which the CalREDIE system operates.

In a Sunday note to her staff announcing her resignation, Angell commended her colleagues for their “expertise, commitment, passion and kindness” and said plans are in place for a smooth transition. She noted she was proud to have been the first Latina to serve as the state’s health director.

Angell regularly appeared alongside Newsom to explain public health guidance, particularly early in the pandemic.

“Since January, when we got word of repatriation flights arriving from Wuhan, China, our Department has been front and center in what has become an all-of-government response of unprecedented proportions to COVID-19,” Angell wrote. “Not one of our staff has gone untouched by the changes that have occurred. Not in our professional lives or our personal lives.”

Sandra Shewry, who led the Department of Health Services under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, on Monday will be appointed acting public health director, state officials said Sunday evening. She served from 2004 to 2008 — the state in 2007 split the Health Services entity into the Department of Health Care Services and Department of Public Health.

Erica Pan, the state’s epidemiologist, will take of the role of acting state public health officer.

“I want to thank Dr. Angell for her service to the state and her work to help steer our public health system during this global pandemic, while never losing sight of the importance of health equity,” Newsom said in a statement.

Ghaly, in a statement, said he was grateful to Angell “for her service to the people of California during this unprecedented public health crisis.”

“She has worked tirelessly for all Californians, always keeping health equity in mind,” Ghlay said. “Her leadership was instrumental as Californians flattened the curve once and in setting us on a path to do so again.”

Before serving as director of California’s health department, Angell was the former deputy commissioner for prevention and primary care at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.


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