Gov. Gavin Newsom took responsibility Monday for California’s coronavirus test data problems and hinted that the abrupt departure late Sunday of his state public health officer was related to the information blunder.
“At the end of the day, the buck stops with me. I’m accountable,” Newsom said. “And I recognize that as governor of the state of California as it relates to my responsibility, it extends to my team and it extends to our efforts to keep you safe, to keep you healthy and to mitigate the spread of this disease.”
California Department of Public Health Director Sonia Angell’s surprise resignation was announced just before 10 p.m. Sunday. Little explanation was given, but it came amid a tumultuous week in which the state saw 290,000 mostly Covid-19 tests that went unprocessed.
The records backlog was resolved over the weekend, state Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly announced Monday. But the delay hampered counties in their efforts to combat the disease and forced various sectors to keep their activities on hold without accurate data to know the extent of infections.
Newsom did have good news Monday that the state had seen a 19 percent reduction in hospitalizations over a two-week period, as well as a 13 percent reduction in intensive care unit admissions.
The governor declined to say outright why Angell tendered her resignation, referring to it as a personnel issue and “one of those difficult things.” But he repeatedly hinted at her departure being related to the testing issue and did not deny that was the case when asked multiple times.
The lack of communication to Newsom and Ghaly about the testing problems may have been as large a problem to the governor as the data issues themselves. Newsom a week ago said California had cut its daily infections over the previous week by an average of 21 percent, but hours later county officials indicated he was using incomplete data.
Newsom said that he remained in the dark on the data problem days after Angell’s department was aware of the problem.
He said he didn’t learn about the data problem until last Monday evening. But counties received multiple email alerts from the Department of Public Health before that point informing them of the state’s problems with data collection, based on memos obtained by POLITICO. “We would not have put out those data points had we known that,” Newsom said of the 21 percent case reduction figure.
“We’re all accountable in our respective roles for what happens underneath us,” Newsom said. “I don’t want to air any more than that. But if it’s not obvious, then I encourage you to consider the fact that we accept the resignation.”
Despite frustration with data collection, county officials were caught off guard by Angell’s resignation, said Matt Willis, Marin County public health officer. He commended Angell for offering “calm leadership in trying circumstances.”
He sympathized with the challenges of her role, saying she had to “take the heat” for such problems as the state’s relatively low testing rates early in the pandemic, which were affected by supply chain shortages. “The local health officers can all relate to what it feels like to be the face of public health and trying to explain events that may or may not be under your control,” he said.
As for the data glitch, Willis said he received communication from CalREDIE about problems and did not know why that didn’t travel up the leadership flagpole to Ghaly and Newsom. “Clearly there may be an opportunity for better communication between public health and the governor,” he said, but he described Angell as “a very clear communicator” with the local health officers.
Willis suggested that the data problems were beyond her control, owing to an outdated system she inherited. Newsom likewise acknowledged that the California Reportable Disease Information Exchange, known as CalREDIE, was not built for a pandemic this size.
Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith, a physician, said the county has had frequent contact with the state about the glitch, which his county’s public health officer likened to “feeling blind” about the virus’ spread. But “explanations of what happened and how it was fixed are not satisfying,” he said in an email.
Smith had no insight into Angell’s departure. “Change in the middle of a disaster is very unsettling,” he said. “Uncertainty could possibly result in an improvement.”
His county said in a statement Monday that the state’s weekend batch of updated data included some positive tests from as far back as July 8, though most were from last week.
Sandra Shewry, who led the state health department under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, will serve as acting CDPH director. State epidemiologist Erica Pan will become acting health officer — a role that must be filled by a physician.
“California’s public health leadership has never been more important than it is today,” said Sandra Hernández, president and CEO of the California Health Care Foundation, where Shewry has been vice president for external engagement, leading the foundation’s communications, publishing and government relations functions. “Sandra Shewry is an excellent choice for this interim role.”
Hernández said Shewry has “deep experience working both in and out of state government to safeguard and improve the health of Californians. She has the added benefit of having served in this particular office before.”
Shewry was director of Department of Health Services until it was split in 2007 into the California Department of Public Health and the Department of Health Care Services.
Riverside County informed residents last Monday that the state was undercounting new coronavirus cases and that the problem had lingered for days. POLITICO obtained emails to the counties generated by CalREDIE dated July 31 and the morning of Aug. 3 — one hour before Newsom took the podium to erroneously announce a 21 percent decline in cases.
Ghaly on Friday detailed the data problems that led to a backlog of nearly 300,000 records, which he attributed to both a July 25 server outage and an issue with a certificate renewal that prevented results from Quest Diagnostics from flowing into the system from July 31 to Aug. 3.
The governor spoke for nearly half an hour Monday without addressing Angell’s departure, leaving it to Ghaly to praise her service and explain how the administration was moving forward. Newsom discussed the resignation only when multiple reporters pressed him for more details in the second half of the press conference.