Half a dozen public health leaders in counties across California are leaving their posts amid the coronavirus pandemic, and experts suspect burnout is partly to blame.
“These are tremendously high-pressure jobs, particularly now,” said Bruce Pomer, a health care consultant and former executive director of the state Health Officers Association. “They’re really under fire … this is where science and professionalism get tested in a political world.”
CapRadio has found six health officers and directors — from Butte to San Bernardino counties — who have announced their retirement or resignation in the past five weeks. Most recently, on Thursday, Nevada County announced its public health officer would retire by mid-summer.
Public health officers and directors serve different functions, but both leadership positions are considered critical for departments to function. Officers are medical professionals who provide public health guidance, especially during outbreaks and disasters. Directors handle the administrative and planning side of public health. Both positions are appointed by elected officials.
While a number of counties say the departures were planned in advance, experts say the pandemic — and the political turmoil caused by shutting down the economy — may have accelerated decisions to leave office. They add that filling these specialized positions can be challenging, and could leave some counties scrambling if a second wave of coronavirus comes to fruition in the fall.
“This leads to what I'm afraid is going to be a brain drain for public health,” said Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the state Health Officers Association. “I'm afraid with the way that health officers are currently being portrayed, we're not inspiring the next generation to want to take on this role.”
These six public health officers and directors have announced their resignation or retirement since mid-April:
- Nevada County: Public health officer Dr. Ken Cutler, announced retirement this week, effective in July. The county says he’s been planning retirement for six months. (Cutler did not respond to requests for comment)
- San Benito County: Interim public health officer Dr. Marty Fenstersheib announced his resignation in late April, reportedly due to a split among political leadership over his shelter-in-place and mask orders. He now leads Santa Clara County’s coronavirus task force. (Fenstersheib did not respond to a request for comment)
- Yolo County: Public health officer Dr. Ron Chapman announced his retirement on May 20, effective at the end of June. A county press release says Chapman had been planning to retire. (Yolo County declined an interview request)
- Butte County: Public health officer Dr. Andy Miller announced his resignation in May, effective July 10. Miller and county officials say the resignation was not over policy disagreements. (Butte County declined an interview request)
- Orange County: Public health director David Souleles announced his retirement internally in mid-April, effective May 1. (Orange County declined an interview request)
- San Bernardino County: Public health director Trudy Raymundo announced her retirement in early May, effective by end of the month. She held the position for about a decade. (Raymundo did not respond to a request for comment)
DeBurgh says some of these counties have faced repeated public health crises even before the coronavirus, which can contribute to burnout. Butte County, for example, endured the Oroville Dam evacuation, the catastrophic Camp Fire and a measles outbreak in the past couple years alone.
And now, public health leaders are battling a pandemic.
“Many health officers are working 90, 100 hours a week and doing all they can to fight this,” DeBurgh said.
On top of the long hours, experts say public health officials have had to endure scrutiny from politicians and the public during hearings.
DeBurgh pointed to recent Board of Supervisors meetings in Riverside County as an example of a public hearings getting contentious and at times personal. Earlier this month, supervisors directed the county’s health officer to rescind and revise some of his coronavirus safety orders.
According to Pomer, this can wear on public health leaders who are not used to navigating the bruising arena of politics.
“You’re the professional scientific face to the public,” he said. “And in this kind of a political environment, when there’s an anti-vax movement and [fewer] people believing in science — it’s a difficult time to be in that position.”
Observers say filling these vacant roles can be challenging under normal circumstances. But during a pandemic, the stakes are much higher. The effort to safely re-open the economy is fast-moving and fluid, requiring regular guideline updates and recalibrations.
And with experts warning of a resurgence in cases in the fall, counties face a ticking clock.
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