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California's Public Health Director Abruptly Leaves Her Position

NOEL KING, HOST:

Just a few days after a serious data error in California, the state's public health director has resigned. Here's Scott Shafer with member station KQED in San Francisco.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Dr. Sonia Angell had been California's director of public health for less than a year when she resigned without warning Sunday night. Her email to department staff did not say why she left. At his press conference Monday, Governor Gavin Newsom had little to add.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

GAVIN NEWSOM: At the end of the day, the buck stops with me. I'm accountable, and I recognize that as governor of the state of California.

SHAFER: But his public health director's abrupt departure came less than a week after Newsom announced a sharp decline in the rate of positive COVID-19 test results, only to learn hours later that the data was incomplete due to a glitch in the state computer system.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

NEWSOM: We would not have put out those data points had we known that. And so by definition, we were unaware. I was unaware and was made aware later that evening.

SHAFER: The problem was with California's CalREDIE system, a clearinghouse for health data like coronavirus test results. Without the governor knowing it, the data he announced was missing nearly 300,000 records, calling into question the validity of his claim. Newsom blamed antiquated technology that has been around for decades. UC Berkeley School of Public Health professor Dr. Art Reingold says the state has been struggling to upgrade the CalREDIE system.

ART REINGOLD: But the fact that it wasn't able to handle the influx associated with a pandemic and tens or hundreds of thousands of reports is no surprise to me at all.

SHAFER: In fact, Reingold says, public health systems around the nation are vastly underfunded to a degree that's shocking to some who see them for the first time, especially given California is home to Silicon Valley.

REINGOLD: You know, the fact that we're still faxing pieces of paper left, right and center - and we literally have health departments where the fax machines can't keep up with the reports coming in...

SHAFER: But, Reingold says, the real problem is that the federal government has basically told the states, good luck.

REINGOLD: And the fact that the CDC has really been neutered and disappeared.

SHAFER: The good news, according to Governor Newsom, is that the backlog of reports has now been cleared and the rate of positive test results seems to be dropping.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.