California’s public health director resigns as state resolves issue with potentially inaccurate case count

Coronavirus

FILE – In this Feb. 27, 2020, file photo, California Department of Public Health Director and State Health Officer Dr. Sonia Angell speaks to members of the press at a news conference in Sacramento, Calif.. Angell announced she was departing from her role as director and state public health officer for the California Department of Public Health in a letter to staff that was released Sunday, August 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Randall Benton, File)

CALIFORNIA (News Nation) — California’s public health director abruptly resigned Monday as the state resolved an issue with inaccurately reported coronavirus case numbers.

The high profile resignation came just days after the state admitted to a coronavirus under count of at least 300,000 test results due to computer issues. Newsom acknowledged the sudden resignation of Dr. Sonia Angell in his afternoon briefing Monday.

“Decisions were made, and we’re moving forward,” he said of Angell’s Sunday night resignation. “No one’s trying to hide that, no one’s trying to mask that. We’re owning that.”

The remarks came during Newsom’s first news conference since county and state health officials revealed the data error, which led to a lag in the reporting of nearly 300,000 coronavirus test results. He last spoke to the public one week earlier. The backlog has been resolved and the state expects to be able to finish updating its statewide virus trends in the next two to three days, he said.

Newsom did not answer Monday when reporters inquired whether he asked her to resign. But he said that he and Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, made “changes” and “adjustments” to the state’s leadership team. Angell could not be reached for comment.

Two county public health officials said Angell had been a collaborative partner to local officials throughout the pandemic.

“She wrote a resignation letter, and I accepted her resignation. We’re all accountable in our respective roles to what happens underneath us,” he said. “If it’s not obvious, then I encourage you to consider the fact that we accepted her resignation.”

When the pandemic began, Angell appeared often during news conferences about California’s response to the coronavirus, but her presence at Newsom’s briefings diminished as time went on.

Sandra Shewry, vice president of external engagement for California Health Care Foundation, will fill the role of acting health director, the health and human services department said. Dr. Erica Pan, who was recently appointed state epidemiologist, will be the acting state public health officer.

Ghaly announced the backlog in data last week. The problem affected the California Reportable Disease Information Exchange, known as CalREDIE. The state eliminated the backlog over the weekend and counties will now be able to process the data, he said.

Newsom said the newly added data doesn’t appear to change the positive trends he announced last week. As of Monday, the state’s hospitalizations decreased 19% over a two-week period and ICU admissions were down 13%. The state will recalculate the test positivity rate, a key indicator of how widespread the virus is, within two to three days after counties finish processing the backlogged data. All of those data pieces are used to determine when businesses and schools can reopen and which counties stay on the state’s “county watch” list.

Statewide, more than 10,300 people have died from the coronavirus, with the great majority in Los Angeles County. There are more than 560,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in California, according to state data.

The number of infections is thought to be higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Though the state has corrected the data error, Riverside County will perform quality assurance checks to make sure it’s perfect before updating the county’s virus trends, said Kim Saruwatari, the county’s public health director. She said the county is getting what seems to be good data now, without any duplicate or false positive test results.

“The state acted really quickly once it was raised to the high level,” she said.

Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego, said the data collection problem was part of a bigger issue: The state’s failure to stay closed longer.

“It’s not just reopening early that led to a surge but reopening early led to a lack of data flow that was optimal. This is far from optimal. This is embarrassing,” he said.

He noted that it’s surprising that California, which has the best information technology concentration in the world, was unprepared.

Newsom said the state must improve its IT system around infectious disease reporting. Since his election, he’s undertaken numerous revamps of the IT systems. The Employment Development Department, which is under fire for slowly processing unemployment payments, is expected to put out a contract for a major IT overhaul in October.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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