Politico

Newsom indicates California health officer's abrupt departure related to test data problem


SACRAMENTO — 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 issued her surprise resignation Sunday, which was announced just before 10 p.m. 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 all have a role and responsibilities as it relates to what happens within our respective departments,” he said. “None of this is easy. The technology is always stubborn and challenging, and all of these things are being assessed, all of these things are being considered in relationship to what we’re doing going forward with our acting DPH director.”

Despite frustration with data collection, county officials were caught off guard by Angell’s resignation. Matt Willis, Marin County public health officer, told KQED, “I’m saddened and surprised by this, as are most of the health officers I’ve talked to.”

He 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.

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.

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