California's top health official resigns after flaws exposed in COVID-19 reporting system

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California Public Health Director Sonia Angell resigned Sunday, just days after news that glitches in the electronic system the state uses to collect COVID-19 lab data was leading officials to share an overly optimistic picture of the state’s progress in fighting the pandemic. 

A note written by Angell announcing her resignation to staff cited their “all-of-government response” and how “not one of our staff has gone untouched by the changes that have occurred,” but did not explain the reason for her departure. Her departure, the latest amid a string of resignations and firings of health officials across the country in recent months, also went unexplained by Gov. Gavin Newsom who spoke to reporters on Monday.

Sonia Angell
Sonia Angell (Twitter)

“I encourage you to consider the fact that we accepted the resignation, we appreciate her work, we all have a role and responsibility about what happens in our respective departments,” Newsom said, standing alongside California Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly. “Technology is always stubborn and a challenge.”

Flaws in the California Reportable Disease Information Exchange, also known as CalREDIE, forced public health officials to count test results by hand and led some counties to post notices on their COVID-19 dashboards that the latest case counts may not be accurate. The system, which is used by labs and healthcare providers across the state to report test results to state and local health departments, also informed Newsom’s inaccurate claim last week that California’s COVID-19 infection rate had dropped by more than 20%.

The system’s failure, which has generated a backlog of as many as 300,000 records, also went unexplained by Newsom, who didn’t comment Monday on the specific technical problems with the platform.

Accurate data is cited by experts as a critical tool for officials to manage their organizations’ responses to the pandemic, to support contact tracing efforts and for the public to mount appropriate concern. But according to one Los Angeles area health director who spoke to the Los Angeles Times last week, “no one is really sure” how many cases the state’s faulty system is dropping.

Angell’s decision to step down in California, which has seen more than 10,000 people die of COVID-19 and an increasing number of cases in the past two weeks, represents but one of 49 state or local public health leaders who have resigned, retired or been fired since April, according to research from The Associated Press and the Kaiser Health News service. The researchers cite burnout and fear of public reprisal, with some officials facing threats of violence connected to politicized debates surrounding policies on mask-wearing and social-distancing closures.

Technology has often been tied to the personnel changes, too. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice forced Public Health Commissioner Cathy Slemp to resign in June after criticizing the lack of transparency and accuracy surrounding the state’s COVID-19 case data.

Rebekah Jones, a Florida Department of Health GIS manager was fired in May after claiming that she’d been pressured into altering data on the state’s COVID-19 data dashboard to build support for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plans to reopen the economy. (Jones created her own portal, which draws data from the state’s health department but interprets it differently.)

In California, officials announced Monday that Sandra Shewry, a senior executive at the California Health Care Foundation, will serve as acting director of the state’s health department. Also on Monday, Angell publicly announced the news of her own resignation in an optimistic note on Twitter.

“What an honor to have served #California & @GavinNewsom through this #COVID19  #pandemic, where #science & #equity guide decisions,” Angell wrote. “#CA flattened the curve before, and will do it again!”

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California, COVID-19 pandemic, data, Sonia Angell
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