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California’s top public health official resigns after massive coronavirus data glitch

California’s top public health officer has resigned following data-collection failures that led to an undercount of coronavirus cases as the state was reporting a downward trend in COVID-19 infections, Governor Gavin Newsom said on Monday.

Dr. Sonia Angell offered in a letter to step down as the director of the Department of Public Health over the weekend, and ‘I accepted her resignation,’ Newsom told a news conference in Sacramento, the state capital.

Calling it a ‘personnel’ issue, Newsom declined to say directly whether the departure of Angell less than a year into her tenure was related to computer problems that caused nearly 300,000 COVID-19 test results to go temporarily unprocessed.

When pressed by reporters, the governor said, ‘We all have a role and responsibility as it relates to what happens within our respective departments,’ adding, ‘technology is always stubborn and challenging.’

‘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.’ 

The Los Angeles Times reported Angell notified department staff of her resignation in an internal email on Sunday.

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. 

The dual roles she had filled, as director of the Public Health Department and as the state’s chief public health officer, will now be shared by two immediate successors.

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. 

Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, announced the backlog in data last week. The problem affected the California Reportable Disease Information Exchange, known as CalREDIE. 

The backlog of 295,000 test results was cleared over the weekend, and the data is now available to be processed by health authorities at the local level before being added to the statewide COVID-19 case file, the governor said.

Despite confusion created by the lapse, Newsom said restoring the data in question would not alter the favorable trend seen in California’s coronavirus trajectory in recent weeks.  

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 568,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in California, according to state data.  

The overall 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.

Dr. Matt Willis, the health officer in Marin County, said he was shocked by the news of Angell´s departure.

‘Speaking for at least the regional health officers, we had a lot of respect for her approach and felt supported by her,’ Willis said.

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.

California appeared to be on a ‘golden path’ by shutting down early and leading the way nationally in efforts to contain the virus, but has made ‘one mistake after another’ since Newsom began allowing more sectors of the economy to reopen, he said. The surge of cases that followed was compounded by more deaths, inadequate testing to identify cases and try to control the spread, and having more data than the state could process.

‘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.

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