Last week former Mendocino County Health Officer Dr. Gary Pace accepted Lake County’s offer to fill its equivalent public health position on an interim basis, beginning September first. Lake County’s current health officer, Dr. Erin Gustafson, is leaving at the end of this month for a position in southern California.
Pace, who resigned in protest the day after Mendocino County Public Health Director Barbara Howe was fired, worked in Mendo through the end of June.
Pace told me in a phone interview that he’s worked in various capacities in the Mendocino/Lake county region, and that the two counties share many of the same problems, among them mitigation before the next major fires instead of focusing on the usual adaptation measures after the fact. “Mitigation is prevention,” he explained. “The federal government spends the money but after a disaster. Do you put money into your car before the car wreck?”
Fires in the past few years have grown in both frequency and intensity, he noted, and responses after the fact have laid bare the fact that underserved communities, in both counties, suffer disproportionately for emergency housing and physical and mental health services. “It’s an equity issue,” Pace said. “We have to plan for something better.”
Ukiah nurse practitioner and civic activist Medie A. Jesena Parrott, who has written to this paper about her health concerns for the county absent a health officer, continues to speak out. “The county is stretched, the non-profits are stretched, and people are falling through the cracks: children, the homeless, the mentally ill,” she said. “Nobody is filling in for the health officer, which hampers our emergency response system.” She added that it’s the health officer who requests emergency funds and fulfills other legally mandated roles that affect public health, things like outreach for vaccinations and reporting county health statistics to the state. She said she also worries that upheaval in the Health and Human Services Agency, including Barbara Howe’s abrupt firing after just 20 months on the job, could act as a deterrent to attracting other medical doctors to the state-mandated job.
Pace told me that the Lake County Board of Supervisors is actively working on how best to fulfill its state-mandated public health duties and responsibilities into the future. In Mendocino County there is no such board oversight. Mendocino County Board of Supervisors Chair Carre Brown said to me that the supervisors are directly over such human resources deliberations and decisions in only half a dozen, mostly smaller county agencies ─ among them the Air Quality Management District, the CEO, and the Cultural Services Agency director ─ and that HHSA handles such issues internally with no oversight or approvals by the board.
The California Conference of Local Health Officers was established by state statute in 1947 to, according to its stated online purpose, “…consider technical and policy issues in communicable disease and control and prevention, chronic disease and injury prevention; environmental health; health equity; and maternal, child and adolescent health.” It’s an organization that meets semi-annually with the “61 legally appointed physician Health Officers in California, one from each of the 58 counties and the three cities of Berkeley, Long Beach, and Pasadena. It provides a state-local forum for the discussion of significant health issues in order to develop recommendations for appropriate health policy, including legislative and regulatory review.” In other words, county health officers provide much of the information that goes into an overall picture of the state of public health in California, information that in turn drives public policy and regulations.
I sent an email to HHSA requesting a brief interview with a member of its leadership team to provide an update on how the county’s public health officer duties are being handled, and what is being done to fill the health officer position, now vacant since June. That failing, I asked that someone from leadership email me a summary of the agency’s efforts to fill the state-mandated position. I promptly received a chirpy and cheery reply from the HHSA communication coordinator that read “Hi Ms. Davin, Thank you so much for reaching out. Mendocino HHSA is declining your request for an interview. Thank you,” A four-panel graphic following her electronic signature entitled “A Safe summer is a Fun summer!” advised me to keep water on hand at all times, watch kids at the pool, and remind myself to check the backseat for children.