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California Coronavirus Testing Problem Prompts Resignation Of Public Health Official

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In California, where more than 10,000 people have died from COVID-19, the state's public health director suddenly resigned Sunday night. The departure of Dr. Sonia Angell comes after a state computer health database failed. That resulted in thousands of COVID-19 records being uncounted for several days. Joining me now is Scott Shafer of member station KQED in San Francisco.

Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So what exactly happened? What was this problem that may have led to the public health director's resignation?

SHAFER: Yeah. Well, to be clear, she didn't say why she resigned, but she'd been there less than a year. And there were some serious technical problems that resulted in delays in getting test results to the state and county health departments. The main problem was that testing results from the largest private lab in the state, Quest Laboratories, simply weren't getting sent to the state system for aggregating health data. It's called CalREDIE, the CalREDIE system. But it wasn't ready for about five days.

So state officials say there was a backlog of almost 300,000 records, most of them probably COVID-19 tests but not all of them. And that skewed the picture that state and local health officials were getting about the spread of the virus, and it also put a real crimp in the ability of local health departments to do contact tracing for people who tested positive. The state says now the backlog has been cleared.

KELLY: What do we know about the leader of the state? What do we know about the governor, Gavin Newsom? Did he know about this? Did he do anything about it?

SHAFER: Well, the state director of the Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Mark Ghaly, said last week that they'd only learned about the problem a few hours after Gov. Newsom announced what he thought was good news. He announced a 21% drop in positive coronavirus test results. So the governor was out there with this upbeat information which turned out to be incomplete at best, although the governor said today he thinks that downward trend in positivity is still accurate. But while the governor apparently wasn't told about this computer glitch when he went before a microphone last week, apparently several local officials did know, which raises the question, why didn't the governor know?

KELLY: Yeah. And as you nod to, it must create all kinds of problems for the local officials, for counties, for cities. What has been the reaction from local officials who have to deal with the state public health folks?

SHAFER: Yeah. Well, as you can imagine, this is a very, very difficult and stressful time for them. The pandemic has simply swamped their offices with a problem they haven't seen before, you know? It's testing their resources, their abilities. And the majority of counties are on the state's watch list, meaning that the spread of the virus isn't under control.

And because this has become so politicized, with some calling the entire pandemic a hoax, resisting orders to wear masks and so on, it's led to anger and even death threats directed at some public health officials. And a number of public health officials in California and across the country have resigned over the past few months because of it. The top health official in Marin County - that's just north of San Francisco - said he was surprised and saddened by the health director's resignation and that the problems California is facing with containing the virus aren't her fault.

KELLY: So the big question - what kind of consequences, what kind of fallout might there be here in terms of California's overall response to the pandemic?

SHAFER: Well, the state now has an interim director of its Department of Public Health and an interim public health officer. And, of course, the middle of a pandemic is not a good time to change horses, so to speak. So this is really a public health crisis for all of us and a political crisis for Gov. Newsom. And it's a real problem for local health officials, who are counting on the state to give them timely, accurate data that they need in order to do the contact tracing and get the virus under control.

KELLY: Yeah. Thank you very much, Scott.

SHAFER: You're welcome.

KELLY: Scott Shafer with member station KQED in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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