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California’s first surgeon general, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, resigns

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris at her home in San Francisco
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, shown at her home in San Francisco, became the state’s first surgeon general in 2019.
(Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

California’s top physician is stepping down.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, who became the state’s first surgeon general in 2019, announced her resignation Tuesday, her office confirmed. Dr. Devika Bhushan, chief health officer, will serve as acting surgeon general.

Gov. Gavin Newsom thanked Burke Harris for “the impactful initiatives and frameworks she has put in place as California’s first-ever surgeon general.”

“Dr. Burke Harris’ expertise and leadership in championing equity, mental health and early childhood development have been instrumental in advancing the health and well-being of Californians,” Newsom said in a statement.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris has become one of the nation’s most influential public health figures while guiding California’s efforts during the pandemic.

When the governor appointed Burke Harris to the role, he charged her with “tackling the state’s health problems,” according to a May 2021 profile in the Times. She was particularly focused on screening and treating children for adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress, and played a key role in the state’s navigation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a statement provided to The Times on Wednesday, Burke Harris said serving as the surgeon general during the “greatest public crisis in a century has been the experience of a lifetime.”

“I am incredibly proud to have been part of a team that, together, worked tirelessly to protect the health and well-being of all Californians,” she said. “Our efforts ensured that California had the lowest cumulative mortality rate among patients with COVID-19 of any large state.”

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The office of the surgeon general will continue to support efforts to advance vaccine equity and invest in children and youth well-being, she said.

Burke Harris told the Times in 2021 that the health inequities exacerbated by the pandemic weighed heavily on her.

“The hardest part of the job is sitting in proximity to so much harm and suffering, and sitting there long enough to be a difference,” she said at the time.

She alluded again to those pressures Wednesday.

“I have always said, self-care isn’t selfish,” Burke Harris said. “That isn’t just something I say. They are words that I live by. As I transition out of this role and focus on prioritizing care for myself and my family, I will never stop supporting efforts to improve the health and well-being of our communities.”

California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly lauded Burke Harris for disrupting “persistent stubborn health inequities and disparities” during the pandemic, including her work on COVID-19 vaccine distribution and early childhood health.

“The important work of the office of the California surgeon general is only beginning, and I am grateful to Nadine for her vision and contributions and for setting us on this path,” Ghaly told The Times.

Only a handful of states have a surgeon general. Burke Harris was not only California’s first surgeon general, but also the first Black person and the first woman to hold the role.

Born in Canada and raised in Palo Alto, Burke Harris received her undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley and attended medical school at UC Davis. She received her master’s of public health at Harvard and did her medical residency at Stanford.

In 2007, she became the first medical director for the California Pacific Medical Center Bayview Child Health Center in San Francisco, and in 2012, she founded the Center for Youth Wellness, a clinic focused on identifying and treating toxic stress in children.

The governor’s office did not say when a new formal appointment would be made.

Burke Harris’s last day will be Feb. 11.

Times staff writer Marissa Evans contributed to this report.


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