Editorial: What gives? Gavin Newsom isn’t playing straight about coronavirus expert’s resignation

Dr. Sonia Angell discusses the state's efforts concerning the coronavirus during a news conference in April.
Dr. Sonia Angell, director of the California Department of Public Health, discusses the state’s efforts concerning the coronavirus during a news conference in April.
(Associated Press)

It has been four days since California’s top public health official abruptly resigned amid a controversy over the state’s inaccurate coronavirus case counts, and the public still has no idea why she stepped down.

It’s not for lack of trying to find out. During a briefing streamed live on social media platforms Monday, reporters repeatedly asked the governor and his top health secretary to provide more details about the Sunday departure of Dr. Sonia Angell, who had led the California Department of Public Health for less than a year.

The governor declined to answer directly, relying on vague and empty statements such as “we are moving forward” and “the buck stops with me,” and then getting testy when pressed for a real answer. Finally, he offered that it was “appropriate“ for her to resign.


Wednesday’s briefing produced no new information. It seems as if Newsom just wants us to trust that the state has fixed its data problem, which caused COVID-19 test results to be massively underreported, without providing any details of how the failure occurred.

What’s particularly perplexing is that Newsom indicated during the briefing Wednesday that the state’s computer system was the biggest culprit in the data glitch. As a result of the breakdown, the results from 250,000 to 300,000 lab tests, which included COVID-19 tests, were not uploaded into the California Reportable Disease Information Exchange. Mistakes by state officials exacerbated the problem.

The technological failure comes as no surprise. The state’s IT infrastructure is decades old and has also been implicated in the shameful backlog of unprocessed unemployment claims and in last year’s voter-registration debacle at the Department of Motor Vehicles. However, if this is a tech issue, then why was it appropriate for the state’s top public health officer to step down in the middle of a public health crisis? Was some larger problem uncovered that Newsom isn’t sharing?

Newsom is right to be wary of discussing personnel matters publicly, but his cryptic comments about Angell’s departure were worse than providing no information at all, given the particular context of the resignation. In recent months, dozens of public health officers across the country have been driven from this terribly stressful and thankless job by threats or harassment from the public and scapegoating by elected officials under fire from their constituents.

A number of the departures have been in California, including Dr. Charity Dean, the second in command of the state public health department, who resigned in June, just after the governor started easing the state’s pandemic-related restrictions. What’s going on here?

Newsom talks a lot about transparency. Now he needs to follow through by actually delivering some.