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The New York Times has joined forces with the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism to provide expanded coverage on how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting California.

Led by the IRP, more than 80 students and nearly 20 journalism instructors organized to report on the impact of the novel coronavirus in each of California’s 58 counties. They gathered data, helped correspondents and produced stories — including this story, which ran in the Times on August 10, 2020. (Photo of Dr. Gail Newel. Credit: Stephanie Penn)

By Robin Estrin

SANTA CRUZ — On a Sunday in mid-July, Dr. Gail Newel tried to take a “Covid Sabbath.” Dr. Newel, the Santa Cruz County health officer, put away her laptop, ignoring the hundreds of emails piling up. Instead, she meditated, played piano and spent time with her family — including her wife, an OB-GYN, and their adult daughter.

The peace didn’t last. Before dinner, Dr. Newel’s phone buzzed, summoning her to a conference call. She and other county health officers were told that Gov. Gavin Newsom was “dimming the switch” on the state’s long-awaited reopening. All bars and dine-in restaurants would shutter again. Counties on the state’s watch list would have further closures. Two weeks later, when Santa Cruz landed on that list, Dr. Newel would have to explain the whiplash to an increasingly frustrated public.

In the nearly five months since shelter-in-place orders began, Dr. Newel has taken the heat as Santa Cruz went from being one of the safest coastal counties in the state to the site of a recent surge. As the rate of infection has grown, she’s endured a torrent of abuse and threats. More and more, she is questioning her ability to curb the spread of Covid-19 with a state leadership that is sometimes inconsistent and a population that, she said with exasperation, is increasingly “not willing to be governed.”

She’s not alone. Public health officers, often messengers of bad news, have faced harassment and mistrust while communicating California’s alarming downturn to an increasingly polarized public. At least seven health officials in the state have resigned or retired since April. Dr. Newel has stayed the course so far, but her experience provides a window into the difficulty of managing a community’s health in a time of unprecedented stress and public unrest.

In May 2019, when Dr. Newel accepted the health officer job, she looked forward to serving the community in which she planned to spend the rest of her life. Dr. Newel, 63, had already retired once, in 2012, from a 14-year private practice as an OB-GYN. She had worked in the past in public health. But nothing could have prepared her to be hurled into the path of a pandemic.

At first, the way seemed clear. Dr. Newel declared a state of emergency on March 4. Two weeks later, she joined Bay Area health officers in rolling out the nation’s first shelter-in-place order. By the end of April, she’d closed indoor restaurants, prohibited gatherings and mandated face coverings. Santa Cruz stood as a model of preparedness; only 132 people in the county of a quarter-million had tested positive for Covid-19.

With summer tourism looming, she acted preemptively, signing an order in late April that closed beaches from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. (Surfers were allowed to head directly into the water.) At first, it worked. Law enforcement patrolled the shoreline in A.T.V.s and pickup trucks, issuing few citations, according to Bernie Escalante, the deputy chief of police. “Early on, the mind-set was very different,” he said. “There was a lot more willingness to cooperate.”

Soon, that changed. In May, Santa Cruzans flooded Dr. Newel’s inbox and voice mail. Control freak, they called her. Nazi. Power mongerer. Freedom trampler. Dr. Newel read and listened to every message. “Those are voices from the community,” she said. During a public hearing, a man moved toward her so aggressively that the county administrative officer evacuated the room. After that, the sheriff asked Dr. Newel to stop attending in-person meetings. “He didn’t feel it was possible to ensure my physical safety.”

 

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