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Local News

Public Health Officer to leave position June 1

April 15, 2020 — Public Health Officer Dr. Noemi Doohan will be leaving her position to consult part-time with her replacement, effective June first. 

Her deputy, retired physician Dr. Jim Flaherty,  told the Board of Supervisors yesterday that he was willing to serve briefly until a new full-time public health officer is hired. However, his offer to kind of take over Doohan’s job was full of disclaimers and caveats.

“Being a physician does not make me a public health expert, and public health expertise is needed to be a Public Health Officer, especially in a pandemic,” he wrote in a letter to the board. He believes that the county is doing so well, with only four confirmed cases, all recovered, and no clusters of pneumonia or respiratory illness, “due in part to Dr. Doohan’s leadership, the role of the EOC (Emergency Operations Center), and the fact that most of our citizens have taken her advice to heart.” But, he added, “I don’t want her job.” If he is to serve as “a bridge” during the transition between Doohan and her replacement, Flaherty told the board that he wants the county to engage in an aggressive recruiting campaign for a qualified person; that he wants an expert public health consultant to help him; and that his decisions would be in lockstep with the public health officials to our south, presumably Santa Rosa and the Bay Area. 

Doohan is a contractor, not a county employee, and on April 14 the board was discussing an extension to her contract. Health and Human Services Director Tammy Moss Chandler explained the terms of the Public Health Officer’s working arrangement with the county. “Certainly, there have many more hours needed...but we actually are paying far less than we would for a full-time employee, health officer...the full breadth of the contract is $225,000 over more than fifteen months, and I understand that that’s a lot of money, and certainly we’re monitoring that closely, but it does not exceed the cost of a health officers. To have the medical oversight of a health officer would cost more than this in terms of salaries and benefits. There’s no additional benefits provided under this contract.”

Doohan divulged on April 7 that she was in San Diego, but said then that she planned to return on Easter Sunday. She has accepted a job as the assistant director of the family medicine residency program in the Scripps Chula Vista family medicine residency in San Diego County. That job was supposed to start March first, but her work on pandemic mitigation efforts in Mendocino County was already well underway, and she said her new employer was flexible about her start date. She explained why her current trip had been extended. “There was torrential raining in San Diego, and at my new place of residence here, the roof leaked, the garage flooded, my neighbor had a landslide, and because we’re sheltering in place, there’s not the ability to hire someone to come and deal with these personal problems. And so my husband and I had to do the trenching and digging out from that flood. So we did to that. It did delay my return by three days.” She assured the board that she planned to leave for Mendocino County at 5am by private car to finish her tenure here.

 But by the end of day, it was much less certain that Dr. Doohan would ever physically return to Mendocino County. Initially, she told the supervisors (to whom she reports) that she believed she was dutifully following board direction by planning to come back, though she received permission from CEO Carmel Angelo, the incident commander, to leave in the first place. Supervisors did not vote on the matter, but the majority more or less agreed to leave it to her discretion.

After the meeting, Doohan said in a text message that the board had released her from that obligation, and that she did not feel she had to respond to the question, “Will you stay in San Diego?” as she has a private life. Supervisor John Haschak, who said his opinion was that she should come back, summed up the county’s situation regarding its public health officer as the community waits without work, without school, without the ordinary social rituals of spring, to find out if the pandemic will strike or pass over.

“What I’m hearing is that the idea of really getting a full time public health officer is not really going to happen during this pandemic; that no one is going to make that transition to Mendocino County. We’ve had a difficult time already finding a public health officer. I think we’re very fortunate with Dr. Doohan and the longer we can keep her, the better.”


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