Dr. Gail Newel is officially making her four-year stint as Santa Cruz County health officer the final chapter of her 30-plus-year career in the health care sector. Though the COVID pandemic made the role more challenging than she could have ever thought, she says she’s grateful that she could finish her career serving the community through hardship: “I was the right person, at the right place, at the right time.”
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When Dr. Gail Newel took the job of Santa Cruz County health officer in 2019, she viewed the position as a segue into retirement. She never could have imagined it would unfold the way it did.
“I thought it would be a smoother, easier transition for sure,” said Newell, 65. “But I never anticipated a pandemic.”
Now, as emergency declarations expire and society learns to coexist with COVID-19, Newel is set to mark the end of her career of more than 30 years in the health care sector when she retires June 23.
“I was determined not to leave my position during the pandemic. I would have felt that I was abandoning my community,” she said. “Not that COVID is over, but we’re learning to live with it, and I’m hoping this is a good time to transition to the next health officer and leave the community in good hands.”
Soon after she arrived in Santa Cruz from San Benito County, where she was public health officer, Newel found she had her work cut out for her as the county faced one of the largest public health crises ever in the form of the pandemic. But she said she sees it as a great privilege to have had the opportunity to lead during the tumultuous time.
“I feel like I was the right person at the right place at the right time. I’ve had a lot of life and career experience that put me in a good position to lead through a situation like this,” said Newel, an obstetrician-gynecologist by training. “I’m really grateful that I got to use my experience, my education and, dare I say, wisdom to help serve my community in this way.”
Handling COVID misinformation and public anger over public health measures during the pandemic proved to be a challenge, though, as Newel said she and other health officers had to balance messaging with freedom of speech and protest — a value Newel said she loves about Santa Cruz County.
“It got scary when there were threats of violence,” she said.
Months into the pandemic in 2020, former U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Steven Carrillo shot and killed Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Office deputy Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller in an ambush tied to the Boogaloo Bois, a secretive and decentralized anti-government movement. The same group also threatened the lives of Newel and former County Health Services Director Mimi Hall, who resigned in 2021.
“It was a mix of trying to value and respect our community members’ voices, and being extremely cautious for our lives and our families’ lives and safety.”
Beyond the pandemic, Newel played a role in declaring racism a public health crisis in Santa Cruz County in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd.
The county board of supervisors adopted a resolution to include educational efforts in all county departments to address racism, along with a provision for the Health Services Agency and Human Services Department to join the Government Alliance on Race and Equity.
Newel gives credit for the initiatives to a group of Black community leaders, including United Way’s Keisha Browder, former local NAACP head Brenda Griffin and Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center executive director Cat Willis, among others.
“It was all part of that summer 2020 awakening of America to the inherent, systemic racism in our country,” Newel said.
Prior to filling the county health officer role, Newel spent the majority of her career in obstetrics and gynecology. She delivered more than 10,000 babies and worked in advocacy and legislative activity for women’s reproductive health.
She doesn’t regret those experiences, but said she wishes she had discovered a public health career sooner. “It allowed me to have a whole-population view — more of a 30,000-foot view over the health of our communities,” she said. “I find that very rewarding.”
Newel said her successor has been chosen and will be announced in the coming weeks, though she declined to name the person.
Before she leaves, she’ll hold her final public event on June 15 at 6 p.m., a virtual gathering during which she will provide an update on the state of the county’s public health and conduct a Q&A session.
Newel said the biggest issues she is still concerned about are the impact of homelessness on the community’s health, mental illness, and the opioid crisis. She previously opened up to Lookout about the death of her son from a fentanyl overdose.
Newel said she’ll miss her team and all of the “committed public health heroes” who work with the most vulnerable members of the community, from the unhoused to the incarcerated. She won’t, however, miss being a government employee.
“I’m not going to miss time studies, complicated strategic planning, detail-oriented budgets and personnel issues,” she said.
Now, as her final day on the job draws closer, Newel says she’s looking forward to exercising more, traveling and spending more time with her wife, Kelli. She says she also wants to try writing short stories inspired by her work as a physician, and maybe even a memoir.
“But mostly, I’m writing for myself,” she said. “I guess you could call it therapeutic writing.”
Perhaps most important, she plans to do something she hasn’t had much time for over the past 30-plus years — relaxing. “I’m trying to take a lot of naps!”