Gov. Gavin Newsom receives the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in Los Angeles on April 1, 2021.
Gov. Gavin Newsom receives the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in Los Angeles on April 1.
(Shae Hammond for CalMatters)
COVID 2021

‘I was absolutely shocked’: Dr. Gail Newel on Newsom’s refusal to fund public health departments

Santa Cruz County’s top health official said it was “disheartening” that even with a projected $76 billion surplus, Gov. Gavin Newsom nixed a $200 million request to boost local agencies that have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After a year that saw California lean heavily on underfunded local public health departments amid the COVID-19 pandemic and with the state projecting a $76 billion budget surplus, the time seemed right for local officials to ask Gov. Gavin Newsom to help remedy the situation.

When Newsom’s proposed budget was released this week, they were dismayed to find that their request for $200 million had been denied.

“I was absolutely shocked at the governor’s response to our relatively small budget ask,” Santa Cruz County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel said. “To have that number come back to zero, even in revisits of the budget, has been very disheartening to us.”

Newsom could still change his mind as the budget is finalized with the state legislature, but if he does not this will be the third consecutive year the governor has refused funding requests for public health infrastructure, Kaiser Health News reported.

The state’s 61 local public health departments have played a front-line role during the COVID-19 pandemic, often carrying out contact tracing and vaccination efforts. But lack of funding frequently hampered the response. Locally, senior members of the public health team were regularly on furlough even at the height of the pandemic due to county budget cuts, and at points during the winter surge, the Santa Cruz County agency was unable to keep up with contact tracing for all COVID-19 cases.

“Public health has been systematically defunded over the last 40 to 50 years in this country and in this state, and as a result our infrastructure has crumbled,” Newel said. “We’ve seen that during this pandemic [it] has really unveiled how dysfunctional our public health system is.”

Santa Cruz County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel
The pandemic “has really unveiled how dysfunctional our public health system is,” Santa Cruz County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel said.
(Lookout Santa Cruz)

Newel brought up the examples of the many different information systems that failed during the course of the pandemic: systems that were meant to catalog vaccination data and to schedule vaccine appointments both malfunctioned regularly. Newsom eventually agreed to pay up to $15 million to Blue Shield of California, a private third party, to manage these systems instead.

The federal government is providing funding to local health departments for COVID-19 response through the American Rescue Plan, but Newel said this money is very limited in scope to direct disease response. Officials wouldn’t be able to use it for programs to help children whose development has been disrupted during the past year, for example, or to address the many health equity and health disparity issues the pandemic exposed.

Beyond the public health needs created by COVID-19, and the need to build up public health infrastructure to prepare for the next pandemic — which Newel says is inevitable — she said would have hoped to use extra funding to hire more staff and make local public health jobs more competitive.

Newsom told Kaiser Health News that this budget is just a starting point, and pointed to other health investments he proposed, such as for Medi-Cal and public hospitals.

Lawmakers will now begin negotiations on the budget ahead of a June 15 approval deadline.