Gail Newel (left) and Mimi Hall.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
COVID 2021

‘Standard-bearers’ Newel and Hall feted with courage award at NYC gala

Representing “the countless medical workers who have stood up for science and sound policy in the face of menacing public outrage” amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Santa Cruz County health leaders Mimi Hall and Gail Newel were recognized at a star-studded New York event Tuesday.

Santa Cruz County was one of the first counties in the nation to declare a local health emergency and stay-at-home orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic — and our health officials faced the backlash.

Mimi Hall, the county’s health services director, reported receiving a letter threatening her family and wishing her a slow death. Gail Newel, the county’s health officer, said she felt unsafe at her home, as protestors broke into her gated neighborhood and chanted “Gail to Jail” outside her house.

“I’m intimidated to be out in the community,” Newel told Lookout partner Kaiser Health News in April — just one example of how the Santa Cruz health officials spoke out about the terror they faced.

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On Tuesday night, PEN America honored Newel and Hall for their courage in speaking openly about these threats, all while attempting to protect the Santa Cruz community from COVID-19. The nonprofit devoted to preserving free expression selected the pair to receive the 2021 PEN/Benenson Courage Award as emblems of the public health officials who have come face to face with personal attacks and disinformation nationwide.

“In a sea of denialism and pushback against credible science, Mimi Hall and Gail Newel are standard-bearers for everyone who’s on the side of responsible public health messaging,” PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said. “As we recognize them, we applaud the countless medical workers who have stood up for science and sound policy in the face of menacing public outrage.”

The two received their award in person Tuesday night at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The event was hosted by award-winning actor Awkwafina; presenters included Jodie Foster and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Newel and Hall were two of seven people honored at the event.

Newel, 63, is an obstetrician-gynecologist who, in addition to delivering over 10,000 babies, has dedicated herself specifically to underserved populations of women throughout her career. She moved to Santa Cruz to retire but was called back into action in 2019 to join the public health sphere as the county’s leading health officer.

Newel works under the leadership of Hall, 53, who’s been with the department since 2018. Born in Myanmar to parents who worked as doctors in a small hospital, Hall has spent her entire adult life in public health, working the past 22 years in county government in California.

Public health officials have resigned in droves nationwide amid the stress of the pandemic, and soon Hall will join that list. She is set to resign from the county by Oct. 30, but her work in public health will not stop there: Hall will transition into a role as the director of public health innovation for Manifest Medix, a nonprofit aimed at connecting California’s health information systems.

In a press release from PEN America, Hall said that she’s never been more afraid for American democracy, as science and service are under assault. To her, the PEN awards are an opportunity to recognize the “under-the-radar work” of public health officials.

“For many people, if you want to stay in your job, you couldn’t speak out in the way we did,” Hall said. “But Gail (Newel) and I also had the conversation at one point where we both said we’re in a fortunate enough position that if push comes to shove we’re willing to lose our jobs to do the right thing.”

A man in his 90s with several underlying conditions was the county’s 216th fatality since the coronavirus pandemic...

Though Newel told the New York Times she felt “like I’m the right person in the right place at the right time to do this job,” she openly expressed frustration at a June 2020 news conference over residents’ unwillingness to follow closure orders, saying people are increasingly “not willing to be governed.”

“The two of us (Hall and herself) have gained some notoriety for our courage to speak out about our experiences under threat, but there are so many of our colleagues who deserve the same praise,” Newel said. “I know we both feel we’re accepting this on behalf of all of the boots on the ground during this pandemic.”