Dr. Gail Newel at a 2021 media event.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Health & Wellness

In final public speech, retiring Newel talks opioid, housing crises as major issues facing Santa Cruz County

Dr. Gail Newel made her final public appearance as Santa Cruz’s County health officer Thursday evening at a virtual event to discuss the current state of public health in the county. The topics were wide-ranging, from sexually transmitted diseases to opioids and housing.

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Santa Cruz County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel briefed the community Thursday evening on the state of public health in her final community event before her retirement. She commended residents’ diligence during the COVID-19 pandemic and raised concerns about the worsening opioid crisis, upticks in some sexually transmitted diseases, and troubling housing conditions.

Newel presented data that showed four different ZIP codes — 95073, 95060, 95062 and 95006, which make up Soquel, Santa Cruz and Boulder Creek — all experienced higher per-capita opioid-related overdose deaths in 2021 than the state as a whole. This May, county opioid overdoses hit their highest rate in more than a year.

“It’s a reminder that even though we rank in the top 10 of California’s counties in health and well-being, with so many wonderful resources, we still have work to do,” Newel said. “We see our opioid overdose death rates rise year by year in this county.”

The county is expecting more than $20 million over the next two decades from a national opioid settlement, a $26 billion fund paid for by drug manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies to compensate state and local governments for the country’s opioid crisis.

opioid trends
(Via Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency)

Thursday’s virtual event included a number of public health officials including Deputy Health Officer Dr. Cal Gordon; Mónica Morales and Jennifer Herrera, director and assistant director, respectively, of the county’s Health Services Agency; Emily Chung and Pam Connelly, director and deputy director, respectively, of the county’s Public Health division; Director of Nursing Anna Sutton; Health Services Manager Ramy Husseini; and spokesperson Corinne Hyland.

Though the county’s Health Services Agency will hold town halls during which members of the public can advocate for various ways to use the money from the opioid settlement, Morales said the California Department of Health Care Services is managing the dollars and has specific requirements counties must follow.

Those include treatment for substance-use disorders targeting vulnerable populations, training for clinical providers and prevention activities for young people. “We’re working with our cities to get a sense of how we will all come together to really address opioids in our community,” Morales said.

Newel noted that rates of syphilis more than doubled locally since 2020. In that time, the county went from seeing about 21 cases per 100,000 residents to nearly 43 cases last year, with the largest increases seen in males. HIV rates rose from about 3 cases per 100,000 in 2019 to 7.3 in 2021 before falling to 5.4 cases in 2022.

(Via Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency)
(Via Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency)

She said syphilis could be on the rise for a number of reasons.

“It may be a combination of more homelessness, and during the pandemic, less access to medical care,” she said. “Meth use, using the internet to access sex, and incarceration are all risk factors for syphilis in our community.”

Despite those trends, the county handled COVID — the most infamous communicable illness of the past three years — much better than most of the rest of California, with fewer hospitalizations and deaths than the rest of the state on average. Newel added that there hasn’t been a death attributed to COVID in the county since November.

Newel pegged housing conditions as a major point of concern, too, particularly for renters. Data from the American Community Survey shows that more than 91% of California counties have healthier housing conditions than Santa Cruz. That means across the county, residents live in more crowded spaces, spend more of their monthly income on housing costs and have lower rates of homeownership than the vast majority of the state.

She pointed to some “surprising” trends reflected in this year’s county health rankings, including higher rates of adult tobacco smoking compared to the state average and higher rates of excessive drinking, as well as of alcohol-impaired driving deaths.

Newel’s last day on the job is next Friday, June 23. Morales said the top candidate to replace Newel is in the hiring process, and that the agency hoped to announce the new county health officer next week. “This individual has a long history of working in government as a health officer and also has worked in Santa Cruz County before,” she said.