Dr. Erica Pan resigned as Alameda County’s interim health officer last week and will head to Sacramento. She was tapped by Gov. Gavin Newsom to help lead the state health department’s COVID-19 response.
We applaud the appointment of Pan to the post of State Epidemiologist and Deputy Director for the Center for Infectious Diseases at the California Department of Public Health.
We are confident the physician’s expertise and principled dedication to public health will go far to help protect the citizens of our state from the threat of COVID-19 and other preventable infectious diseases.
As interim health officer for Alameda County’s health department, Pan’s swift response likely saved thousands of lives. With a steady hand in the face of tremendous pressure and uncertainty, she helped the state’s seventh most populous county avoid a public health catastrophe in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 49-year-old pediatric infectious disease specialist was part of a coordinated effort with the heads of six other Bay Area public health departments to issue the nation’s first shelter-in-place order.
Pan continued to refine orders over time, mandating face coverings in public, introducing the concept of social bubbles, and adjusting reopening timelines relying on data indicators to measure progress against the pandemic.
Pan earned the public’s trust. In plain language, she effectively conveyed the gravity of the emergency to the county’s diverse population of more than 1.6 million people.
With few exceptions the people abided health orders voluntarily with little in the way of enforcement.
The social-distancing rules, lockdowns of nonessential businesses, and face covering requirements are widely credited with “flattening the curve” giving the state time to expand its hospital capacity for additional waves of infections that could come.
Understandably, Alameda County’s slow reopening caused some to debate the wisdom of continuing the lockdown here while neighboring counties moved more quickly to get their economies going again.
Halting commerce caused record-breaking job losses, widespread financial pain and hit hardest those who can least afford it, low-wage workers and small businesses.
Pan acknowledged the sacrifices, but insisted a safe reopening was critical for both public health and economic recovery.
Around the country, this spring anti-lockdown activism fueled by online conspiracy theories took on extreme and menacing forms. In Michigan, armed demonstrators in bulletproof vests and fatigues stormed the capitol building while the legislature was in session carrying assault weapons in protest to that state’s shelter-at-home order.
Back home, a vocal minority vilified Pan. County health officers in California have faced fierce backlash for lockdown orders, including death threats and protests outside their homes.
In a Twitter tantrum in early May, carmaker Tesla’s mercurial CEO Elon Musk called Pan an “unelected and ignorant interim health officer.” He threatened to move his headquarters and manufacturing from California if not allowed to immediately resume stalled operations at his company’s Fremont car plant.
He called the health orders fascist, because the county health department wanted to verify it was safe for workers to return. The company’s track record for workplace safety is notoriously spotty.
Musk’s attempt to diminish Pan is despicable. The medical doctor is an expert in infectious disease and public health with more than two decades of experience. We are facing the most serious public health crisis in the last century. Much is being learned on the go. Pan charted a course for the county that was well-informed, decisive and science-based.
It is our collective responsibility to stop the pathogen. In the absence of a cure or vaccine, we must remain patient and nimble, and do what is reasonably possible to protect ourselves, our community and the most vulnerable among us.