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Marin public health officer to retire

Marin Independent Journal - 6/5/2024

Jun. 6—Marin County's public health officer, who guided the county through the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic and helped establish one of the highest vaccination levels in the state, will retire in September.

Dr. Matt Willis, 58, said he made the decision in January.

"It was partly a family decision," said Willis, who became the county's public health officer in 2013. "I lost a lot of time with them over the past few years. I have some catching up to do."

Willis' deputy, Dr. Lisa Santora, has been appointed to take his place. On Tuesday, county supervisors approved Santora's appointment to replace Willis, who hired Santora to serve as deputy public health officer in September 2015.

"I will share that Dr. Santora has been with Marin County as the deputy health officer for over nine years and has exhibited nothing other than a stellar, stellar performance," Dr. Lisa Warhuus, director of Marin County Health and Human Services, told supervisors.

Santora, 50, has a bachelor's degree in biology from Fairfield University in Connecticut, a master's in public health from the State University of New York in Buffalo and a doctorate of medicine from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, New Jersey. She grew up in Toms River on the Jersey shore. As public health officer, she will be paid an annual salary of $306,862, not including benefits.

In March 2020, when Willis became the 39th person in Marin to fall ill with COVID-19, Santora oversaw the county's public health division. Willis developed pneumonia and couldn't work for several weeks.

"We were still standing up significant infrastructure when he went out sick," Santora said. "We were building up our testing capacity, addressing outbreaks in multiple settings and building up the staffing to meet the demands of the response. Seeing how sick he became was definitely humbling."

Santora was also filling in for Willis in February, 2022 when some Marin County first responders resisted an order from the county's public health office to be immunized or risk losing their jobs. Willis was taking his first leave of absence, other than his illness, since the pandemic began.

"That was definitely one of the more challenging times in the pandemic," Santora said. "It became very politicized."

"We were facing an ongoing outbreak in the jail and outbreaks among our first responders," she said. "When your workforce is sick, it's really challenging to provide critical health services."

For months after that, a group of Marin residents decried the county's promotion of vaccines during Board of Supervisors meetings. One regular speaker challenged Willis to debate the safety of vaccines.

Willis said he rejected the challenge because to accept it would have created "an assumption of equipoise" between the data that showed the vaccines were safe for the overwhelming majority of people and the assertion that they were a serious risk to people's health.

Even now, however, a whiff of controversy remains over COVID-19 vaccines. Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s third-party candidacy for president has gained some transaction, and a Republican subcommittee in Congress has been grilling Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert until leaving the government in 2022, on actions taken during the pandemic.

"Unfortunately it is not surprising," Willis said regarding the criticism of Fauci by Republican members of Congress. "He is hearing more of what he has been hearing at intervals throughout the last few years. and some of what we experienced. There were appeals to have Lisa and myself locked up, you know."

Willis said it is important to recognize that the opposition to vaccines represents a small but often loud minority.

"I was always concerned not to fuel them by over-engaging directly," he said.

Willis, however, said it is important for public health officials to listen closely to the concerns of individuals who are hesitant to take vaccines because many simply need more information to allay their fears.

"One of the strategies that we adopted that I'm proudest of sounds simplistic," he said, "but was just to do more listening."

While he is retiring from government service, Willis said he plans to remain engaged in public health practice.

"I feel like there's an opportunity to share more broadly some of what we learned in Marin through the course of the pandemic, and even before the pandemic, and apply those lessons to other settings," the public health officer said.

Willis said he is particularly interested in the value of data collected at the local level and its use by policymakers and the community to make real-time decisions.

"Another thing that we've learned over the course of the pandemic," Willis said, "is that there's a real need for effective communication in public health. When we're not communicating effectively, it can lead to confusion and misinformation."

Willis said he is still working on how he plans to share this information. "I'm in a process right now of considering options," he said.

Willis told supervisors on Tuesday one thing they won't have to worry about with Santora in charge is trustworthiness.

"As we see what's happening with Dr. Fauci in D.C. now, when it comes to public health practice, trust is perhaps the most important quality," Willis said. "And Lisa embodies that both through her character and her competence."

Santora, however, is looking ahead, not backward, to the county's future public health challenges.

"One of the things that deeply concerns me is our community's overall readiness for disasters and emergencies," she said. "For example, going into heat waves, we have a higher vulnerability than other communities because we have a significantly aging community."

"The challenge that stresses me out," she said, "is disaster preparedness."


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