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EDITORIAL: Editorial: As public health officer, Matt Willis put Marin lives above politics

Marin Independent Journal - 6/15/2024

Jun. 15—The announced retirement of Dr. Matt Willis is indeed a milestone, both for him and Marin County.

When he steps down in September, it will mark the end of herculean service as the county's public health officer, when he guided Marin residents and businesses through the deadly threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

His leadership and organizational skills and tireless commitment were vital in getting 97.4% of Marin residents vaccinated against the virus, the virulent spread of which claimed 260 deaths.

Saving lives was his focus, one that many times took courage and counted on science.

He had the professional tools and commitment to his community to be able to learn on the job. He brought home dire warnings from federal and state public health leaders that the coronavirus was deadly and the best ways to reduce its risks was through hygiene, social distancing, wearing masks and testing.

It was a jolting change in our daily lives.

History was in the making and Willis had the job of leading Marin residents through it.

He did so with care, caution and compassion. Public pushback, especially to closing workplaces and social distancing, was predictable. The extent and economic and social impacts of which drew criticism and complaints, but Willis worked to focus residents' attention on saving lives, others and their own.

He used public information — up-to-date statistics on reported cases, hospitalizations, deaths, the ages, genders and races of those who contracted the virus and the rise in vaccinations, which reached the highest level in the state — to bolster awareness and compliance with protective strategies.

He would give weekly public reports on the virus' spread and toll, safety measures required to limit infections and risks, and challenges at Board of Supervisors meetings.

Willis even was public about his own illness with COVID-19, when he fell sick with the virus in March 2020, becoming the 39th reported case in Marin.

He was sidelined for several weeks, turning the public health helm to his deputy, Dr. Lisa Santora, who is taking his place upon his well-earned retirement.

They were a strong and effective team. Santora played a pivotal role in guiding local schools through the pandemic and in requiring Marin's first responders to be vaccinated.

Both focused on public education and awareness. Importantly, they never lost sight of the need to reach residents who likely fall into communication gaps, left unaware of vital lifesaving information.

Their reliance on science and dedication to saving lives led the way in building a model of community response.

And Willis seemed to have a thick skin. Local businesses wanted to reopen. Local workers wanted to return to their jobs. While the so-called "anti-vax" crowd was small in numbers it was active, loud and vociferous.

Willis listened, but did not veer from vaccine requirements and the time-tested medical strategy of "herd immunity."

If Willis, 58, is ready for retirement, he deserves to be. He says his retirement from the county is a decision to spend more time with his family. He's also planning to stay in the public health field, hoping to share more widely the lessons learned during the pandemic, especially the need for effective communication.

Willis backed the promotion of Santora, 50, whom he hired as his deputy in 2015.

While the pandemic may define much of Willis' career with the county, before the outbreak he was instrumental in steering public focus on teen suicides and addiction and abuse of opioids. And as COVID-19's impact has waned, he has taken a lead in growing public awareness about the threat of abuse of fentanyl and the black market in deadly doses, including disguising the powerful opioid as prescription drugs.

He put public health ahead of politics.

To his credit and to the benefit of Marin residents, Willis has managed to look downfield, focusing on saving lives and helping us make healthful decisions.

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(c)2024 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)

Visit The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.) at www.marinij.com

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