Orange County’s public health director, Dr. Clayton Chau, is now permanently taking on his other job at the county, after the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously appointed him as health officer – a position he’s held on an interim basis since June.
The selection comes in the midst of the biggest public health crisis in a century – the coronavirus pandemic – during which county health officers are in charge of issuing local health orders and advising state officials on reopenings and lockdowns.
There was no immediate comment on the appointment from Chau or county supervisors, who made the choice in closed session after the public portion of their regular meeting Tuesday.
Since his appointment as acting health officer in June, Chau has taken a different approach than his predecessor.
The prior county health officer, Dr. Nichole Quick, took a harder line on mask mandates and ran into strong opposition from anti-mask activists as well as some county supervisors. She abruptly left her job in June under pressure and questions from supervisors, who then appointed Chau to replace her for the interim.
She was one of several health officers in California and nationwide to resign during the pandemic amid friction with elected officials.
In one of his first actions as health officer, Chau rescinded Quick’s mask order and oversaw a county reopening in June at a faster pace than called for by Quick. Coronavirus cases then shot up at their fastest rate of the pandemic before state orders in July closed indoor dining and bars, and coronavirus hospitalizations in OC then declined starting in mid-July.
“We all have learned [from] the earlier reopening, during our first phase, second phase, a lot about transmission. So I think we have learned from that lesson,” Chau said at a news conference last Thursday, where he embraced a more cautious reopening going forward.
“My recommendation would be we reopen in phases,” Chau said.
Chau will now take on dual roles at the Health Care Agency.
As director of the Health Care Agency, Chau oversees a billion dollar division in charge of pandemic response in the county as well as a host of programs like mental health services.
County health officers typically are a separate position, and under state law are responsible for at least 171 different duties, with broad authority to prevent the spread of diseases. Among their powers is the ability to issue orders, including requiring isolation and quarantine.
“The health officer is also the local registrar of births and deaths, the medical director of the local jails for the purposes of HIV testing, and the health officer for all the cities in the county, unless a city has appointed its own health officer,” according to the statewide association of local health officers. None of OC’s 34 cities has a municipal health officer, so the county officer serves in that role for every city.
“Because of the broad role of the health officer, it is helpful to have a background in preventive medicine or a master’s in public health,” the association adds.
County officials did not say what Chau’s compensation would be for serving in two jobs.
Quick was the third high ranking Health Care Agency executive to leave their post in the early months of the pandemic.
She received police protection, and ultimately resigned, after her home address was read aloud by a leading anti-mask activist at a county supervisors’ meeting.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.