One of the earliest victims of the COVID-19 pandemic in Orange County was the independence of residents’ chief medical advocate and doctor, the Public Health Officer.
Norberto Santana, Jr.
A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.
Now, just days after Gov. Gavin Newsom avoided recall with a solid majority, there are reports that the post may be returning to the role of a traditional doctor, with Orange County Deputy Public Health Officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong reportedly in line to take over for Dr. Clayton Chau.
Early in the pandemic, county supervisors placed Chau into the slot to replace former Health Officer Dr. Nichole Quick — who resigned following threats for her countywide mask mandate — because of Chau’s willingness to avoid mask mandates, as well as backing their politicized handling of the pandemic in Orange County.
In addition to acting as the local Health Officer — traditionally an independent post appointed by supervisors but also connected to the state public health officer — Chau also acts as the head of the county’s billion dollar county Health Care Agency.
Chau’s wearing of the two hats has raised questions for months with cities like Santa Ana looking into establishing their own health department, with cities like Anaheim and Irvine also broaching the topic in public a few times.
OC Supervisors politicized the post of Public Health Officer almost immediately when the pandemic broke out, when they received backlash from their perceived base after Quick instituted a mask mandate that accompanied the first reopening, Memorial Day weekend 2020.
Quick came under intense pressure from anti-mask residents and eventually resigned after it was clear that county supervisors did not support her position and residents began protesting in front of her home.
While the position of Public Health Director has broad powers under state law when it comes to disease outbreaks, the post is also appointed by local county supervisors.
When OC supervisors were interviewing for a Public Health Director to replace Quick, they reportedly asked lots of questions about attitudes toward masking.
They wanted someone who would roll Quick’s order back.
They found that person in Chau, a trained psychiatrist close to Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do, who supervisors brought over to run the Health Care Agency.
Yet Chau’s work for supervisors at the agency may be coming to an end as there are increasing reports that Chau may soon be headed to the county’s health insurance plan for the poor and elderly, CalOptima — where CEO Richard Sanchez just abruptly announced he’s leaving in November.
Questions are also flying around about CalOptima’s direction as well as politicization efforts by Do.
Earlier this year, Chau also came under fire when public COVID briefings came to a virtual halt.
Chau has also often noted that his vision of the Public Health Officer is one that coordinates with the vision of the county board of supervisors.
That’s despite the fact that OC supervisors’ vision does not support broad public discussion about COVID or much else, an odd approach for the public’s doctor during a pandemic.
After months of official silence — during the deadliest part of the pandemic — Voice of OC started to host public town halls gathering medical experts to offer the public some sense of independent information on the course of the pandemic here locally.
That almost immediately triggered change.
Following our announcement of town halls, Supervisor Katrina Foley broke with her colleagues and started convening daily news conferences where she gathered many county Health Care Agency experts — including appearances by Chinsio-Kwong.
Yet soon after, Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do, a Republican, and the panels’ Vice Chair, Doug Chaffee, a Democrat, both requested that Chau halt agency officials from attending such public briefings – an order that Chau complied with and thus shut down Foley’s efforts temporarily.
That prompted Voice of OC to relaunch its own virtual town halls recently, an effort that drew a strong audience from the public along with calls for more briefings, more informational panels on the pandemic.
Ironically, despite our aggressive reporting during the pandemic, Chinsio-Kwong has consistently shown up to Voice of OC virtual town halls and answered questions — even hard, political ones — with a pretty frank demeanor.
She sounds more like a family doctor and less like a politician.
Chinsio-Kwong was appointed as Deputy Public Health Officer last November.
Increasingly over this year, Chinsio-Kwong has been the most visible and credible face on the pandemic, with many observers wondering whether a switch was imminent given her background and frank assessments during press interviews.
She received her medical degree in osteopathic medicine from Western University, and completed her residency training in family medicine at Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton.
She specializes in osteopathic medicine, which emphasizes a holistic approach to healing.
Chinsio-Kwong is also certified in functional medicine and integrative medicine with the American Board of Integrative Medicine. Before joining the OC Health Care Agency, she provided holistic care with the St. Joseph – Providence Health System.
That’s a pretty interesting background given the nature of the COVID pandemic and the myriad questions about how people can stay healthy — through a combination of vaccines and natural methods — in this environment.
VIDEO: Watch a video interview of Regina Chinsio-Kwong by St. Joseph Health in 2019.
Chinsio-Kwong, whose father was in the military and lived all over the U.S. as a kid, served as senior medical officer at the Barstow Branch Clinic and a member of faculty for three years at Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton’s family medicine residency program.
She also planned and executed all medical and public health joint exercises with New Zealand, Australia and Japanese forces during the Pacific Partnership mission at Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands in 2014.
She joined Mission Heritage Medical Group in South County in 2014 as a primary care physician after seven years in active duty service.
According to one of her official biographies, “Throughout her career, Dr. CK has been devoted to caring for the whole person. She has directed needs assessments and crafted responses to address health disparity, communicable disease control, and population health management; developed a public health infrastructure to protect and promote health and wellbeing and implement preventive interventions and disease surveillance; and, most importantly, brought public health innovations to scale.”