The public health leader who steered Orange County through the throes of COVID-19 is now headed out the door.

Nearly three years after taking his post as OC’s Health Care Agency director, Dr. Clayton Chau announced his resignation on Tuesday, with his departure set for June 1. 

Chau confirmed his departure in a Tuesday text response to phone messages seeking comment, and declined interview requests that night about his future or reasons for departure, saying he was with family.

“I have no plan at this time,” he said in a text message. “Honestly, I am exhausted after three years non-stop. My mother’s passing in November also [had] a big emotional impact on me.”

In a texted response to questions, county spokesperson Molly Nichelson said, “We greatly appreciate his service and he will be missed.”

Questions to Nichelson about his replacement went unreturned Tuesday night.

Chau took the Health Care Agency position in May 2020 and later stepped up as Public Health Officer in June – a role he would fill simultaneously after his predecessor, Dr. Nichole Quick, resigned over death threats from critics of pandemic health measures like masks, as well as restrictions on indoor gatherings, schools, and businesses.

He weathered much scrutiny about his credentials during his time in both positions.

[Read: Questions Continue to Swirl Around Orange County Health Director’s Qualifications]

One of his first actions as Health Care Agency director was to remove the mask mandate after a push by his elected bosses on the Board of Supervisors.

[Read: Orange County Officials No Longer Require Masks During Coronavirus Pandemic]

Within days of Chau walking back the county mask mandate, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide one in June 2020. 

[Read: Orange County Residents Again Required to Wear Coronavirus Masks, Following Gov. Newsom Order]

In March 2022, Chau turned the county public health officer position over to Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, who was a deputy public health officer. He remained Health Care Agency director. 

Under Chau, the agency faced hard questions about health resource gaps the pandemic laid bare on low-income Latino and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. 

And efforts to bridge those gaps through public contracts, at times, drew transparency concerns and even a whistleblower complaint.

But as a Vietnamese American holding dual top-level government roles, his leadership throughout the pandemic was symbolic at a time of heightened racism toward Asian American and Pacific Islander communities

And he was a frequent face at ground-level community health clinics and information forums.

Those community efforts paid off and began reducing the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Orange County’s working class, often immigrant communities through access to critical resources like testing and isolation opportunities and, later on, the vaccine – despite a bumpy initial rollout. 

And after the virus death toll crossed the 5,000 mark in the middle of 2021, Chau became a public vessel for countywide mourning, while also acknowledging the shortcomings in the county health response.

“For those of you here that have lost your family, I want to say sorry we didn’t do enough to save their lives,” Chau said at a vigil honoring the lives lost due to COVID-19 pandemic in 2021. 

After seeing the pandemic’s lopsided impact on working class, often immigrant communities, Chau created a director position at the Health Care Agency aimed specifically at addressing various health gaps. 

“The pandemic truly brings and pushes the issue of health equity to the forefront and these issues existed way before the pandemic,” Chau said in October 2020. “Not only in Orange County, but all over our state and country.” 

[Read: Pandemic Pushes OC Public Health Officials to Focus on Inequities in Poor Neighborhoods]

In July 2021, the Orange County Medical Association named Chau as Physician of the Year. And since May 2020, has also served on the board of CalOptima, the county-administered health plan for the poor. 

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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