Calaveras County Health Officer Dean Kelaita, MD, announced his resignation to county supervisors last week, citing “the current political climate” as a reason for his stepping down.
Kelaita’s last day of service will be Oct. 16, marking the end of a 20-year tenure as health officer. During that period, he provided counsel to numerous county department heads, 23 governing board members and four different sheriffs. Health crises addressed during his time in office include the events of 9/11 and bioterrorism threats, H1N1, and natural disasters including the 2015 Butte Fire and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is time for me to step down,” Kelaita wrote in his resignation letter. “In order to be effective, I have always strived to assist community leaders and decision makers by providing unvarnished medical and scientific information, as well as technical expertise unbiased by subjectivity or partisan influence. Under the current political climate, this is no longer possible.”
Kelaita plans to remain in the community as medical director at Avalon Health Care in San Andreas and will also return full time to his primary care practice in Angels Camp.
“We are so fortunate as a county to have had Dr. Kelaita,” county Board of Supervisors Chairperson Merita Callaway told the Enterprise on Tuesday. “He’s well-respected by the medical community, and he’s done a superb job as our public health officer. I am personally and professionally sad that he is leaving. … He’s going to be very hard to replace.”
Callaway added that she has experienced the challenges of the “current political climate” in her own position on the board, receiving angry calls and comments from those who are frustrated by too many – and not enough – COVID-19 restrictions.
She said that fielding political complaints should not be the health officer’s job.
Since the onset of the pandemic, many health officers throughout the state have resigned or retired including Tuolumne County’s interim Public Health Officer Liza Ortiz, MD, and health officers in Butte, Placer, Nevada, San Benito, Yolo and Orange counties.
“CMA is deeply disturbed by the news that some local health officers, many of whom have been working tirelessly for months, have been subject to unfair and uninformed attacks and have become political targets,” the California Medical Association tweeted on June 9.
According to Callaway, Calaveras County’s new public health officer will be appointed by Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) Director Kristin Stranger and must be approved by the board of supervisors. It is not required for a health officer to live in the county he/she serves.
"I am confident that under the competent leadership of (HHSA Director) Kristin Stranger and the excellent public health department professional staff, the community will continue to effectively manage the COVID-19 pandemic and protect the health of our residents until such time that a new Health Officer can be recruited," Kelaita said.
The Public Health division of HHSA is currently working to secure interim health officer support and will provide more information to the public soon, according to a press release issued Tuesday afternoon.
This article has been updated to include additional information.