Silicon Valley’s COVID-19 testing guru quit last job amid pressure to reopen economy
Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, Santa Clara County COVID-19 testing officer, demonstrates the less invasive testing swabs now available for free at PAL Stadium in East San Jose. Photo by Katie Lauer.

Three months ago Dr. Marty Fenstersheib was pressured to reopen the economy in San Benito County.

He knew COVID-19 cases would surge if he bowed to the pressure. Hours after a high-stakes confrontation with county supervisors, he quit.

Now, he is the COVID-19 testing guru in Santa Clara County where he is credited for the dramatic increase in testing in the county.

Although Fenstersheib doesn’t like discussing his resignation months ago, he landed the job at Santa Clara County a few weeks later in May — and it’s a homecoming of sorts. He worked here for 29 years, including two decades as the county’s health officer, before retiring in 2013.

“I was asked to come out of retirement basically,” Fenstersheib said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Since many of my old colleagues are still here, it was very easy for me to fit in and work with everyone.”

The head of coronavirus testing for Santa Clara County was at the center of controversy in April when a San Benito County supervisor urged the county board to cut ties with Fenstersheib over his resistance to reopening local businesses.

San Benito County Supervisor Peter Hernandez, a business owner, criticized Fenstersheib’s resistance, highlighting the economic “damage being done to our community.”

At the April 28 meeting, Hernandez called Fenstersheib “a monarch” and pushed the board to terminate his contract if the doctor did not provide a date for reopening. Some residents then berated Fenstersheib’s shelter-in-place order during public comments.

“I’m not a health professional, but… what can’t be argued is the damages that public health guidelines have created,” Hernandez said.

Hours after the meeting, Fenstersheib submitted his resignation, according to a county press release. A county spokesperson told The Hollister Free Lance it’s “a personnel matter.”

“There will always be people who have issues with what we try to do,” Fenstersheib told San José Spotlight this week. “But we are in public health because we want to do our best for our communities.”

Fenstersheib isn’t the only top health official in California to resign over policy differences amid the pandemic that’s claimed more than 150,000 American lives. According to the California Medical Association, seven health officers and medical directors have left their positions across the state since March.

“We are deeply concerned that politics may be trumping public interest in some of these cases, and that the public’s health may be compromised as a result,” CMA President Peter N. Bretan, Jr. said in a statement. “We must do all we can to support our local health officials who are providing the courage and leadership California needs to continue to navigate this health crisis.”

A towering and well-respected figure in the state, Fenstersheib was once dubbed the Mr. Rogers of public health.

When Fenstersheib announced his retirement in 2013, then-U.S. Rep. Mike Honda honored his career in a long statement read into the Congressional Record.

“Dr. Fenstersheib has been an outspoken voice for the public’s health and the face of public health in Santa Clara County,” Honda’s statement says. “He has been one of the most respected voices on issues of pediatric obesity, tobacco control, HIV, tuberculosis, childhood immunizations and chronic disease prevention.”

A veteran in navigating public health crises, Fenstersheib adopted a sobering and aggressive approach to the virus early on. While many public officials in early March urged residents to carry on their normal routines, Fenstersheib was more cautious.

“Things are likely to get worse before they start improving,” he warned in a March 4 press release to San Benito County residents. “Be kind to each other. We are all in this together. It’s the virus we are fighting.”

Mirroring other Bay Area counties, Fenstersheib imposed a shelter-in-place order in San Benito County on March 17, two days before Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a statewide mandate. The county at the time had the highest testing rate per capita in the Bay Area.

By April 24, San Benito started requiring face coverings in public places––an order that wasn’t adopted by Santa Clara County until mid-May.

His rehire in May has proven effective for Santa Clara. Within weeks, Fenstersheib dramatically ramped up testing, increasing average daily tests from 1,000 to the state’s goal of 4,000 per day.

With more than 50 sites across the county, Santa Clara is now testing roughly 6,000 people a day, Fenstersheib said Wednesday. He attributed the swift success to the county’s early-June order requiring hospitals to provide COVID-19 testing —and to the decades-long relationships he’d built with county agencies and staff.

“It’s like time didn’t even pass,” Fenstersheib said of his old stomping grounds. “We have good people here and we work very well with each other.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on twitter.

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