Silicon Valley’s top health leader reflects on lessons learned as COVID-19 rules lift
Dr. Sara Cody has been the face of Santa Clara County's Public Health Department throughout the COVID-19 pandemic of the past year. Photo by Vicente Vera.

    Even after death threats, Dr. Sara Cody stands tall.

    She especially stood tall Tuesday, the same day the state reopened, and for the first time publicly removed her mask. Fifteen months after Cody declared a shelter in place order — the first in the country to do so — the county’s top health official reflected on her decisions and lessons learned in an exclusive interview with San José Spotlight.

    When the pandemic hit locally, Cody quickly sprung into action ordering the county’s 1.7 million residents to stay home to slow the spread of the deadly virus. The decision was credited for flattening the COVID-19 curve and earned Cody widespread praise and interviews on nearly every national cable news program. 

    “I was frankly just thinking about what tools I had and responsibilities I had in making the best decision I could,” Cody told San José Spotlight standing outside her office. “I wasn’t thinking about the rest of the state or country.”

    But later, as the pandemic dragged on and jobs disappeared and businesses shuttered, those choices would make Cody a target for vitriol and hate. One Gilroy man faced felony charges for threatening to kill Cody. 

    “It was difficult to imagine that as a public health official someone would be upset enough or that would ever happen,” Cody said, adding that health colleagues around the country received death threats as well. 

    Reflecting over the past year, Cody said there are many things she wishes happened differently.

    “I wish we had had testing so that we could understand what we were dealing with,” she said. “I wish that we had had more direction from the feds and state. But given the information that we had, and the tools that we had, I think the decisions that we made locally I would probably make again.”

    The county’s aggressive move to shut down in mid-March may have saved lives and decreased the spread of infection, but it also changed the world as we know it.

    Overnight, workers across Silicon Valley were sent to work from home, while thousands of others were left jobless. Many local small businesses struggled or closed. Concerts, conferences and sporting events got canceled. Empty grocery shelves and empty schoolyards became familiar sites. Proms, graduations, weddingsfunerals passed without celebration.

    For local businesses, the ever-changing orders to shut down, reopen, and shut down again were especially difficult.

    “It was unreal how broad and long the impacts of the orders have been,” Scott Knies, executive director of San Jose Downtown Association, told San José Spotlight in March. “The orders, at times, only gave us one day notice, and that was very difficult for businesses.”

    But Cody said she heard the opposite criticism from some — that her health orders were not stringent enough.

    “There’s really almost no policy decision that will make everyone happy,” she added.

    Santa Clara County Public Health Officer reflects on the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic on the day the state reopened. Photo by Vicente Vera.

    When asked if she has any regrets, Cody said she’s generally not “a person that thinks back and regrets.” But, the South Bay’s top doctor added, everyone is human and bound to make mistakes.

    “I’ve certainly learned a lot managing the pandemic and working with everyone on it,” Cody said. “I hope I never stop learning. I just try to do my very best with the information that I have.”

    Being that the pandemic was global, Cody said there were many forces beyond local control. She called for strengthening the public health infrastructure and preparedness at all levels.

    “I think we learned the public health infrastructure in the United States is very fragile,” she said, “and will require significant investment.”

    Cody said that the country, state and county all must work to better prepare for future disasters or pandemics.

    But Cody said she didn’t feel alone during the past year, taking solace and finding strength from colleagues who sustained her through the long days and endless hours of managing through a pandemic. Though she often had the final word, Cody said she didn’t make decisions alone. 

    “Our county government is much like a family,” she said. “It’s a very supportive family and I had tremendous amounts of support.”

    Cody’s reflections over the past year come as California reopened on Tuesday, allowing businesses to operate at full capacity and permitting vaccinated people to remove their masks while grocery shopping, eating at restaurants or working out at the gym.

    As of Tuesday, 119,534 Santa Clara County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and 2,178 have died. About 79% of county residents age 12+ are vaccinated with at least one dose, and about 70% of residents age 12+ are completely inoculated. 

    Cody said collaboration with other Bay Area health departments made all the difference in leading during a crisis. Regional health leaders here have had a tradition of working together on public health problems since fighting HIV in the 1980s, Cody said, and have dealt with many difficult health challenges through the years.

    That spirit of collaboration was not only critical but lifesaving, she added.

    Most of all, Cody said she wants everyone to have the opportunity to be healthy and safe.

    “We understood from early in the pandemic that not everyone was unfortunately going to be as safe as others,” she said, “and so we have to address health and racial equity.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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