The Doctor Is In

On March 17, 2020, Edward Moreno held his first press conference about the pandemic, announcing two confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Monterey County and a shelter-in-place order. “Temporarily making these drastic changes to our lives and routines may be frustrating, but it is critical to slowing the spread of this virus,” he said.

Dr. Edward Moreno was appointed as Monterey County’s health officer in 2013, inheriting a long list of responsibilities. Those include overseeing the public health laboratory; the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program (WIC); Children’s Medical Services, which screens kids for health issues; tobacco prevention efforts; STD and pregnancy prevention; registering births and deaths; issuing burial permits; nutrition programs and obesity prevention; and stopping the spread of communicable diseases.

It’s that last bullet point that one year ago became the primary focus of Moreno’s work and thrust him suddenly into the public spotlight. He began briefing the press and the County Board of Supervisors regularly on Covid-19, always speaking matter-of-factly and deflecting political questions. He issued the county’s shelter-in-place order, and has at times come under attack by the public, either for being too stringent or not stringent enough.

Preparation for a pandemic is part of the job, but as Monterey County Supervisor Chris Lopez says, this year has been different. “I’m busy, I go from 6am to 9pm, but this gentleman is extremely busy. It’s hard to comprehend the level of work that comes with the position he’s been thrust into. Can anyone name any of our last three health officers? The pandemic has really elevated this position, but when it hits, it hits, and here we are.”

As a pediatrician, Moreno continued to occasionally see patients at Monterey County health clinics until the Covid-19 pandemic. Prior to his current role, Moreno worked as Fresno County’s health officer for 10 years. He attended medical school at UC San Francisco and also earned a master’s in public health from CSU Fresno.

A year into Dr. Moreno’s leadership on the pandemic, the Weekly set out to try to get to know him a little bit better. But answering questions via email, he sticks to his talking points about virus prevention, rather than speaking about himself. Instead, the Weekly reached out to people who work with him, for some insight into who he is. (You can read his email answers by clicking on the image to the right.)

Weekly: Prior to Covid-19, did a pandemic register as a likely scenario?

Kristy Michie, Assistant Director of Public Health: It’s something we expect to happen at one point or another – history tells us pandemics will occur. H1N1, which was nowhere near as severe [as Covid-19], that was a year-and-a-half. As we went into this, we knew we were in for a long haul.

Dr. Moreno suddenly became a public leader a year ago. How did he do?

Elsa Jimenez, Monterey County Health Director: He is the commander-in-chief of our department operations center, and he quickly set up that structure. He also took leadership in terms of implementing a stay-at-home order before the state. That was a very difficult decision, but it was the right one, made using data.

How has Dr. Moreno done on communicating ever-changing rules and regulations and metrics?

Wendy Root Askew, chair of the Board of Supervisors: He’s thoughtful and deliberative and has remained calm and steady in the face of massive pressures and threats. A lot of other public health officers have not been able to navigate this crisis. He has intentionally stayed outside of the politics of what’s happening, and continually looks to the data and the science.

Does it feel different in Public Health now that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and the vaccination rollout is underway?

Michie: It sure does, it is so refreshing for the staff to do something that is proactive, after a year of interviewing people only after they’d gotten sick or to trace contacts to isolate. We’re very excited. There are lots of happy faces around the Health Department these days.

In his public persona, Dr. Moreno is so serious. Does he ever have fun?

Michie: He is very professional. He has a very high standard; he feels his ethical and moral responsibilities deeply. But he does have a sense of humor; I enjoy working with him because he’s quite funny.

Anything you wish had been done differently in the past year?

Jimenez: We’re still trying to live in the moment. At some point we go back and do an after-action report, once things settle. We have not had the opportunity to go back and process it; hopefully later this year we’ll go back and do that.

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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