Stanislaus loses public health officer that saw county through COVID

The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors met in closed session on Tuesday to discuss a potential replacement for public health officer Dr. Julie Vaishampayan, who retired recently after five years with the department.

No reportable action was taken by the Supervisors during the closed session.

Vaishampayan was on hand at Tuesday morning’s open session as the board gave her an official send-off, which included gifts and kind words from Supervisor Vito Chiesa, Supervisor Terry Withrow, the board chairman, Stanislaus County CEO Jody Hayes, and Mary Ann Lilly, managing director of the county’s Health Services Agency.

“I really do thank Stanislaus County for hiring me,” said Vaishampayan. “That was a good decision, at least for me, and hopefully for you, too. I really enjoyed my time here. And I am very sad to leave, and I wish you all the best.”

Those who spoke Tuesday praised Vaishampayan’s professionalism, leadership, and expertise. But it was the way “Dr. V” directed the county through the coronavirus pandemic that yielded the most adulation.

“A public health officer’s very important position flies under the radar … until a pandemic hits,” said Chiesa. “I don’t know of anyone who had trained their entire lives, as an infectious disease doctor, that was more prepared in California than Dr. V.”

Hayes echoed those sentiments.

“Last week I spent some time with county executives throughout the state of California, and we were debriefing the COVID pandemic …,” said Hayes. “I always knew we had one of the best public health officers in the state, if not the country. And though all those discussions, I saw a lot of examples just how important and how meaningful your contributions were here in Stanislaus County.”

Typically, the position of a public health officer is a low-profile job. But the pandemic abruptly thrust Vaishampayan into the public eye, where she was frequently the target of public scorn. 

“I came here and wanted to be the health officer and thought we’d really make some progress toward improving the health of the county, and I hope we really did,” said Vaishampayan. “The pandemic came after I’d only been here, like, two and a half years. … The pandemic was extraordinarily difficult. … Everybody had difficulty in so many different ways.” 

Withrow acknowledged that Dr. V not only had to deal with the health of the county, but had to navigate the politics that became associated with the pandemic.

“We all had different opinions up here as far as what was going on and how to handle it,” Withrow told Dr. V during the brief ceremony. “And a lot of politics got involved in it, too. But you were steady. All the time. You were always steady up there, Julie.

“And a lot of times this stuff was way beyond your control. We’d be sitting here and having to put things in place that the state would mandate, and all the blame fell on you. You just handled it so well. You go through a whole career and the last two years couldn’t be more intense, but you rose to the occasion like nobody.”

The Board is expected to make a decision on the hiring a new public health officer at their Nov. 29 meeting, according to County Communications Director Sonya Severo.