Napa County Public Health Officer Karen Smith is to become the next state health officer and director of the California Department of Public Health.
Gov. Jerry Brown announced the appointment on Friday, pending state Senate confirmation. In her new position, Dr. Smith will work with health departments in the state’s 58 counties and with various statewide organizations on issues ranging from emergency preparedness to infectious diseases.
In an interview Friday, Smith said cities can make the best decisions on what services they need. She talked of having the state empower people to make their communities better. That means giving people information, but also listening to them.
“Decisions that are going to be made that affect people’s lives are best made taking into account what those people also want,” Smith said.
Smith has served as the Napa County public health officer and deputy director of Napa County Health and Human Services for more than 10 years. She pointed to such highlights as the formation of the Live Healthy Napa County coalition that created a community health improvement plan.
But there has also been recent controversy.
In January, former Napa County Emergency Medical Services Director Jim Pointer criticized Smith’s handling of local emergency care services. Among other things, he said Smith failed to hold American Medical Response ambulance service and Queen of the Valley Medical Center to their requirements.
Smith said Friday this difficult process has had some emergency medical benefits. She talked of identifying issues and making system improvements. Brian Henricksen, who has been the pre-hospital care coordinator for Contra Costa County, will begin work as Napa County’s emergency medical services administrator on Monday, she said.
Mark Diel, chief executive officer of the Children’s Health Initiative of Napa County, praised Smith’s local work and her appointment to the state position.
“This is a huge loss for Napa County, but she will be able to take some model programs that she’s had a key leadership role in and apply that at the state level,” Diel said in a press release. “This will broaden her impact that we’ve benefited from for more than a decade. It’s incredible how she’s able to bring the community together.”
Napa County Health and Human Services Director Howard Himes called Smith “a strong leader and advocate for public health resources and information,” in a press release. Her work will continue locally through Live Healthy Napa County, he said.
Her appointment to the state position came about following talks with state Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Diana Dooley.
Smith is a member of the executive committee for the California Conference of Local Health Officers. When previous state Health Officer Ronald Chapman announced his retirement, Dooley asked committee members for advice on what direction the department should take.
Smith said she responded. Dooley called her back and ultimately asked her to consider the state health officer job, she said.
“I had to think really hard, because I’m very happy in Napa,” Smith said. “I like working in the county. (But) it’s sort of the position that doesn’t come up very often.”
Smith, 58, earned a doctor of medicine degree from Stanford University School of Medicine and master of public health degree from Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.
Her career includes holding positions at the Stanford School of Medicine from 1992 to 2004, serving as assistant section chief at the state Department of Health Services Tuberculosis Control Branch from 2000 to 2001 and being a faculty consultant at the Francis J. Curry International Tuberculosis Center since 1997.
The state position pays $233,000 annually, a press release from the Governor’s office said.
Smith said she expects to begin work as state health officer in late March. A county press release said the Board of Supervisors will appoint an interim county public health officer while searching for her replacement.
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