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June 27, 2022

Update: County health officer abruptly resigns

EMS director named as Fenstersheib’s replacement

San Benito County Interim Public Health Officer Marty Fenstersheib resigned April 28 after the county’s elected political leadership split with the career health professional over orders to control the local spread of COVID-19.

County Administrative Officer Ray Espinosa accepted Fenstersheib’s sudden resignation, county staff said in a press release about 5pm April 28. San Benito County Emergency Medical Services Director Dr. David Ghilarducci was named as Fenstersheib’s replacement as interim public health officer.

During the April 28 Board of Supervisors meeting, District No. 3 supervisor Peter Hernandez criticized Fenstersheib’s approach on shelter-in-place and face-covering orders, which are set to expire May 3.

Hernandez argued that there are holes in the mask order. He asked Fenstersheib how businesses are going to force customers to wear masks when some patrons might have valid reasons to not wear one.

“Are they supposed to police private doctor’s orders ensuring they have a valid medical reason why they can’t wear a mask,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said that Fenstersheib can’t successfully implement policies that they are having difficulty figuring out, and questioned the doctor’s thoughts of avoiding a political approach.  

“We’re elected legislators, our goal is to listen to the people,” Hernandez said. 

Fenstersheib has served as the county’s interim public health officer for about four years. He previously spent 29 years at Santa Clara County’s public health agency, including two decades as the 2 million-population county’s top health official until his 2013 retirement.

County officials have tried to recruit a long-term, permanent public health officer during that time.

County staff did not specify why Fenstersheib resigned. Public Information Officer David Westrick said it was a “personnel matter.” Fenstersheib could not immediately be reached for comment. 

Fenstersheib’s resignation comes at a time when San Benito County and neighboring communities are battling a pandemic that has resulted in more than 50,000 deaths in the U.S. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the lives of two local residents, according to county staff. A total of 48 San Benito County residents have tested positive for the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. 

During the April 28 supervisors meeting, Hernandez mentioned that Fenstersheib’s messages in last week’s town hall meeting went from being hopeful to doubt and despair.

Hernandez added that he feels the doctor was talking about Santa Clara County and mimicking the order officials there implemented.

“I get it, we have to pay attention to their cases but ultimately it’s a different reality, different demographic,” he said. 

Supervisor Mark Medina said that San Benito County has the highest test rate per 100,000 with 1,405 residents tested. He said he agreed with the shelter-in-place decision made on March 17 and mentioned it was a very wise decision. 

However, Medina asked Fenstersheib why the county can’t adopt the same order as the state.

Medina suggested that Fenstersheib provided too much gray area with no goal in mind.

“When can we move forward, is there a date?” Medina said. “You’re saying test more people, but how many more people?”

Fenstersheib’s resignation was announced hours after the supervisors’ meeting.

When contacted by the Free Lance April 29, Hernandez said he was “saddened” by Fenstersheib’s resignation. Hernandez declined to speculate whether the resignation was related to Tuesday’s board discussion. 

Hernandez added that he thinks the county’s overall response to the COVID-19 pandemic should include more collaboration among officials on how to respond to the potential health “side effects” of a prolonged shelter-in-place. He added that, as a supervisor, he “wanted a little more” from the public health officer in responding to the impact of the stay-home order on the community. 

“What other ‘surges’ are we going to be dealing with when it comes to unemployment, suicide, mental health issues that we are literally creating with a shelter-in-place?” Hernandez said. 

A press release from the county reads, “The staff and board of supervisors want to thank Dr. Fenstersheib for his dedicated service to San Benito County for the past four years.”

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