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By Joe Livernois
His arrival in Monterey County seven years ago barely registered. He’s low-key and many people don’t exactly know what his job entails. But Dr. Edward Moreno just might be the most important person in Monterey County these days.
Moreno is the county’s public health officer, the man responsible for the shelter-in-place orders that are meant to slow the spread of a deadly virus in Monterey County. And he is taking considerable heat these days from a certain Peninsula-centric demographic that is demanding his head on a platter.
Last month, for instance, David Henderson dashed off a six-paragraph diatribe published in something called The Library of Economics and Liberty with the headline: “When Ignorant Bureaucrats Make Your Decisions for You,” referring to Moreno. Henderson is a noted Monterey County libertarian and one of about 100 demonstrators who showed up at last week’s Reopen California Now rally at Windows on the Bay in Monterey.
Also, last week the Carmel Pine Cone ran a full-page advertisement that urged residents to call or write Moreno to tell him “he is overstepping his authority!” The ad was anonymous, with an attribution that only references a group called “Concerned Citizens of Monterey County.”
In addition to its direct attack on Moreno, the advertisement stands out for its generous use of exclamation points and question marks.
“THE SHELTER IN PLACE ORDER IS ILLEGAL!!!” according to the ad, citing a state Appellate Court ruling that was apparently issued after the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. “ARE YOU WILLING TO LET OUR ECONOMY CONTINUE TO BE DESTROYED????”
Two weeks ago, former Carmel Mayor Sue McCloud purchased an advertisement, also in the Pine Cone, that was an “open letter” to Moreno and to Monterey County District Attorney Jeannine Pacioni. The ad excoriates them for threatening to prosecute gardeners and contractors if they violate the shelter-in-place order.
“What are we trying to accomplish?” she asked. And, the ad states, “It would seem we have met the enemy and he/she is us!!”
Moreno was also blasted by mayors in Monterey County last week for failing to keep them in the loop at a time when municipal governments are undergoing staggering revenue issues. Moreno pledged more open communication with them in the future.
Moreno has been busy lately — and he was unable to respond for comment for this story because he was reviewing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest Stage 2 requirements. But he does make himself available to reporters regularly, showing up to all of the thrice-weekly media briefings via Zoom hosted by the Monterey County administrative office.
In early March, Moreno said he would only issue updates once each week, but a coalition of local media organizations petitioned him to make himself more available. In response, his office offers up daily updates, with new infection numbers and demographic information. He also does the media briefings; those press-availability opportunities generally feature other along other county officials who hope to tell reporters about the measures they are taking in response to coronavirus, but Moreno is always the star attraction as the reporters pepper him with questions ranging from tests availability to modeling to how soon the coronavirus will go away.
For the most part, Moreno is maddeningly matter-of-fact. If he’s feeling the pressure after being accused of destroying the local economy, he doesn’t really show it. He prefaces nearly every answer to inquiries during the media briefings by saying, “That’s a very good question.”
The issue is that Moreno is making public health decisions that impact the entire county, but the prevalence of coronavirus seems to be concentrated in one half of the county and infecting one particular demographic, namely Latinos in the Salinas Valley.
As of Thursday, 247 people in Monterey County are known to have tested positive for coronavirus, resulting in six deaths. Of the total number of infections, 201 of the people who have tested positive live in Salinas or the Salinas Valley. At least 81 are farmworkers. That’s compared to the Monterey Peninsula and Big Sur area, where only 30 people have tested positive for COVID-19.
Len Foster, the county’s former health director, said he believes Monterey County’s response to COVID-19 has been “very appropriate.” He said it’s natural that the Salinas Valley would have more people test positive for coronavirus because so many people are working in essential jobs — agriculture, mainly — “and are forced to work in environments that defy the desired physical separation. Salinas also has the bulk of the county’s nursing homes and senior residential communities.”
Foster said the health officer could probably bifurcate his orders that would be more restrictive in certain parts of the county. But, he said, “in the absence of more test data, why would he? From my perspective, it would be a political decision, not based on sound public health principles.”
Moreno came to Monterey County in 2013 from Fresno, where he spent 10 years as the county’s health officer. In Fresno County he was regarded as a “leading advocate for the area’s neediest and most vulnerable residents,” according to Vida en la Valle, a publication in the Central Valley.
He was mostly known for promoting preventive efforts to curb diabetes, asthma and obesity in Fresno, a crusade he continued in Monterey County.
In Fresno County, Moreno enjoyed a successful decade as county health officer but left the job after several years of severe cuts in the county health care budget and a string of political battles that divided the community along political, demographic and ethnic lines. He was a strong advocate of extending health services into the county’s large Latino population at a time when Fresno County’s increasingly conservative Board of Supervisors viewed that function as ripe for cost-cutting rather than expansion.
Fresno County, unlike almost every other county in California, spends none of its general fund on health care, financing it entirely out of state and federal aid and private grants.
Former Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea remembers Moreno as “a dedicated and accomplished public servant who avoided politics and always spoke truth to power.”
Perea recalled that one of his board colleagues, Debby Poochigian, led a semi-successful effort to end the county’s practice of treating indigents and the undocumented without charge at the county hospital and later at another hospital operating under county contract. Perea fought against Poochigian’s effort but lost on a 4-1 vote. In the words of longtime Fresno columnist Bill McEwen, the board at the time was made up mostly of “conservative penny-pinchers” who consistently kowtowed to agriculture — the owners, not the workers.
Perea eventually prevailed, however, when his son, a member of the state Assembly, crafted successful legislation to undo what the board had done.
Moreno began work in Fresno County shortly after county officials created the position of public health officer separate from directorship of the county health department. As health officer, he was able to concentrate on medical and health issues while the health department director managed the bureaucracy of the health department, which handled everything from vaccination clinics to restaurant and even milk inspections. Moreno left just as the county started a move to combine those functions back into one job.
Fresno County’s current interim public health officer, Dr. Rais Vohra, doubles as an emergency department physician at Community Regional Medical Center and triples as medical director of the Fresno/Madera Poison Control Division.
Moreno, who is 56, grew up in Placentia in Orange County, and holds a medical degree from UC San Francisco. He also attended Notre Dame and CSU Fresno.
During his press briefings he is typically bombarded with questions about his shelter-in-place orders, usually from reporters asking why he seems to be reticent about easing restrictions.
(For the record, I had been asking Moreno a question for an entire week before he finally had an answer. Each time I asked the questions — if he’s trying to discourage out-of-county visitors, why didn’t he expressly forbid golf courses from accepting reservations from people who live outside the county? — Moreno apologized and said he’d have to research the answer. Finally, on Friday, he said the county’s “golf safety protocols” do not tell courses to stop taking reservations from out-of-town players because the rule would be nearly impossible to enforce. He did say he is encouraging course operators to only allow locals to play on their courses.)
Regarding shelter-in-place, Moreno’s counterpart in Santa Cruz County this week quickly declared that she is easing restrictions on business based on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement earlier this week that California is entering “Stage 2” in its coronavirus recovery. But when asked on Wednesday if he’ll be revising his order, Moreno said he wants to read the written guidelines that come with Newsom’s office before he does anything.
Facing questioning during the media briefing, Moreno calmly explained his rationale. “We have a process and I really want to make sure it’s a thoughtful process because anything that I limit or restrict in the health officer order needs to have justification,” he said. He said he understands the need “to protect public health while still allowing for some economic and social benefit to the community. I’m still a strong believer at … making sure that public health is a priority and that we’re not easing restrictions for reasons that aren’t really public health reasons.”
Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo said he believes Moreno has been “thoughtful” and “very engaged.”
“All health officers throughout the state receive some criticism by constituents, while also getting praise by others,” Alejo said.
He said he is convinced that Moreno has been listening to residents, business leaders and others while working with the Board of Supervisors. “These are certainly not easy decisions, as this crisis generates a wide range of concerns by our residents,” Alejo said.
Royal Calkins contributed to this report.
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