Tuolumne County will have a permanent health officer for the first time in more than two years come April.
The county Board of Supervisors held a public meeting on Tuesday and unanimously approved appointing Dr. Kimberly Freeman to the position that has been covered on a temporary or interim basis since the board asked former county health Officer Dr. Bob Bernstein to resign in February 2020.
Freeman graduated with honors from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in earth systems and biological science and earned her medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco, where she completed her residency in emergency medicine, according to public documents included with Tuesday’s meeting agenda.
The documents stated that Freeman works as a chief operations officer for an “Indian Health community clinic, emergency medical services (EMS) Medical Director for the Manteca division of the Manteca District Ambulance Service, and the Medical Director for Tuolumne County EMS Agency.”
She is licensed as a physician and surgeon by the Medical Board of California, certified by the American Board of Emergency Medicine and American Board of Emergency Medicine Emergency Medical Services Subspecialty, and holds certifications as a breastfeeding specialist and to dispense addiction medicine, the documents said.
California requires all of its 58 counties to employ a licensed physician as the county health officer, who must be appointed by the Board of Supervisors in each. The position falls under the administrative direction of the county Human Services Agency director and is responsible for implementing local health orders and ordinances, as well as state regulations and statutes related to public health.
The documents stated the county health officer is also responsible for leading efforts related to public health in the community, working with county staff on public health issues, responding to public health emergencies, informing the board on community health issues, and acting as the point of contact for community leaders seeking expert advice and opinion on such issues.
Steve Boyack, assistant director of the county Human Services Agency, added that the board recently approved revising the position’s duties to include serving as medical director for the county EMS agency.
Freeman is slated to step into her new role on April 19. Her compensation package approved Tuesday includes an annual salary starting at $230,838 per year, which doesn’t include the cost of health and retirement benefits she will also receive, as well as a $4,000 annual allowance to pay for professional memberships, continuing education, licensing and certifications.
Health officers have historically been among the county’s highest paid employees given the required qualifications for the position and responsibilities.
County Supervisor Anaiah Kirk, who was elected to serve as board chairman this year earlier in the meeting, noted that Freeman is still an active doctor and couldn’t attend the meeting on Tuesday because she was seeing patients.
Kirk and the other four county supervisors each expressed optimism about Freeman taking on the role, which has taken on a more prominent place in the public spotlight over the past two years due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic
County officials have said in the past that the position can be among the most difficult to fill because of the requirements, which include having a medical degree and being licensed to practice medicine in the state.
“We’re not the only county that’s struggled to find a public health officer,” County Supervisor Ryan Campbell said. “I think the fact that, with her experience and qualifications, stepping up to serve her community is really admirable.”
The position has largely been filled over the past two years on an interim basis by Dr. Eric Sergienko under an agreement with Mariposa County, where he serves as permanent health officer.
Sergienko said he will continue fulfilling the roles and responsibilities of the position for Tuolumne County until Freeman takes over in April.
Freeman is going to be the fourth person to serve as health officer for the county since 2015, when Dr. Todd Stolp retired after 12 years on the job.
Stolp was succeeded by Dr. Liza Ortiz, who served from April 2015 to August 2017, after which the county relied on agreements with Calaveras and Mariposa counties for coverage of the position until Bernstein was hired in April 2018.
Bernstein moved to the county from Georgia after more than 20 years of working in the public health field for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and other organizations.
Neither the county nor Bernstein detailed the exact reasons why the board asked him to resign in February 2020, citing confidentiality over personnel matters, though he told Kaiser Health News in November for an article about local public health workers leaving the field that “supervisors were upset that he had ordered rabies vaccines for two children bitten by bats — including a bat that tested positive for rabies — against their parents’ wishes.”
Kaiser Health News reported that county officials declined to comment on the matter because they were “legally prohibited from discussing personnel matters.”
Bernstein became the health officer for Butte County in May 2020, though Kaiser Health News reported he resigned from that position in September last year out of concern that his children would have to deal with threats he had seen his colleagues face in neighboring counties.
Sergienko took over the job for Tuolumne County in March 2020 just as the pandemic was beginning to take hold, then Ortiz returned that April to fill the role on a temporary basis until the county found a permanent replacement.
Ortiz was originally hired to serve for three months, but stayed until September after the county was unable to find a qualified candidate for the job. Sergienko has covered the position since that time, while also fulfilling the same duties for Mariposa County.
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4541.