A medical doctor is calling for more accountability within Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health, saying its current director has too much power, as she single-handedly enacted COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates.
Ophthalmologist Dr. Houman Hemmati, of Santa Monica, is requesting the county’s Board of Supervisors to make the public health director position an elected office, and to create an independent panel of medical doctors to hold the director accountable.
“The [county health] department historically has been focused on issues like trying to find rat droppings in restaurant kitchens, not controlling the lives of every citizen," Hemmati told The Epoch Times. “Until the pandemic hit and then we realize how much power [the position has].”
Current county health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer, who was appointed by the Board in 2017, has been criticized by Angelenos for enacting some of the nation’s strictest health mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ferrer told the board on Feb. 8 she would continue the county’s indoor mask mandate for at least a few more weeks, even though the statewide indoor mask mandate will end on Feb. 15.
Ferrer said she will lift the indoor mask mandate on two conditions: first, if county cases reach “moderate” levels below 730 a day for two consecutive weeks, and second, if two months elapse after the COVID-19 vaccine becomes federally authorized for infants over six months old.
Hemmati said Ferrer’s conditions have no scientific basis.
“We know that kids are the lowest risk group for COVID-19, especially younger kids,” he said. “The [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] also hasn't [authorized] that vaccine [for infants] and may never authorize it ... so basically she's saying when pigs fly.”
A spokesperson for the Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
During a Feb. 8 supervisor's meeting, Ferrer noted that the county remained in the “moderate” daily case rates for three months last year—through the county health department did not remove the mask mandates then.
In situations like these, Ferrer should answer to a panel of medical experts, Hemmati said, adding that Ferrer was likely unprepared to be single-handedly responsible to make such impactful decisions.
The ophthalmologist compared the health director’s position to the LA County sheriff’s position, which is an elected office.
“Somebody who controls armed sheriff's deputies ... who has power to kill people and enforce laws ... must be accountable to the people,” Hemmati said. “That same rule needs to apply to the public health director now that we realize how much power that position has.”
However, most of the supervisors supported Ferrer’s decision, including Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.
“When I’m sick, I go to the doctor, not to an elected official, because I want to be treated by a medical expert who follows science. I think most county residents would want the same for themselves and their community,” Kuehl told The Epoch Times in a statement.
But Supervisor Kathryn Barger dissented from her peers, expressing frustration with the continued mask restrictions.
“The state has public health experts that are also advising the governor, and I believe that the recommendation to lift that mandate is based on public health as well,” Barger said. “And so I just find it very frustrating that, once again, we are being the most restrictive.”
In a Feb. 10 statement sent to The Epoch Times, Barger said she had not yet received a formal letter or request to make the health director’s position an elected office, though she said she "fully recognizes the frustration that the public feels with our current COVID-19 masking mandates and restrictions.”
Barger said having an elected public health director may further politicize the position.
"Having an elected public health director ... would not necessarily eliminate any perceived bias,” Barger said. “I’d like to point out that there is a system of checks and balances in place. Our public health director consults with an internal team of infectious disease scientists and physicians to develop recommendations, and ultimately is held accountable by the Board of Supervisors. I’ve been vocal about my concerns. But, it takes a unified front or at least a Board majority to effect change.”
Grassroots organization LA Uprising started a petition on Change.org to fire Ferrer and lift the mask mandate and has gathered over 3,000 signatures so far.
The county currently has a rate of 9,500 cases per day—about one-fifth of the 44,000 daily cases seen during the peak of the Omicron surge at the beginning of the year. However, the current rate is still six times the December 2021 rate, which averaged 1,600 cases per day.
Spokespersons from Supervisors Hilda Solis, Janice Hahn, Sheila Kuehl, and Holly Mitchell did not respond to a request for comment by press deadline.