Getting to Know Van Do-Reynoso

Santa Barbara County’s Public Health Director Leads the Charge Against COVID-19

Santa Barbara County Health Department Director Van Do-Reynoso, Ph.D. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

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Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Santa Barbara County more than a month ago, Dr. Van Do-Reynoso has had three days off.

For the first month, Do-Reynoso — director of the county’s Public Health Department — worked 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week. Although the long hours can put anyone at their wits’ end, her tight-knit family gives her a strong foundation to stand on.

“I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing without my family. I moved to Santa Barbara County with my husband of a lot of years; I don’t even know how many years,” she said, laughing. “The past few days were the first I could actually sit down and have dinner with my husband and my daughter.”

In her college days, Do-Reynoso craved a vessel that would allow her to have a broad influence over communities. Journalism seemed to fit the bill, but her alma mater, the University of California, Santa Cruz, didn’t offer the major. It wasn’t until her junior year that her aging and public health professor revealed the approach she was missing.

“My professor influenced me by showing how health can be impacted from the prevention aspect,” Do-Reynoso said, “through changing policies, the environment, and systems to achieve a healthy community. The opportunity to create change at a community level was really compelling and opened my eyes to the possibility of how much impact you can have.

“That’s why I chose to pursue public health over medical school.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology from UC Santa Cruz, Do-Reynoso went on to earn a public health master’s in health policy and administration from UC Berkeley and a doctorate in public health services and systems research from UC Merced.

Do-Reynoso, who’s been somewhat of an invisible public figure for the past three years, is now one of the most recognized faces in Santa Barbara County. Elected officials, journalists, and members of the public hang on her every word at press conferences and Board of Supervisors reports about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though the Orange County native only moved to Santa Barbara for the job three years ago, she is as close to a pandemic veteran as they come. Before making the move, Do-Reynoso lived in Visalia in Tulare County for 17 years, working with public health departments through two mass disease outbreaks.

Over those 17 years, she spent five years with the Tulare Health and Human Services Agency before she began work in Madera County, where she managed the Madera County behavioral health and human services programs beginning in 2004. She was then Madera County’s assistant public health director for two years before serving as its public health director for seven years.

“I was working in this field when H1N1 and Ebola broke out, and the experience is similar to COVID in the way that we are trained to manage and mitigate the outbreaks,” Do-Reynoso said. “But this is unprecedented because of how widespread and sustained COVID-19 is … . The magnitude is what’s unprecedented.”

But she’s confident she can handle the job with the partnership of the county’s emergency departments backing her up.

“We are supported by the Emergency Operations Center, the Office of Emergency Management, our colleagues from County Fire, and the Sheriff’s Office to bring their expertise in managing a large-scale incident like COVID-19,” Do-Reynoso said. “We collaborate and support each other by making sure we all get turns taking days off.”

On her rare days off, Van-Do Reynoso spends her time with her family: “I unwind by having dinner with [my daughter] Sarah and my husband, Gabriel,” she continued. “That’s when I can connect with them and share with them and get grounded — beyond the crisis, I’m dealing with the rest of life. What really challenged me was the inability to have dinner with them since the end of March.”

Her husband to whom she has been married 32 years, is a civil engineer at a private firm in Santa Barbara. They met at UC Santa Cruz — she still fondly refers to him as her “college sweetheart.” Her youngest daughter, Sarah, attends Dos Pueblos High School. Her daughter Rebecca is a licensed clinical psychologist for Veterans Affairs in Michigan, and her daughter Bethany is a junior at Sacramento State University.

It was a family decision for Do-Reynoso to take the position at the Santa Barbara Public Health Department and leave their nearly two-decade life in Visalia. Do-Reynoso said her family visited Santa Barbara together and they “immediately fell in love and came to a unanimous choice.”

Do-Reynoso is paid an annual salary upward of $200,000 a year to direct Santa Barbara’s Public Health Department. The department’s responsibilities appear to be almost limitless and include inspecting food establishments, operating health clinics for the underserved, staffing medical shelters during emergency evacuations, managing the county’s animal control program, and conducting health education campaigns.

With any leadership role comes criticism, which Do-Reynoso appeared to be spared from before the pandemic erupted. One of the critical responsibilities held by public health directors is to ensure and oversee there is clear communication with the public.

But after the virus spread throughout the county, the department was routinely blasted by the public and occasionally the local media over the conflicting COVID-19 information coming from the health department. In one instance in March, Do-Reynoso reported that there were 32 ventilators spread across the county’s five hospitals, but less than a week later, chief health officer Dr. Henning Ansorg disputed the number, saying it was too low.

But communication has greatly improved. The department found its bearings and now relays information consistently and accurately. The weeks of emails that once poured in from readers begging reporters to ask the questions they couldn’t find answers to have stopped almost entirely.

As Santa Barbara approaches the peak of the curve, Do-Reynoso, her team, and the county emergency department teams are continuing to work toward decreasing the county’s recently stable number of cases (omitting cases inside the Lompoc federal prison) and hospitalizations so it can move on to the next step.

“We know we’re on the other side of the peak when we’ve experienced a steady decline in hospitalizations or no new cases over a period of time, such as 14 days,” Do-Reynoso explained. “We believe that getting back to ‘normal’ will take some time and in many ways, some of the changes we have experienced as a result of COVID will likely persist as our new normal.”

She said that the department will work with state guidelines, including Governor Gavin Newsom’s recently rolled-out checklist of six targets to be met before businesses and schools can reopen and the new normal can begin.    

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