Butte County’s top doc departing

Public Health Officer Robert Bernstein announces retirement after a year on the job

Dr. Robert Bernstein, photographed for the CN&R’s 2021 Whom to Watch issue, will leave Butte County Public Health on Sept. 3. (File photo by Evan Tuchinsky)

Butte County will be looking for a new public health officer for the second time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic after Dr. Robert Bernstein announced his retirement.

County Public Health, which released the news Monday (Aug. 9), said his last day will be Sept. 3. In a phone interview with the CN&R Thursday (Aug. 12), Public Health Director Danette York told the CN&R that her department hopes to start the recruitment process next week to hire his replacement.

“Dr. Bernstein has been a huge help for us,” York said. “He had spent most of his career working at the federal and even the international level, and so during this COVID response, his expertise level from being with CDC and in other countries responding to infectious diseases has been very instrumental.

“We very appreciate the time he has given us and of course wish him the absolute best in his retirement or any future work endeavors that he pursues.”

Bernstein started last August, replacing Dr. Andy Miller, who resigned after 3½ years on the job. Known as Dr. B and Dr. Bob around Public Health, he came from Tuolomne County with teenage triplets and four cats. He was not available for comment, per BCPH; York said she was not aware of any specific reasons for his departure.

“It wasn’t a surprise for me: He had told me ahead of time that when he returned from vacation that he would be submitting a letter,” she said. “The letter just indicates he is looking at retirement and in the future he may be looking at something else, like teaching or working part time for state or federal [agencies].”

A brief tenure, she added, “is always a possibility—we always go in with our eyes wide open, especially with public health officers, because they’re hard to find and you never know how long one is going to be with us.”

Butte County’s turnover in leadership is in line with a national trend of a record number of public health officials leaving or being fired from positions that have become lightning rods for political battles and targets of public backlash during the pandemic. For his part, Dr. Bernstein has not given any statements as to whether or not the volatile climate surrounding COVID-19 was a factor in his decision making.

For roughly two months between Miller and Bernstein, Dr. Ngoc-Phuong Luu, the public health officer for Yuba and Sutter counties, served as Butte County’s interim public health officer. York said she reached out to Luu, who will consult with her respective county boards of supervisors about reprising that role.

As for the next replacement, York is seeking someone who, like Bernstein and his predecessors, has clinical experience along with public health expertise. BCPH runs a clinic, unlike many other departments, she explained. Beyond COVID, the new public health officer will jump into renewal of the department’s national accreditation.

“A huge thanks to Dr. Bob and a preliminary thanks to all who are considering applying,” York added, “because we need a good public health officer.”

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