Wilma Wooten, San Diego's top doctor during COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, retires

Wooten was at the forefront of San Diego County's response to the coronavirus pandemic, appearing multiple times a week to provide updates on the spread of cases and best prevention measures

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Dr. Wilma Wooten, San Diego County's public health officer and the face of the county's COVID-19 response, announced her retirement Tuesday following 23 years of service.

Of that time, 17 years were spent as the county's lead doctor.

"During her career, Dr. Wooten has prioritized the prevention and control of infectious disease, protection from environmental hazards and promoted injury prevention," county officials said in a statement. "She has reinforced healthy choices and lifestyles, emergency preparedness and has fought to eliminate health disparities in traditionally underserved communities."

In May, Wooten was honored by the California Department of Public Health with its highest recognition -- the Beverlee A. Myers Award for Excellence in Public Health, presented annually for outstanding leadership and dedication to all aspects of public health.

"The COVID adversity did not just build her character. It revealed her character," said Susan Fanelli, chief deputy director at CDPH, during the award presentation in Sacramento in May. "Throughout her life, Dr. Wooten has broken barriers and has served as a role model for young people, especially Black American girls who wish to pursue a career in medicine and science."

Wooten was at the forefront of San Diego County's response to the coronavirus pandemic, appearing multiple times a week in front of media and the public, providing updates on the spread of cases and best prevention measures.

In that role she was often the target of harsh criticism from members of the public who disagreed with the county's COVID response. She said part of being a public official was working with those who disagree with you.

"Make sure to socialize what you think is a `great idea' with those you think are supportive, as well as with those reluctant, opposed or impacted by your important policy, practice, or program," Wooten said. "And don't agonize over things that you cannot change."

Wooten joined the county in 2001 and was named public health officer for the county's 3.3 million residents in 2007.

"I wanted to do something that had a greater impact focused on population health and I saw coming to work for the public health department an opportunity to realize that interest," Wooten said in a recording released by the county.

She was born in rural Alabama and attended high school during segregation. She was the first person in her family to go to college. She graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta, a Historically Black College and University, with a degree in biology then earned her master of public health degree from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where she also completed her doctorate at the school of medicine. Her residency was held in Georgetown in Washington, D.C. and at UC San Diego Health.

"I am proud of our response to the major public health incidents and threats that we've experienced over the past two decades," Wooten said.

Wooten said she is looking forward to traveling and keeping busy in her retirement.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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