Peninsula politicians working to flatten coronavirus curve have public health backgrounds

Peninsula politicians working to flatten coronavirus curve have public health backgrounds

in Community/Featured/Headline

San Mateo County politicians with backgrounds in public health are urging the community to heed the prevailing advice of public health experts on the fast-spreading coronavirus.

While San Mateo Mayor Joe Goethels and Redwood City Vice Mayor Shelly Masur both hold master’s degrees in public health, San Mateo City Councilmember Amourence Lee spent her early career working for UNICEF in Beijing focused on health and nutrition programs, and San Carlos Vice Mayor Laura Parmer-Lohan has a background in marketing and administration in the healthcare sector and currently works in the biotech industry.

These are some of the politicians taking part in daily briefings conducted by the San Mateo County Manager’s Office. On Thursday, we spoke with them about the ongoing pandemic and why they believe it’s crucial to follow expert advice on sheltering in place and social distancing.

In other words, it’s time to “break the handle,” said Mayor Goethels.

The mayor shared the story of the London cholera outbreak of 1854, when the waterborne disease was traced to a specific well contamination. As it was then and remains now, the public health field is understood by three factors — epidemiology, human behavior, and statistics. To avert the cholera outbreak, people needed to stop using the water from a certain well, but simply telling them this was ineffective. Ultimately Dr. John Snow, one of the founders of modern epidemiology who traced the source of the cholera outbreak, broke the handle from the water pump in question, an act that seemed like an extreme intervention. History tells us that was needed, Mayor Goethels said.

“It is important to support interventions that work, breaking the handle was extreme and necessary,” he said. At this point, “…we can accurately predict the need and so this overreaction in the right reaction.”

Fellow San Mateo City Councilmember Lee worked for UNICEF at a time when there was no sex education programs in China and HIV/AIDS was beginning to spread across the country.

“Sadly, this is not my first pandemic,” Lee said.

Lee stressed a “multi-sector and layered approach” at the County level, and a commitment by community members to practice social distancing, a version of breaking the handle. Her children are learning via Google classroom, allowing them to see and hear their teachers and classmates and feel a sense of normalcy in unusual times.

To be a leader in the community is to follow the shelter-in-place order, added Masur, who believes emergency declarations at the local level were the right call. While maintaining distance is an adjustment, “we need to recognize none of this is personal – our neighbors, our friends, members of our community – this isn’t rude to them, we want everyone to stay safe. Practicing social distancing is our path to slow the transmission.”

Meanwhile, San Carlos Vice Mayor Parmer-Lohan, whose city recently made headlines after one of its hotels became a field hospital for passengers from the Grand Princess cruise ship, isn’t just warning about the spread of the coronavirus, but also the spread of inaccurate information, particularly on social media. The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office has reported that coronavirus-related phone and Internet scams have been popping up in the community and encouraged local residents to stick to guidance from reputable sources such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the San Mateo County Health Department (see below for links and additional resources).

“Please follow instructions from reputable sources,” Parmer-Lohan said.

Goethels, Masur, Lee and Parmer-Lohan all emphasized the need to follow the shelter-in-place directive that orders families to stay home and away from crowds, and requires nonessential businesses to close their doors until further notice.

The directive aims to slow the spread of the coronavirus in order to keep hospitals and the healthcare system from being overwhelmed with patients.

This event shouldn’t merely be viewed from the lens of doom and gloom. There are some benefits to breaking the proverbial handle.

“See this as an opportunity to spend time with your family,” Mayor Goethals suggested.

Vice Mayor Parmer-Lohan added, “Find moments of joy, life still needs to be lived.”

Lee’s opinion? “Compassion, transparency, and collaboration will get us through this virus,” she said.

Recommended Resources


City of Redwood City

City of San Carlos

City of San Mateo

San Mateo County Health Department

San Mateo & Santa Clara Counties – screening and testing information


California State


Center for Disease Control and Prevention


World Health Organization

Photo Credit: San Mateo County from outside of the Regional Operations Center at County Center in Redwood City.