San Francisco Public Health Director Barbara Garcia resigned from her position on Tuesday, the San Francisco Examiner learned today.
Garcia’s service with the department spans nearly two decades and roles including deputy director, director of community substance abuse services, director of homeless services and associate administrator of AIDS, health and human services. She joined the department 1999 and was selected as the department’s director in 2011 by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom.
Garcia’s resignation comes as The City readies for a landmark safe injection site initiative spearheaded by Mayor London Breed.
On Tuesday, the California State Senate passed a bill that would allow San Francisco to open safe injection sites under a three year pilot program, although the bill still needs to be signed by the governor. Breed, who has been vocal in her support for the plan, plans to open the doors to a “mock” site at the Tenderloin District Glide Memorial Methodist Church on Aug. 28.
Breed, who took office in July, had a willing ally and partner in Garcia on many issues ranging from the controversial safe injection sites to homelessness, insiders said.
Dr. Vitka Eisen, CEO of HealthRIGHT 360, called Garcia a “fierce advocate for safe injection sites” who “advanced the conversation surrounding substance use disorder treatment in San Francisco.”
“Her efforts not only improved policy, but most importantly helped residents in need get the access to healthcare they deserve,” said Eisen.
As of July 28, Garcia made $348,192 with benefits annually, according to the San Francisco Department of Human Resources.
On Wednesday, Garcia sent a letter to DPH employees announcing her decision.
“I have had the great privilege of leading, along with all of you, the best Health Department in the country. Together, with our Health Commission, we have worked to protect and to promote the health of all people in San Francisco,” said Garcia in the letter. “As you know, there is still so much work to do, especially in our communities of color. I am confident of your commitment to continue to raise the health status of all people in San Francisco.”
Garcia added that she supports “Mayor Breed’s focus on the health and welfare of all communities in San Francisco. I know that all of you will continue to support her efforts.”
According to the letter, Greg Wagner, DPH’s chief financial officer, “will be Acting Director, and the Health Commission will begin a search for a permanent director.”
Breed said in a statement that Garcia served the department “with passion and dedication.”
“During this time, the department has been at the forefront of some of the most progressive health policies in the nation and has served as a model for other cities,” said Breed in the statement. “She is a committed public servant who has worked tirelessly to ensure that ALL San Franciscans, especially our underserved communities, have the access to public health they deserve.”
Programs implemented under Garcia include citywide homeless outreach teams and a sobering center for alcoholics.
Supervisor Jane Kim, whose district includes the Tenderloin, said that she worked with Garcia over the course of two years to build out and expand a 24-hour medical respite shelter staffed by nurses, clinicians and psychologist in South of Market, which opened its doors in 2017.
Prior to that Kim worked with Garcia to “roll out full-time nurses at all of our single adult shelters” in 2014, she said.
“She has always approached our residents, our neighborhood and SoMa with compassion,” Kim said. “She understands that homelessness is a public health issue as much as it is an economic issue.”
Now, the question is who will replace Garcia and take the lead on the safe injection site initiative as well as other ongoing city efforts, including oversight of homeless outreach and of a U.S. Navy-led effort launched last month to retest the Hunters Point Shipyard for radioactive contamination.
The public health department has been involved in testing and in an oversight capacity at the shipyard, which is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-designated Superfund site and has been undergoing radioactive remediation for more than a decade.
Plans to redevelop the former naval base into more than 10,500 homes and 4 million square feet of commercial space have been put on hold after the Navy and EPA determined that they needed to examine the radiological work conducted by Navy contractor Tetra Tech, after audits revealed potential data manipulation and fraud.
Public health officials have come under fire recently for public statements assuring residents that the shipyard is safe despite allegations of fraud that date back to at least 2012.
“We call on the Mayor to appoint new leadership at the San Francisco Department of Public Health who will prioritize protection of our most vulnerable residents instead of protecting corporate developers seeking to gentrify our city,” said Bradley Angel, Executive Director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice.
The advocacy group has been calling for retesting and community oversight of the shipyard cleanup, among other things.
“It is time for the Health Department to protect the people of Bayview Hunters Point who continue to be exposed to radioactive and toxic contamination at the Shipyard Superfund Site in part due to the Health Department’s cover up of Tetra Tech’s fraud and the botched cleanup,” he said.
Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this story.