Dr. Wilma Wooten briefs the media
Dr. Wilma Wooten briefs the media on San Diego County’s coronavirus situation. Photo by Chris Jennewein

Dr. Wilma Wooten, who has been the county’s public health officer since 2007, was the San Diego Union-Tribune’s pick Thursday for “San Diegan of the Year” for her leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At a time when paranoia, populism and public apathy have made the response to the coronavirus pandemic a nightmare in much of the nation, Wooten has stood firm in advocating for best practices. Wearing masks. Washing hands. Staying six feet apart. Avoiding being indoors with non-household members. Limiting travel,” according to the newspaper’s editorial board.

The Union-Tribune praised Wooten for “consistently strong” judgment and noted that in May, when the state considering relaxing restrictions, she sounded the alarm over the pandemic if the public ignored safety basics.

“She was proven right in the fall, leading to a dramatic Oct. 16 news conference in which she declared, `We are sounding the alarm. … COVID-19 is everywhere,”‘ the U-T editorial reads. “Now the pandemic is worse than ever, with fatigue and denial fueling the worst outbreaks and the fullest hospitals yet.”

The 64-year-old Wooten  — a 1986 graduate of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine — has been a visible public presence since February, when the county officially declared a state of emergency at the onset of the pandemic. She has also received sharp criticism from some county residents — usually during Board of Supervisors meetings — for her policy decisions.

The U-T editorial board noted that harsh public criticism and threats have led some public health leaders in California and elsewhere to depart their jobs, including Dr. Nichole Quick, Orange County’s chief health officer. She resigned in June after getting death threats and having her home address announced at a board of supervisors meeting by a resident disgruntled over mask rules.

“At a San Diego County Board of Supervisors meeting that same month, a local resident upset about county rules criticized Wooten’s appearance and read her home address aloud twice,” the editorial notes. “To the county’s credit, it redacted Wooten’s address from the video of the board meeting, and to Wooten’s credit, she just kept doing her job: trying to keep everyone in San Diego County, including her critics, safe. This intimidation tactic, known as `doxing,’ and verbal and social media abuse didn’t deter Wooten.”

In August, the Union-Tribune took issue with the county’s refusal to specify where pandemic outbreaks were occurring, which “denies residents basic health-risk information that can shape their decision-making.”

Wooten’s rationale “was reasonable even if we came down strongly on the side of disclosure,” according to editorial board. “And within San Diego’s public health establishment, Wooten wins praise for staying on message, coordinating private, local, state and federal responses, resisting pressure to quickly end restrictions imposed March 19 by the state, taking decisive action to limit new infections at Halloween parties held by San Diego State University students off-campus and working long hours.”

Through a county spokeswoman, Wooten said being named “San Diegan of the Year” was “indeed an honor, but we have much work left to be done. Let’s all work together and make that happen.”

Outgoing Supervisor Greg Cox congratulated Wooten.

“Those of us fortunate to work with you have been inspired by your dedication and unceasing work to protect the people of San Diego and we are proud to see you receive the recognition you’ve earned and deserved,” Cox said in a Twitter post.

Within its editorial, the Union-Tribune acknowledged health care and frontline workers, food service workers, teachers and social justice advocates for their efforts during an unprecedented year.

La Jolla cardiologist Dr. Eric Topol, the founder and director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, was credited with pushing back via social and conventional media against a year “of dangerous, bizarre remarks from President Donald Trump and his aides downplaying the pandemic, making grossly misleading claims and touting virus `cures’ that weren’t.”

The Union-Tribune also praised the San Diego Padres, “who brought joy to so many as the team made the playoffs for the first time since 2006.”

— Story updated at 5:34 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020.

— City News Service