COVID-19 · Fresno · Highlight

David Pomaville, Fresno health director, reflects on navigating once-in-century pandemic, retirement

After a year unlike any other, David Pomaville, Fresno County’s Director of Public Health has retired, leaving the county at a time in which the COVID-19 case numbers are declining and vaccine distribution is well in-stride.

Pomaville leaves the Public Health Department after two decades of service – from 1989-1999 and 2011-2021 – including eight years helming the department.

After staring down the onset of a once-in-a-century pandemic in the form of the novel coronavirus, Pomaville led the Valley’s largest county response to the crisis. As case rates began to dip in last summer, he considered retiring, he told The Sun in an interview on Tuesday.

Then the devastating Creek Fire hit the foothills of Fresno and Madera counties.

Following that was a lengthy surge of the coronavirus into the winter.

“There just really wasn’t time to sit back and think about what options there were,” Pomaville said. “I just wanted to make sure that when I left, I left the department in a more stable time than we had in 2020.” 

By all measures that stability looks to be the case as 2021 progresses. Fresno County is averaging 46 new COVID-19 cases per day, and more than 680,000 vaccine doses have been administered with a quarter of the county being fully immunized. 

The first few months of the pandemic proved to be challenging and frustrating for Pomaville and the department. While the department could draw on a wealth of experience related to its response to the Swine Flu, Ebola and the Zika virus, the lack of timely coronavirus testing put the county in a difficult position. 

“I think that probably the most frustrating time was when we were not able to get comprehensive testing done,” Pomaville said. “Testing really became the tool that we’re now able to use to be able to isolate outbreaks and really quarantine people much more quickly. As we got more testing available – which is now commonly available – I really feel like that’s the point where we have a better chance to respond to outbreaks regarding COVID.” 

Pomaville is especially proud of the partnerships the department formed over the course of the pandemic with the school districts, hospitals, primary care providers, faith-based organizations and various community-based organizations. 

Those groups helped the county push testing numbers up, develop contact tracing programs, and hone in vaccine messaging and distribution. 

“I’m really proud of the rollout that we did with regard to the vaccines and getting the mass vaccination sites up, getting the medical providers vaccinated,” Pomaville said. “CVS and Walgreens did a very good job of vaccinating our skilled nursing facilities, which was a big help, and I think those first months there, there was a lot of anxiety and stress over who gets the vaccine and when.” 

“And I think we put together a good plan and then implemented the plan, and that was very effective in just letting the community know we were taking seriously, we’re getting it done and give us the time and you’ll get your turn. I’m surprised we’re here in the first of May and vaccines are so readily available.” 

Pomaville had to also balance the county’s COVID-19 response with the various messaging that came out of the state, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, cities of Fresno and Clovis and the various outlying communities within the county. 

“There definitely were challenges with regards to mixed messages coming out from the city, state and local government, but I think in the end there were a lot of business owners that thought it through, looked at what the issues were and tried to make the best decisions that they could,” Pomaville said. “And that’s exactly what we really wanted to have happen.” 

Managing the various regulations and pushing out public health-safety messages drew the eyes of public and business community, especially as restaurants, hair salons and barber shops were shut down by California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his administration. 

Pomaville also came to the county’s defense when faced with claims from media outlets regarding an alleged “tip-off” into an inspection of a local Foster Farms plant. 

He said he always tried to apprise himself of the public’s concerns and the factors driving the issues with regard to the restaurant industry and other sectors. 

While county interim health officer Dr. Rais Vohra served as the public’s coronavirus liaison throughout the past year, Pomaville was equally an ever-present voice to the media and was available to discuss administrative matters, among other topics. 

“Thank you to the community for the understanding and the patience,” Pomaville said. “I know often times we saw the more volatile side of things, but there were a lot of people that just did what they could to try to control the pandemic and take care of their families and take care of their friends. And I think we overlook that sometimes when we look at the pandemic response.” 

Pomaville said he is going to take some time off and enjoy time with his family after an extremely stressful year before he pursues his next professional steps. 

“I think that I have some good years left in me, and I want to maybe focus a little bit in an area that isn’t as comprehensive as managing a public health department,” Pomaville said. “I’m not quite exactly sure what that’s going to look like. I value the people that are at the department. The leadership that’s there, and I hope I can help them if they have any issues that come up in the future.” 

Update (5/5/21): Fresno County Interim Health Officer offered the following comments:

“This is such a joyous occasion to be able to see Dave start the next chapter of his wonderful and seasoned life, and also a bittersweet moment because we have to say goodbye to an amazing leader and a personal friend to so many of us. David Pomaville’s untiring dedication to addressing the numerous challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis (and also the Creek Fire) resulted in the health department and all of our community and health care partners providing the best care for the people of Fresno that we could under extremely challenging circumstances. On the front lines of medicine, a physician’s timely interventions can help save one life at a time; but Dave’s leadership, poise, patience, and clear thinking on the front lines of this unprecedented and thoroughly disruptive pandemic ended up saving countless lives over many months right here in Fresno county.”

Daniel Gligich is a reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun, focusing on Fresno State Athletics and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Email him at daniel.gligich@sjvsun.com.