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Profiles in Government: State Public Health Wields Tech for Well-Being

Technology and innovation infuse numerous of the California Department of Public Health’s projects around COVID-19 and wellness.

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Fast Facts

Leadership: Department Director and State Public Health Officer Dr. Tomás J. Aragón, appointed in December 2020 by Gov. Gavin Newsom to replace Interim Director Sandra Shewry, who stepped in in August 2020 following the departure of former Director Sonia Angell. Chief Information Officer John Roussel, who assumed the role in June. A veteran state technology exec, Roussel had been CDPH’s assistant deputy director and chief technology officer.

Budget: $6.8 billion, with rounding.

Total staff: 4,203.

A state department that routinely spearheads life-affirming initiatives for the state’s nearly 40 million adults is also making consistent progress on IT modernization.

The California Department of Public Health, one of the state’s most public-facing departments, has as its stated mission to “advance the health and well-being of California's diverse people and communities”; it works to protect public health statewide and helps to “shape positive health outcomes for individuals, families and communities.” Its fundamental responsibilities include “infectious disease control and prevention, food safety, environmental health, laboratory services, patient safety, emergency preparedness, chronic disease prevention and health promotion, family health, health equity and vital records and statistics,” per the CDPH website. Critical services include delivering “providing nutritional support to low-income women, infants and children, and screening newborns and pregnant women for genetic diseases” as well as safeguarding patient safety and responding to public health emergencies. The department serves Californians with 4,203 staffers, 288 of whom are in its Information Technology Services Division.

The state’s new 2022-2023 Fiscal Year state budget, which took effect July 1, includes nearly $1.8 billion from “Other Funds” for “COVID-19 Direct Response Expenditures" at CDPH. Aspects of the department’s response to the disease are among its key accomplishments during the past three years, it told Industry Insider — California via email.

“Over the past three years, CDPH – often in collaboration with the California Department of Technology and the Office of Data and Innovation – has adapted its current technology to work with new modern architectures that provided key components of a public health infrastructure necessary to rapidly respond to COVID-19 and the urgent need for enhanced Disease Surveillance Systems,” the department said. These include:

  • The California COVID Reporting System (CCRS), a “robust 24x7 solution to process electronic lab results for all reportable diseases,” including COVID-19 and monkeypox (MPX). It “validates, normalizes and de-duplicates lab results for downstream disease surveillance and contact-tracing systems.”
  • California Confidential Network for Contact Tracing (CalCONNECT), the platform for COVID-19 contact tracing by local health departments statewide as well as the state, and “partner organizations”; it supports “safely reopening California’s schools and businesses.”
  • CA Notify, the free service app that lets you find out if you have been exposed to COVID-19.
  • California Vaccine Management System (MyCAvax), the vaccine management app that helps the department enroll, order and track the vaccine.
  • My Turn, the state’s COVID-19 “vaccine scheduling and administration system” – recognized last year by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO). 
  • Digital COVID Vaccine Record (DCVR), which provides a digital copy of one’s COVID-19 vaccine card – nominated this year for “State CIO Office Special Recognition” by NASCIO.

Major IT projects or initiatives on the horizon include:

  • Building a “flexible, scalable, responsive and attainable backbone to support dynamic public health capabilities and services and streamline transactional systems, to create one-stop, enterprise-scale systems for surveillance and licensing activities.”
  • Increasing the department’s digital transformation by “enabling more efficient public health business processes and reducing manual burden.”
  • Enhancing “systemwide data governance and standards to improve data interoperability and access.”
  • Integrating additional data into systems to “enable public health analyses and enhance access to accurate and timely data for programs and stakeholders to improve decision-making.”

Other “critical initiatives/efforts” completed during the last six months include:

  • The California Abortion website, which “provides a safe space for residents of California and other states to find abortion information,” the department said.
  • Adding the MPX vaccine to CalCONNECT and My Turn.
The state allocated $20.1 million from the General Fund and 33 positions this fiscal year to stand up an Information Technology, Data Science and Informatics Framework for a 21st Century Public Health System. In February, in a budget change proposal, the project sought the funding for “foundational enterprise and strategic planning activities to modernize public health IT infrastructure and systems and implement the Ecosystem of Data Sharing ... .” The department is “currently developing a continually evolving and responsive overarching data, technology and digital transformation strategy to establish a framework” for the system’s modernization and transformation, it told Industry Insider.

Among CDPH’s many other initiatives, state Senate Bill 855, from state Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, recently signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, gives CDPH until Jan. 1, 2024, to stand up and run the Childhood Drowning Data Collection Pilot Program to gather “detailed data on childhood fatal and non-fatal drownings.” The department will work with five to 10 “county child death review teams or other local agencies” and report to “the appropriate legislative policy committees”; and develop a California Water Safety Action Plan for Children based on those reports, and a standardized form for counties to use in reporting drowning statistics.
Theo Douglas is Assistant Managing Editor of Industry Insider — California.