San Antonio health chief steps down, saying city needs to appoint a person of color

Dawn Emerick resigned from from her job as San Antonio Metro health director. City of San Antonio website

As Texas navigates a rapidly escalating health crisis that has had disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic communities, the leader of San Antonio’s health department is stepping down because “it’s time for ... a person of color to lead one of the largest public health departments in the country,” she wrote in a resignation letter Thursday.

Dawn Emerick, a white woman who has led the department since February, said recent protests calling for racial equality have forced her to reflect on a question she asked during her interview for the role: “whether replacing a white female executive leader with another white female leader, in a 60% Latinx community, would set the new leader up for success and create community confidence.”

“While staff, community members and residents, have warmly embraced me,” Emerick wrote, “the residents of this community and the Metro Health workforce deserve a leader who can effectively relate to their personal experiences and who can be trusted to deconstruct systemic racism experienced by so many people of color every day.”

Her last day will be July 3.

Bexar County, like many of the state’s most populous, faces an alarming upward trendline of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. It is one of four counties in the state where elective surgeries have been barred in an effort to preserve hospital capacity for COVID-19 patients. Experts warn that the city, one of the state’s largest, is on a dangerous path.

Nationwide, the new coronavirus has disproportionately hurt communities of color — from disparate access to testing sites to higher fatality rates. The picture is somewhat clouded in Texas, where the state has failed to collect race and ethnicity data that could help identify and mitigate those trends. Heeding calls from Black and Hispanic lawmakers, state health officials announced this month they will launch a study on the virus’ impact on communities of color and other vulnerable populations.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff told the San Antonio Express-News he has concerns about who will replace Emerick during this crucial moment for the region.

“Clearly, the timing is not good, but we wish her well in her future endeavors,” City Manager Erik Walsh said Friday. He added that the pandemic has “revealed the depth of talent that exists within our health department.”

Colleen Bridger, the city’s assistant manager, also plans to step down in July. She and Walsh will develop a plan for replacing Emerick, Walsh said.