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New Shasta County public health officer fought COVID vaccine mandates

The Shasta County Board of Supervisors has appointed an outspoken critic of COVID-19 vaccine mandates to be the county’s new public health officer.

The hiring of Redding family physician James Mu comes 17 months after the board fired its previous public health officer, Karen Ramstrom, whom supervisors had criticized for following state mandates requiring masks and vaccinations during the pandemic.

“I would like to follow evidence-based policy. However, if there are medical dogma that are not good for the population in our county, then I will question and even challenge them,” said Mu, who also opposed vaccines and masks for children, after the supervisors voted to hire him Tuesday night.

The mostly rural Northern California county has struggled to hire a public health officer — the person responsible for preventing the spread of infectious diseases, enforcing government health orders and ordering quarantines — since Ramstrom’s firing in May 2022.

Dr. James Mu speaks to the Shasta County Board of Supervisors.

Dr. James Mu speaks to the Shasta County Board of Supervisors after his appointment as public health officer.

(Shasta County Board of Supervisors)

After at least three failed attempts to hire for the position, the Board of Supervisors in June lowered the job requirements.

Previously, a candidate was required to have five years of experience as a doctor and either a master’s degree in public health or two years of experience as a public health officer.

The minimum qualification now is that an applicant simply be a medical school graduate eligible for a California license to practice medicine.

Shasta County, a deeply conservative place that is home to 182,000 people, became a lightning rod for political discourse during the pandemic.

Residents regularly threatened elected officials and public health workers over COVID mandates during supervisors’ meetings.

At one meeting, a man in a Grim Reaper mask tried, unsuccessfully, to light a surgical mask on fire. At another, an anti-vaxxer tried to place all the supervisors under citizen’s arrest.

After a man angry about coronavirus restrictions announced Ramstrom’s home address during a meeting, Redding police did extra patrols of her neighborhood.

All the while, Shasta County consistently had one of the lowest vaccination rates and highest rates of death from COVID-19 in the state.

Mu was one of 12 Shasta County physicians who, in February 2022, publicly signed an “Open Letter on COVID-19” that decried vaccine mandates, the testing of asymptomatic people and “the physical, psychological, and social impacts of mask and vaccine mandates on children.”

A row of signs about masks and vaccines

An October 2020 protest against coronavirus restrictions and vaccines at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The letter touted the benefits of natural immunity and promoted the use of “early treatments” to prevent the disease.

The letter stemmed from a public forum at Pathway Church in Redding in which those physicians promoted the use of home remedies — including vitamins and iodine nasal sprays — to prevent and treat COVID-19.

There, doctors promoted the use of discredited COVID-19 treatments ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.

“When they mandate something, they’re taking some of your rights away,” Mu said in a speech at the forum, referring to the government. “They’re taking some of your autonomy away.”

Mu downplayed COVID-19 as “primarily a disease for the elderly and also those who are immunocompromised.”

He said the vaccines are “very effective in preventing severe illness, and if you are high-risk, you should really consider getting it.”

But, he added, he did not think people who had already been infected by the coronavirus should get inoculated and said that “children who are healthy” should not be vaccinated — advice contrary to recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mu could not be reached by The Times for comment.

His hiring comes three weeks after the Board of Supervisors appointed Jon Knight, a right-wing conspiracy theorist — who warned about weaponized insects and “flying syringes that will mass vaccinate the population” — to the Shasta Mosquito and Vector Control District board.

The powerful Board of Supervisors is led by a hard-right majority — supported by members of a local militia, State of Jefferson secessionists and residents furious about pandemic mandates — that often clashes with mainstream Republicans who have long held local government power.

In an editorial for the local news website A News Cafe days before her termination, Ramstrom, who could not be reached for comment, wrote: “We were never more restrictive than the state required; we followed the state law. Period. … I don’t want to leave my job and I don’t want to be muzzled. I object to being terminated.”

Donnell Ewert, the retired director of the Shasta County Health & Human Services Agency — who personally called Redding police after Ramstrom started getting threats — said her firing was “a miscarriage of what’s right.”

The County of Shasta Administration Center

The County of Shasta Administration Center, where the Board of Supervisors meets, in Redding, Calif.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

“She worked so hard for all of that time,” he said in an interview. “We had to practically beg her to go on vacation or go on breaks or not work on weekends.”

Ewert — whose agency oversaw the Public Health Branch for which Ramstrom worked — retired shortly before she was fired. With the new hard-right majority on the Board of Supervisors, he figured he would be fired for supporting masks and vaccinations too, he said.

“It felt like a losing battle, trying to tell the truth,” Ewert said. “We heard all kinds of crazy things: that Bill Gates was behind the vaccine and was going to inject microprocessors in us to track us,” he said. “That it was experimental gene therapy.”

Last month, the supervisors rejected the application of Ewert, an epidemiologist, for the mosquito abatement board. Instead, they chose Knight, who owns a hydroponic gardening supply store and who was pictured outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, holding what appeared to be a white power symbol.

A vehicle with the words "vote Trump" written on a window

A supporter of former President Trump drives through Redding in 2020.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The Board of Supervisors voted 3 to 2 to hire Mu as the new public health officer near the end of an eight-hour meeting Tuesday.

Patrick Jones, a gun store manager and the hard-right chairman of the Board of Supervisors, praised Mu as “someone that did not just bow down to whatever the governor said” during the pandemic.

“He did what’s best for his patients, which is what we’re looking for for the residents of Shasta County.”

Supervisor Kevin Crye, who voted for Mu, added: “I would like to tell Dr. Mu and his family: Buckle up.”

During public comments, Nena Perry, a Redding physician, said that while she believed Mu has the “potential to do a good job,” she hoped he could “get past his personal perspective and really look at the public health of the community.”

Stephanie Taylor, an epidemiologist who worked for the Shasta County Health & Human Services Agency for 15 years, through 2022, told the supervisors that she worried about Mu being asked to lead a public health staff exhausted by the pandemic.

Mu, she said, had “publicly undermined their work.”

Times staff writer Sean Greene contributed to this report.

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