Biweekly Briefing Articles

Honoring Dr. Wilma Wooten: A Legacy of Equity and Excellence in Public Health

Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten, MD, MPH, is retiring this month after more than two decades of service with San Diego County. She is a true barrier-breaker, visionary, and the definition of a public servant. I want to recognize and celebrate her extraordinary career and thank her for everything she has done for the health of our community.

Any discussion about Dr. Wooten’s career must include her leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. True leaders emerge in times of crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic was the ultimate test.

As our public health officer, Dr. Wooten was at the center of this storm, skillfully navigating the political, emotional, and logistical challenges that arose. Under her steadfast stewardship, San Diego County achieved remarkable vaccination rates, administering 3.9 million doses to a population of 2.8 million aged 12 and older. Her efforts earned her the title of 2020 San Diegan of the Year by the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board. The board highlighted her unwavering commitment to best practices in a climate of paranoia, populism, and public apathy. Throughout this challenging period, Dr. Wooten faced significant pushback from parts of the community, but her steadfast leadership undoubtedly saved countless lives.

I have long admired Dr. Wooten’s relentless pursuit of health equity, and her leadership here shined through the pandemic. She pioneered innovative methods to address disparities, such as utilizing the statewide Healthy Places Index tool to identify and support disadvantaged communities. Her efforts ensured that during the peak of the pandemic, nearly half of COVID-19 testing sites were in communities identified by the index as the least healthy. That is equity in action.

We were proud to honor Dr. Wooten with the HASD&IC 2022 Community Leadership Award for her “enduring and monumental contributions and leadership during the pandemic response to protect and preserve the health and safety of all San Diego County communities.”

Dr. Wooten’s commitment to health equity led to the Board of Supervisors’ 2021 declaration of racism as a public health crisis. She developed a Health Equity Framework in 2010, guiding local health departments in integrating equity into their operations. Her work has been instrumental in the national recognition of Live Well San Diego, an initiative renowned for its comprehensive approach to community health improvement.

Dr. Wooten has been a collaborator and partner with HASD&IC and hospitals across the region. In every role she has undertaken, her generosity of time and spirit has been evident as she supported her colleagues and advanced public health for the good of the community.

Dr. Wooten is a role model. Born in rural Alabama, she became the first in her family to attend college. She likely could have gone anywhere and done anything, but she chose a career focused on helping others. How fortunate for San Diego County. We need more leaders like Dr. Wooten in health care, medicine, science, and public service. As she steps into retirement this month, we know this isn’t the last we will hear from this selfless and dynamic public servant. Her legacy of equity and excellence in public health will continue to inspire us all.