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Profile: Dr. Penny Borenstein shows steady local health leadership in tough times 

San Luis Obispo County Public Health Officer Dr. Penny Borenstein

San Luis Obispo County Public Health Officer Dr. Penny Borenstein

– As the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Officer, Dr. Penny Borenstein, oversees activities that protect and promote healthy living for county residents and visitors to San Luis Obispo County.

Public health education, child health and development, infectious diseases and partnering with the county’s medical community and public leaders are some of the responsibilities of a public health officer. Even the quality of drinking water and swimming pools falls under the umbrella of public health. The health department also operates health clinics and a laboratory providing testing to support county, state and federal health programs.

Working to overcome drug addiction in San Luis Obispo County is another important job for Borenstein. “Dr. Borenstein has been on the forefront of the drug epidemic in our community and was the first to alert the community about fentanyl,” said John Peschong, District 1 County Supervisor. “I lost a nephew to a drug overdose and this drug epidemic is personal to me.”

Peschong said Borenstein’s work helps educate the public and her support of county detoxification and rehabilitation programs is helping reduce the number of overdose deaths. “She works with county, state, and federal agencies to monitor and combat drug addiction.”

“I’ve worked with Penny since I was elected to office around three-and-a-half-years ago. She’s very professional and has a real sense of the community and community health. She bases her decisions in science and takes a scientific approach to the health of the entire community,” said Peschong. “She’s been a leader in fighting for more COVID-19 testing for the county and the increase in testing is directly due to her efforts.”

Dr. Penny Borenstein (center) touring the county Public Health Laboratory with Dr. Jim Beebee (left), Public Health Lab Director and Supervisor John Peschong (right) and Laboratory scientist Frances Magno (rear left)

Public health vs COVID-19

“Public health is a key component of our health care system, Borenstein says.” It covers so many specialty areas that touch so many individual lives, yet many people don’t give it much thought on a day-to-day basis.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed what many think about day-to-day. Public health is a big job in the best of times. Toss in a life-threatening pandemic and a big job becomes a huge job. Leadership that is steadied by experience and dedication makes a vital difference in people’s lives. Praise from those who work with Borenstein show her dedication to public health and her ability and willingness to speedily confront COVID-19 has been key in keeping us as safe as possible.

“She has gone above and beyond to keep our community safe. She has been working very long hours every day, making difficult decisions, and working hard to obtain the resources the county needs to be prepared. It has been difficult navigating the unknown, but Dr. Borenstein has displayed an incredible work ethic and a calm demeanor while implementing a plan to treat COVID-19 patients in this county,” said Debbie Arnold, District 5 County Supervisor.

Dr. Borenstein is a three-decade career public health professional who brings experience and passion to her work. In a recent email exchange, Dr. Borenstein said, “I was a rare student who entered medical school knowing that I wanted a career in public health.”

After completing undergraduate studies, she worked at a laboratory at the Johns Hopkins Medicine system in Baltimore, MD where she said, “I got to hang out with friends attending the School of Public Health and I was smitten. What I experienced was the pride and warm feeling of contributing to the health improvement not just of individual patients but to the community as a whole.”

When asked, “What are your strategies for protecting the community from COVID-19,” Dr. Borenstein responded:

  • Keep people healthy and reduce transmission
  • Flatten the curve to protect our hospital and critical care resources from a surge they can’t handle
  • Prepare for the worst-case scenario, but hope for the best.


“For these reasons, we have worked diligently on encouraging people to shelter at home, and explaining what that means and why it’s important,” said Borenstein. “Most people understand that we all have to sacrifice in order to spare lives of those we love. We are sacrificing extraordinarily. We cannot all be perfect all of the time, but our collective efforts seem to be working. We have to stay the course despite how onerous it seems.”

“Dr. Borenstein brings calm and knowledge to this situation. She has vast experience in public health and not only is she leading us through this pandemic, she led the county through the H1N1 pandemic over a decade ago,” said Michelle Shoresman, Division Manager for Health Care ‘Access and currently serving on the county’s COVID-19 team.

get tested for COVID-19-SLO County

Dr. Penny Borenstein has been at the forefront of combating the COVID-19 pandemic in San Luis Obispo County.

‘Listen to the public health experts,’ doctors say

Many have exhaled with relief at the news that a flattening of COVID -19 cases in the county was reported in the past few days, but we must not assume this is over. It’s easy to be frightened by the ever-increasing numbers of reports from around the nation and world and it’s easy to feel hopeful when those numbers level off. But, what does that leveling off really mean? Do a few days with no reported new cases mean that we are on the downhill side of COVID-19 here at home? The truth is that we won’t know until we know and it is important to be personally responsible for our behaviors to help reduce exposure to this virus and continue to do so until the experts say otherwise.

Dr. Edwin Hayashi, Dr. Howard Hayashi, Dr. Rene Bravo and Dr. Rushdi Abdul Cader, speaking during a recent  COVID-19 briefing supported the importance of continuing protective measures to slow and stop the spread of the virus. Bravo said, “Listen to the public health experts.”

“I want to thank Dr. Penny Borenstein. She and the county have been working with the local health community and the larger San Luis Obispo County to reduce the spread of this disease. I have been incredibly impressed at the communication and the day-to-day collaboration that I’ve seen,” said Bravo. “The local medical community stands arm-in-arm with the county.”

“Thank you for doing what is right,” said County Executive Officer, Wade Horton at the April 6 briefing. Cader said, “We are fortunate to have a doctor like Dr. Borenstein.”

‘We are all in this together’

“We are all in this together,” said Borenstein. “I have gratitude for our public safety and first responder communities. They have been with us every step of the way. Our local healthcare providers are on the front lines. They are doing all they can each day to protect themselves and their patients.”

“I am extremely grateful for their service and selflessness during this crisis and every day.” The health department is continuing to work to make sure the first responder and health care communities have the equipment and resources they need to keep themselves and the community safe.

To the community: “Please keep doing what you can to practice physical distancing and good hygiene, while taking care of your mental health. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, keep your hands away from your face, stay home if you are sick and help a neighbor if they are high risk and cannot help themselves. Get outside and take care of yourself. We know this is difficult and it is causing everyone to change the way they are used to doing things. We will get through this and be stronger on the other side.”

“If you get a chance to have contact with a first responder or health care provider, or any other essential worker in the community, thank them.”

Dr. Borenstein cutting the ribbon for the County Health Department new sign., accompanied by Ann McDowell, Epidemiologist (behind Dr. Borenstein) and left to right: Linda McClure, WIC Program Manager, Claire Hermann, Accreditation Program Manager, Laura Jamieson, former Public Health Nurse, Tara Kennon, Communications Manager, Inger Appanaitis, Tobacco Control Program Manager and Claudia Schultz, Administrative Assistant

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About the author: Reporter Jackie Iddings

Jackie Iddings is a contributing reporter and photographer for the Paso Robles Daily News.