Chief County Medical Officer Yphantides on unexpected leave

San Diego County Chief Medical Officer Nick Yphantides, who had been a frequent presence in the early days of the local response to the coronavirus pandemic, is on an extended and unexplained leave of absence.

The circumstances behind his leave, which is not health-related, are unclear. When reached by phone, Yphantides would not say whether his leave was voluntary or involuntary.

“I’ve been out of the office for a while and you need to check with the county,” he responded to every question.

His email with the county generates a friendly, but cryptic automatic response.

“Thanks so much for your note!,” the email reads. “Due to unanticipated events I will be out of office for an extended period of time. During my absence, please reach out to my following colleagues for assistance.”

The brief email refers enquiries to Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jennifer Tuteur, Jamie Beam and Angela Galba-Davis at the county.

County spokesman Michael Workman said in an email Tuesday that Tuteur is acting medical director, but wrote that he could not respond to questions about Yphantides’ leave because it was a personnel issue. The chief medical officer serves under Health & Human Services Agency Director Nick Macchione.

Yphantides, 55, has been the county’s chief medical officer since 2009 and played an active and visible role in the early days of the local COVID-19 response, helping coordinate a strategy and serving as a liaison with doctors and hospitals.

He was among county health officials who announced a local state of emergency Feb. 14, 2020, placing San Diego ahead of the statewide announcement March 4.

He had a high profile in several other announcements in early 2020 and often joined in daily press briefings with county Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten, Supervisors Nathan Fletcher and Greg Cox, and Dr. Eric McDonald, medical director of epidemiology and immunization services for the county.

Yphantides already was a recognized figure when he was hired by the county, having gained national exposure for his 2004 book, “My Big Fat Greek Diet,” which chronicled how he lost more about 270 pounds.

Before joining the county in 2009, Yphantides was director of the Escondido Community Health Center and for four years served on the board of the Palomar Health system. He also was chairman of the Council of Community Clinics, a consortium of 21 health centers from San Diego and Imperial counties.

A high school graduate at 16 and one of the youngest graduates of the 1992 medical class from UC San Diego, Yphantides worked as a medical missionary in Africa, Eastern Europe and Central America.

He often was a serious, but colorful figure at press briefings, sometimes quoting scripture when referring to the challenges faced by the country during the pandemic.

Yphantides was front and center in a five-column, front-page photo in The San Diego Union-Tribune on March 13, 2020, where he was shown at a podium in front of other county officials as part of a story on the growing number of local coronavirus cases.

A couple of months later, however, Yphantides appeared to be more in the background. What might have been his last appearance before the press was April 23, when he and other county health officials gathered at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido to announce that an unfurnished floor in the building had been converted into a 202-bed wing to accommodate overflow patients if area hospitals became overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

In June, he responded to a reporter’s question about why he had not been seen lately by saying that press briefings had become routine updates that no longer were held daily, and Wooten was handling them without him.

Yphantides’ personal Facebook page does not hint at when or why he went on leave. In his Dec. 31 post, he wrote a lengthy remembrance of when he and other county officials decided on Feb. 14, 2020 to declare a public health emergency.

The post was interspersed with Biblical passages, include what he called a “picture of the year,” which featured him and Fletcher looking somber after they and other officials agreed it was time to declare the emergency.

On Jan. 12, he posted an urgent prayer request for Mr. Winston, a gorilla at the San Diego Zoo that had contracted COVID-19. His posts after that were more personal and spiritual, and do not refer to county health activities or mention going on leave.