Longtime DeKalb health director leaving for White House job

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

DeKalb County’s longtime public health director is leaving for a job in the Biden administration.

Dr. Sandra Elizabeth Ford — who first took the reins of DeKalb’s health department in 2005 — will join the Domestic Policy Council led by Ambassador Susan Rice. She’ll serve as “special assistant to the President for public health and science,” a county health department spokesman said.

Ford’s last day with DeKalb will April 23.

“This is so bittersweet,” she said during a Tuesday morning county commission meeting where she was honored with a proclamation. “This team has done such extraordinary work. You can’t lead if nobody will follow you.”

Ford, a pediatrician by trade, earned her Bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and medical and Master’s degrees from Howard University. She took over as DeKalb County’s district health director in February 2005 before leaving in 2008 to serve as acting director of the Georgia Department of Community Health’s Division of Public Health.

She rejoined DeKalb in 2009.

Ford also serves as president-elect of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, and was Fulton County’s interim health director in 2019 and 2020 while maintaining her role in DeKalb.

During the pandemic, Ford has helped implement innovative strategies for testing, vaccinations and other operations. She said Tuesday she was proud that DeKalb had the seventh-most COVID-19 cases in Georgia despite having the state’s fourth-largest population.

“The success of each of those initiatives and countless others are because of your heart for people,” county Chief Operating Officer Zach Williams said. “It’s appropriate to ensure that we have that heart for service working on a national level.”

Said DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond: “This lady is going to a place of great need, and what they will find out is what we already know: that you have been gifted by God to answer this call to serve.”

Dr. Sandra Valenciano will serve as DeKalb’s interim district health director after Ford’s departure. Valenciano has been in the county for about a year and currently serves as medical director of the Board of Health’s Community Health and Prevention Services division.

Valenciano said Tuesday it will be tough to live up to Ford’s legacy but the duo was “certainly aligned in our way of thinking about health care disparities and inequities in the community.”

“I want you to understand,” Ford said, “that she will do everything to move this mission forward and keep us going in the same direction it’s been going for the last 16 years.”