Main content start

Zale Lecture and Award 2021

By Max Lee,  2021

The Stanford Public Policy Program hosted Dr. Sara Cody, Health Officer and Director of the County of Santa Clara Public Health Department, on Tuesday, June 1 for the 2021 Zale Lecture. Since 1980, the Morris B. and Edna Zale Lectureship, initially made possible by a gift from the Morris B. and Edna Zale Foundation, has sought to bring leading figures from a broad spectrum of public and private life for a lecture open to the Stanford Public Policy community. The Lectureship has hosted such distinguished speakers as Tino Cuéllar, George Shultz, Willie Brown, Mark McClellan, and Christina Romer.

Dr. Cody started off the lecture by discussing how her background as a former Stanford Human Biology undergraduate student sparked her interest in public health and how her experiences as a member of the Stanford Women’s Rowing Team helped her develop the courage and fortitude to better respond to the pandemic. She then shared the path that led her towards public service and public health, including her experiences in medical school and with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many members of the audience were Stanford Public Policy students, and it was motivating to see how Dr. Cody’s early experiences at Stanford helped shape her interests and passions throughout her career.

She then discussed the actions that she and the Santa Clara Public Health Department took early on in the pandemic. Prior to implementing the county shelter-in-place order in March 2020, Dr. Cody kept a close eye on transmission of COVID-19 in Santa Clara County, even when there were only three cases in total. She used her authority as Health Officer to limit gathering sizes, first to 1,000 people and then to 100 people, and explained the many different thoughts and considerations that went into the implantation of these policies. She then shared the difficulty of making important public health decisions early in the pandemic when knowledge of the disease was lacking and there were simply not enough tools available to protect the public.

Dr. Cody then opened the floor to questions, and she answered a wide range of questions related to resolving conflicts between policy and politics, weighing costs and benefits when reopening businesses and schools, dealing with vaccine hesitancy and inequity, and addressing the mental health impacts of the pandemic. We greatly appreciated the thought and consideration that she put into her responses to our questions, and the audience came away with a greater appreciation of the effort and consideration that went into her pandemic response within Santa Clara County.

Dr. Sara Cody has been an inspirational figure for us living in Santa Clara County and across the rest of California, and she has been a voice of reason and conviction throughout the pandemic, making difficult yet crucial decisions despite facing intense backlash. For her commitment to public health and public service in the face of an enormous global health challenge, Dr. Sara Cody is the 2021 recipient of the Zale Award for Public Service.