Rock County Public Health Officer Marie-Noel Sandoval will retire early next year amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

County Administrator Josh Smith was notified of Sandoval’s plan Nov. 11. Her last day will be Jan. 4, but she will remain on the county’s payroll until her vacation hours are exhausted Feb. 15, according to Sandoval’s letter to Smith.

Sandoval is the county’s top health official who has authority to issue health orders, an authority that has been questioned by politicians and the public this year across the country.

Sandoval said she had planned to retire “at a certain age” since the beginning of her career. She said she had intended to retire in spring 2020 but stayed on to help lead her team through the pandemic.

There is a lot yet unknown about how the pandemic will play out, Sandoval said, but she is confident she is leaving her team well equipped to carry out a successful response.

This year has been challenging, Sandoval said, and she is disappointed in how public health has become politicized and polarized. But there is light at the end of the tunnel.

The health department is supported by its board of health and county administration, which also makes Sandoval confident in her departure, she said.

The coronavirus pandemic has exhausted public health resources across the country, and Rock County is no exception.

Sandoval’s departure will come as the county and nation try to get enough people vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, a feat health officials say likely won’t happen until summer 2021 at the earliest.

The county will stop accepting applications for Sandoval’s position today and will begin reviewing applications after that, though the process might be delayed because of the holidays, Smith said.

Smith said he hopes to have Sandoval’s position filled sometime in February.

Assistant Director Michelle Bailey will assume Sandoval’s duties until a permanent health officer is hired, Smith said.

Responding to the pandemic has been a team effort, Smith said, and he is not worried that the community will be affected by Sandoval’s absence.

It is difficult to know what the candidate pool for the new health officer will look like given the pandemic, Smith said.

At least 181 state and local public health leaders in 38 states have resigned, retired or been fired since April 1, according to an ongoing investigation by The Associated Press and Kaiser Health News.

It is thought to be the largest exodus of public health leaders in American history. An untold number of lower-level staffers have also left, according to the AP.

Sandoval said she is most proud of how the health department has modernized during her five years in Rock County.

She hopes county leaders will continue to tackle some of the county’s leading public health issues apart from the pandemic: health disparities, obesity and sexually transmitted infections.

As she prepares to retire, Sandoval wanted to remind residents again how important it is to wear masks, stay home, socially distance and practice good hand hygiene.

“Please be safe. COVID is still with us,” Sandoval said.