In the hot seat

Editor’s note: California public health officers are offered some new protection from threats. Sacramento County’s officer plans to sign up.

So it’s come to this for California’s beleaguered public health officers during the COVID-19 pandemic: They are now under the same protections as victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order this week bringing local health officials under the Safe at Home program, which lets participants keep their home addresses confidential and get their mail sent to a substitute address. Sacramento County’s public health officer plans to sign up.

“Our public health officers have all too often faced targeted harassment and stalking,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla, whose office oversees the program, said in a statement. “The Safe at Home program can help provide more peace of mind to the public health officials who have been on the front lines of California’s COVID-19 response.”

As elsewhere across America, health officers in California have been under stress during the deadliest pandemic in a century and several have stepped aside. Some have been ousted for various foul-ups, including state health director Sonia Angell, who resigned in August after a technical glitch badly delayed test results used to decide when businesses and schools can reopen.

And others quit in protest, including Aimee Sisson, who left as Placer County’s public health officer earlier this month after county supervisors ended the COVID-19 state of emergency. Yolo County announced this week that she’ll start Oct. 26 as its public health officer, replacing Ron Chapman, who retired at the end of June.

“Being a local health officer is challenging during a pandemic, but this is what I have trained for,” Sisson said in a statement. “I look forward to using my skills to keep the community healthy, whether the threat is COVID-19, obesity, mental illness, wildfire smoke, or poverty.”

Sacramento County’s public health officer, Olivia Kasirye, “has been subject to a number of angry phone calls and emails, but has not received any direct death threats,” Public Health said in a statement. “She does plan to take advantage of the new Safe at Home program offered by the state.”

Olivia Kasirye, Sacramento County’s public health officer

Since becoming the county’s health officer in 2012 after nearly three years in the same job in El Dorado County, Kasirye has helped lead the response to tuberculosis outbreaks, fentanyl overdoses and other public health crises.

Her colleagues say she acted quickly and decisively in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in March. And some say that besides abuse from the public, she’s been subject to intimidation and bullying from her bosses, namely Health Services Director Peter Beilenson, county CEO Nav Gill and deputy County Executive Bruce Wagstaff.

After the allegations became public last month in a debate over whether the county was spending enough to stop COVID-19, colleagues and supervisors came to her defense and said she shouldn’t be made a scapegoat. At board Chairman Phil Serna’s request, the county counsel sent a memo to supervisors confirming that only they can fire Kasirye.

Under her leadership, Sacramento County Public Health has been cautious in lifting the lockdown after the first reopenings in mid-June, pushed by Newsom, led to a spike in deaths and cases.

The governor reversed course on July 13, and a day later Sacramento County issued an order that closed indoor businesses, including restaurants, movie theaters and nail salons. It has allowed some businesses to resume operations with significant safeguards, but only after state officials moved first, as with nail salons this week.

Pressure on Kasirye and her team may ease up if the state’s new Blueprint for a Safer Economy—which is based on rates of new cases and positive tests—permits Sacramento County to move from the most restrictive purple tier to the red tier when it is updated next Tuesday, Sept. 29. That could allow more reopenings of businesses, including indoor dining at limited capacity, as well as museums and perhaps schools.

“We are really close to being able to open up more of Sacramento,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg said in a video he posted Thursday, urging people to wear a mask and wearing one himself.

The mayor said to help small businesses and workers, he wants the county move to the even less restrictive orange tier no later than Halloween. “We can can do this Sacramento,” he exhorted. “Let’s work together to beat COVID-19.”

As of Friday, Public Health reported 406 deaths from COVID-19 and 22,183 cases.

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