(SACRAMENTO) – As the nation enters its second month of sheltering-in-place due to the coronavirus pandemic and California looks to gradually begin to relax some of its restrictions, The Sacramento OBSERVER talked this week to the Black woman in charge of Sacramento County’s response to COVID-19. Dr. Olivia Kasirye has served as Sacramento County’s Public Health Officer since 2012. She is responsible for the direction and medical oversight of public health programs for Sacramento County. She spoke on Tuesday about the virus, the role she’s playing in treating those who have been infected and the overall outlook for those who live and work in the region.
“For Sacramento, the total case count as of this morning was 1,133, which is an increase of six from yesterday. What we have been seeing over the last couple of weeks is that additional cases on a daily basis have been around an average of 10 a day,” Dr. Kasiyre said.
As of press time, there have been 47 deaths, with 90 percent being people over the age of 65. The County updates the public on where those infected live through a map. A high rate has occurred in 95817, which includes the historically Black area of Oak Park.
“The reason we have that number in that zip code is because of three clusters that are related to congregate settings such as long-time care facilities, apartment complexes and that kind of thing,” Dr. Kasirye explained.
As the coronavirus has hit African Americans across the country in disproportionate numbers, leaders in the local Black community have pressed County officials for race-based data. Dr. Kasirye says locally, 97 African Americans have tested positive for COVID-19. Fewer than five have died, which she says is the number when the County begins to make race-based data available to the public due to privacy reasons. Community activist Esutosin Omowale Osunkoya, who founded the Sacramento Chapter of the Black Panther Party, is among those the virus has claimed. Osunkoya, born Charles Brunson, was 76. As reported by The OBSERVER, his wife, Margo Brunson is recovering from the virus thanks to experimental study, utilizing the drug remdesivir.
“By law, all positive results are required to be reported to Public Health. When we get that info we have a team of staff that are trained to do the contact investigation and contact tracing,” Dr. Kasirye said.
“Contact investigation is where they call or contact the person who has tested positive and find out where they’ve been, who’s in the household, where they work. The reason for that is to be able to find out who else could have been exposed. The contact tracing part is where that information is then used to contact the people who have been identified to let them know they’ve been exposed and provide them with information for quarantine and protection. Most of the cases we’re getting are in the congregate setting and long-term care facilities.”
Public health nurses, she says, are working with staff at those facilities to help prevent future cases.
The local Black community has been concerned about the lack of accessible testing sites. The County is spearheading testing at a drive-through site at Cal Expo, but many don’t have cars and have no way to get there.
Ms. Kasirye said testing is available through urgent care locations as well as UC Davis Medical Center and Kaiser. Urgent care clinics are an alternative for those without health insurance, and while they charge on a sliding scale, services can be pricey. Testing at Kaiser is for members. The Primary Care facility on Broadway and Stockton Boulevard, referred to by many as “the County” has free testing, by appointment. The facility is located near Oak Park, as is UC Davis Medical Center, where a majority of locals who have tested positive for COVID-19 reside. County officials announced on Wednesday that everyone can get tested now at Cal Expo. Previously the site only tested those with mild symptoms.
It was announced on Monday that two new testing sites will open within the next two weeks — at the St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, in Oak Park, and the Robertson Community Center in Del Paso Heights. Ms. Kasirye said the sites were determined by population, not previous levels of exposure. Additionally locations will be added, she shared, after assessment of how successfully the first two are organized and opened.
Testing remains a mystery for many and there is the fear of the unknown.
“The test that we’re using right now uses a process called PCR. Basically what it does is the machine is able to detect pieces of the virus in a specimen. A specimen is collected using a swab, which is put up the nose and it goes all the way to the back of the nose. It does create a little bit of discomfort in doing that, but that’s how the swap is collected and then it is put in a tube and sent to the lab.
For most of the labs doing the testing, results can come back within two to three days. Some results, however, can come back in as little as 24 hours.
Once a person tests positive for COVID-19, the Public Health Department is notified and then it calls the person.
“We tell them about their diagnosis, we tell them about the disease and what to expect and when to actually see a doctor.”
Many can stay at home in isolation, but should go to the hospital when symptoms worsen or if they have difficulty breathing, she continued.
“Some people do have mild symptoms and they’re able to stay at home and recover without having to go to the doctor. Even when they go to the hospital, most of the care that is happening right now is supportive care, because while there are some drugs that are being tested right now, we do not have a definitive treatment for COVID-19. We’re treating the symptoms and helping people fight off the disease.”
Sacramento County residents, Dr. Kasirye said, have done a good job of staying home and social distancing when out in public and credits those actions for the region having lower numbers than some other hard-hit areas. Nine other counties in California, for instance, have more positive cases than Sacramento according to the California Department of Public Health.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced that some businesses can reopen and some activities can resume starting on Friday. Counties, Dr. Kasirye shared, with few cases or who have seen a significant drop in their numbers will also have the flexibility to open up further and faster.
“We are getting prepared for that and looking at our data,” she said.
Data will help determine how the County moves forward and whether or not we’ve turned the corner.
“It’s not a specific number, but we do know that the rate of new cases being reported has definitely dropped,” Dr. Kasirye shared. “Right now we’re getting reports of maybe 10 per day of new cases whereas at the peak, we were getting as many as 30 cases being reported to us. It has definitely slowed down, but we’re still under the State Health Officer Order, the stay-at-home order. We have to wait for the state to allow us to move forward.”
With some of the restrictions being relaxed, County health officials will be watching for a second wave of infections. The work is plenty.
“Our Public Health team is doing a lot of different things,” Dr. Kasirye said. “We’re collecting data, we make the data available. We’re answering questions about the contact investigation and the contact tracing. We’re also doing the testing at the Cal Expo site and working with the long-term care facilities and congregate settings and working with hospitals.
“We’re trying to answer questions about what it all means and what activities can start up again. We’re communicating with the business sector, providing guidance as to when they can open back up — what measures they need to take in order to keep their employees safe and their clients safe.”
Protesters have recently taken to the State Capitol, demanding that Gov. Newsom open up the state, arguing that the continued shutdowns are threatening their livelihood. County officials aren’t immune either, Dr. Kasirye said.
“We do get requests from the public,” she said. “We definitely understand the pain and the economic impact of this, but we’re bound by what the governor is allowing us to do at this point. It definitely is a lot of pressure, but we are fortunate to have a strong Public Health team and we help one another. We have a structure, so everyone’s not waiting for me to tell them what to do, they know what their roles are. We work together as a team and that helps a lot. What also helps is that we had plans in place for how to deal with a pandemic. That has been very useful.”
Many across the country have said their response teams were caught unaware by COVID-19.
“I think when they say that what they’re really saying is that nobody imagined the scope of what was going to happen, because in the past we’ve had to deal with other pandemics, we had the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2019, we also had Ebola, we’ve had MURS and SARS, so we’ve had other scares that have come in, but we’ve always been able to contain those outbreaks.
Dr. Kasirye has about 30 years of professional experience. She received her Medical Degree from the Makerere University Medical School in Kampala, Uganda, has a Master of Science degree in Epidemiology from the University of California, Davis and she is Board Certified in Public Health and General Preventative Medicine. However, she says the coronavirus has been unique.
“This was different, just because of the way that it was spreading so quickly and also the fact that I think what wasn’t very clear at the beginning was that people could spread the disease without showing symptoms themselves so at the beginning of all of this there were a lot of cases we missed because we were only looking for those who had severe symptoms or those who had traveled. It did kind of limit our ability to identify some of those cases.”
Dr. Kasirye said it will take a while to digest and figure out all the lessons that they’ve learned from dealing with COVID-19, but she gives her team high marks so far for staying on top of it. She also credits Gov. Newsom for being proactive and staying in constant contact with her department and others across the state. The governor gives daily updates after conferring with health officials and stakeholders.
“Leadership is important,” Dr. Kasirye said.
“We’re working with the counties surrounding Sacramento. It’s important to work together, not just internally, but as a region. It definitely helps in terms of sharing information, being able to think through different situations, having good communication to be able to work through whatever issues come up. I think those are all important.”
Dr. Kasirye will be a featured speaker during a Zoom meeting on Tuesday, May 12 along with other health and wellness professionals.
The Sacramento Black Community & COVID-19 Virtual Townhall session seeks to provide “Accurate Health Information from Trusted Black Health Professionals” and will be held from 7:00-8:30 p.m.. Other speakers include Dr. Flojaune Cofer, Public Health Advocate, Dr. Janine Bera, Chief Medical Officer, WellSpace Health, psychologist Dr. Kristee Haggins, who is the president of Safe Black Space, and retired nurses Rev. Dr. Joy Johnson and Rev. Dr. Alice Baber-Banks.
To participate: Video & Audio Link: https:// zoom.us/joinAudio (Only) Dial in: (669) 900 – 6833
Meeting ID: 840 5048 2671
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer