In an on-going saga, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to approve another shift of money in order to make good on its promise to give County Health officials $45 million for continued COVID-19 response.
The vote means the money will come from non-department revenue, rather than the General Fund Reserve, as previously discussed. The Public Health department was allocated $45 million in August following a scandal in which a County committee led by Executive Nav Gill gave federal relief money to Corrections entities including the Sheriff’s Department in an attempt to “balance the budget” and stave off cuts to County services.
Tuesday’s meeting included a report on COVID-19 expenditures from County health official Dr. Peter Beilenson, who outlined where the allocated money has gone and what’s left for use. The $45 million became $42 million, after $3 million went to the Environmental Management Department to cover its COVID-19 response duties.
“We’re well along the way in spending the money,” Dr. Beilenson said.
Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye gave a presentation on the impact of COVID-19 thus far, including a breakdown of cases and deaths by age and ethnicity. As of October 10, there have been nearly 24,000 reported cases of COVID-19 in Sacramento County. Blacks account for 13.9 percent of those cases, with 179 new cases reported in the last month. There have been 464 deaths countywide attributed to COVID-19; 55 of those individuals were Black.
Dr. Kasirye also talked about hospitalizations and other COVID-19 related complications that people are now dealing with to show the severity of the virus. Those complications tend to be exacerbated in minority communities where many have chronic health issues.
“It’s important to point out that of the eight million cases of COVID, 1-2 million have some of these serious complications including brain fog and other things that last for a long time,” Dr. Beilenson said. “COVID is more than just the fatalities and just the hospitalizations.”
During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting, a number of residents slammed the Board and health officials, calling the pandemic — and their support of safety precautions — a hoax.
Supervisor Patrick Kennedy got heated by comments coming from his District 2 area and felt compelled to defend Drs. Kasirye and Beilensen from the verbal attacks, even if it meant residents later voting him out because of it.
Kennedy said, “We’ve had 471 deaths in Sacramento County and 250,000 plus deaths in the U.S. that’s largely because we’ve put politics over public health… With the leadership of Dr. Beilenson and Dr. Kasirye we are holding our own as well as anybody in the country. To say otherwise, I think, is ridiculous. To say that we’re not in a crisis is totally wrong.”
Also of concern is that there is no increased funding for COVID-19 beyond December 31, although both Dr. Kasirye and Dr. Beilenson have said they expect to be dealing with the pandemic well into the new year. CARES Act money must be spent by December 31, which is part of the reason Dr. Kasirye and her team weedled down an original need of $90 million to $45 million. They’re currently working on a new budget ask, she says, for the first six months into 2021. This week’s meeting also results in the allocation of $246,758 for the purchase of two vehicles and vaccination trailers to aid in COVID-19 cessation.
Community activists with a local CARES For The People coalition say they continue to watch where the money is going.
“We want to be proactive in ensuring that Public Health does not lose more funding,” said activist Liz Blum in an email circulated to encourage community members to call in.
Supervisor Kennedy addressed Gill and his second in command, Deputy County Executive for Social Services Bruce Wagstaff, directly during the meeting.
“I don’t want us to be in another awkward situation if there is a CARES Act 2 that comes forward. I am hoping that we are going to put public health as our number one priority. We have a commitment to meet these needs before we do anything else with CARES dollars.”
Tuesday’s meeting was held remotely as a precaution after County staffers were placed in quarantine having been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 during a meeting called by Gill. Reportedly, masks and social distancing were not enforced during the meeting, although measures have been heavily touted among the best ways to prevent spreading the virus.
Since the shutdowns, supervisors have continued to meet in person and some who have made presentations to the Board have also done so in person, but public comments on agenda items are heard over the phone now. Having even the supervisors call in, District 5 Supervisor Don Nottoli said, was a first and definitely not a bright moment.
“This is certainly another imposition on the general public and our ability to conduct the public’s business in the settings that we do,” Nottoli said.
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer