By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye

With California’s governor vowing to totally open the state up by June 15, locals are wondering how that will happen when Sacramento County has been lingering in the second most restrictive tier of the Blueprint for a Safer Economy for some time now.

The County’s top health officials addressed concerns during their regular COVID-19 response update to the Board of Supervisors. Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye said updated data shows that the county’s COVID-19 case rate has dropped slightly to 7.5 per 100,000 from 9 per 100,000 a few weeks ago.

“We’re still a ways away from getting to six that would allow us to get to the orange tier, so there has been some concern why we are kind of stagnating,” Dr. Kasirye said.

Multiple factors including testing rates, low vaccination rates, and virus variants that are showing up locally are to blame, she says. 

“We still have our work cut out for us,” Dr. Kasirye added.

Dr. Kasirye and Jim Hunt, acting director of the County’s Department of Health Services, touted the importance of vaccination and continued vigilance on safety precautions. Dr. Kasirye joined District 5 Supervisor Don Nottoli at a community vaccination event at the Galt flea market on Wednesday. Nottoli received a single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot at the start of the day to show confidence in the vaccine and the importance of more people getting it.

“I’m hoping that we will be able to continue getting the message out,” Dr. Kasirye said.

Hunt agreed.

“We can end the pandemic and vaccines are how we do it. I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of it, but much like the flu, it’ll be a seasonal thing and it will be much more under control and it vaccines to do that,” he said. “That’s how we got rid of polio, that’s how we got rid of small pox and that’s how we’ll control COVID-19.”

The update presentation also elicited discussion of relying on trusted community messengers to reach underserved neighborhoods. District 3 Supervisor Rich Desmond suggested the County “get creative” with locations for the pop-up clinics. Hunt said having identified Sacramento County as below average in vaccinations, the state will be launching a school initiative that will allow for vaccinations at campus sites, when young people 12-15 become eligible to receive shots. The idea is to also attract more parents and caregivers, who haven’t already gotten theirs. Dr. Kasirye said she’s waiting on trailers that will go out to areas where residents have difficulty getting to mass vaccination sites.

District 1 Supervisor Phil Serna said a constituent wanted to know “how the heck does San Francisco and Los Angeles get to orange before we do?” San Francisco County and Los Angeles County, which recently had a notable surge, have actually advanced to the yellow, minimal, tier now. 

“There’s a couple of reasons for that,” Hunt said of Sacramento County being “stuck” in red. “Within the last couple of months, the state put a significant emphasis on Bay Area counties and also FEMA has the Oakland Coliseum mass vaccination site, which had a huge impact. We will be getting a FEMA site that will be getting that attention from the State Department of Health now in the coming weeks with the schools initiative, so I’m optimistic that in the coming weeks, within months, we’ll see ours come up,” Hunt said.

“When you look especially at counties that have a higher percentage of people in the healthier or more well-to-do quartile, you find that they are doing a lot better than some counties that have more in what we call the Health Equity Quartile. We are working really hard to be able to increase our vaccination rate in the Health Equity Quartile,” Dr. Kasirye shared during her weekly media briefing. The Health Equity Quartile looks at the number of cases in disproportionately impacted communities.

The County has identified five zip codes that it is focusing particular effort on–95660 (North Highlands/Rio Linda), that has a vaccination rate of 17.1%; 95842 (Foothill Farms) that has a vaccination rate of 20.1%; 95815 (North Sacramento) that has a vaccination rate of 20.5%;  95838 (North Highlands/Rio Linda) that has a rate of 20.7%; and 95673 (Rio Linda) that has a rate of 20.9%.

“I also do want to point out that I think one of the things that COVID-19 has brought out is some of the health inequities that we have,” Dr. Kasirye said. “When you look at the counties that are more well to do, their rates are much lower and also their vaccination rates are much higher. I think that those are things that we need to look at, and just make sure that we address the underlying issues that are driving those disparities.”

Should Sacramento County numbers manage to reach state projected numbers, the tier system will be ditched, as will the state and county public health orders. There will however, still be a mask mandate and additional guidelines for large gatherings. 

As of Wednesday, Sacramento County is still averaging about 100 reported cases of COVID-19; 97 people were hospitalized and 21 were in an ICU.