By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Leaders are often judged by how well they do in a crisis.
As Sacramento County’s Public Health Officer, Dr. Olivia Kasirye’s career has become defined by them.
Dr. Kasirye has led the region through outbreaks of STDs, the deadly H1N1 influenza and an Ebola scare, but it’s the prolonged coronavirus pandemic that has made her a household name to Sacramento residents.
As we close in on two years of living with COVID-19 and its “new normals,” The Sacramento OBSERVER has named Dr. Kasirye, public health’s top ranking medical professional, as its 2021 Person of the Year. Dr. Kasirye was also a top contender for The OBSERVER’S 2020 Person of the Year distinction. While the public as a whole was ultimately chosen for having endured a year of unprecedented change, The OBSERVER recognizes Dr. Kasirye’s continued leadership during challenging times, as she remains at the forefront of Sacramento County’s pandemic response.
The County began developing its emergency preparedness plans after the September 11 terrorist attacks of 2001 and later, the H1N1 pandemic of 2009.
“We had all these plans in place, so when we started hearing about COVID-19, we started activating those plans, but none of us expected that it would be at the scale of the response. We had to dig really deep to continue for this length of time with the response and finding ways to help people,” Dr. Kasirye said.
COVID-19, she says, has “definitely been different” than other public health challenges of the past.
“Once you started vaccinating, we thought surely this is the end of it, but then came the Delta variant and we have dealt with that. And now comes Omicron. We are aware that, with these viruses, one of the dangers is the mutations, but it’s just dealing with the scale of what was happening,” Dr. Kasirye said.
Over the course of the pandemic, Dr. Kasirye has touted continued vigilance and the importance of adhering to safety protocols.
“I think the hardest, of course, was knowing that people were tired and they were hurting and yet, we still needed to tell them, ‘Hey, it’s too early to let our guard down’ and these are things that we needed to continue to do, and just reminding people especially as the numbers kept creeping up, that there are lives behind those numbers that died. We want to minimize the number of deaths and this needs to be done, as difficult as it is for everybody.”
In addition to providing guidance through ever-changing state and federal mandates, Dr. Kasirye has had the Herculean task of convincing the vaccine-hesitant that getting the shot is key to turning the tide with the pandemic.
“I remember one story when we were meeting with a group, and it included a pastor and some of his congregants. As we were talking about what we needed to do to get the vaccine out, a question was posed to one of the ladies about whether she would be willing to get vaccinated. She said, ‘if my pastor tells me to get vaccinated, I will.’ That brought to the forefront the importance of finding these leaders in the communities and having that trust.”
Although African Americans have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, vaccines have been a harder sell for many.
Locally, only 47.7 percent of Blacks have been vaccinated. While the African and African American communities remain largely disconnected, the County connects them together under the same ethnic category. Albeit less publicized, there is also vaccine hesitancy among Sacramento’s African communities, says Dr. Kasirye, who is originally from Uganda.
“There are a lot of factors that are similar in that a lot of them were listening to information from sources that they trusted. For example, with African communities, WhatsApp is a very important mode of communication. When information was passed on from WhatsApp, especially if it was from their friend group, they tended to believe that. It was important for us to actually hold forums, myself and some other doctors who are working in the clinics, to be able to talk about what the facts are, and to be a resource to them and let them ask questions.”
For them, she is that “trusted messenger” she speaks of frequently.
Both the African and African American communities have cheered on the Black public health officer.
“I constantly get messages from them to say, ‘we’re supporting you,’ ‘we’re praying for you, stay the course.’ That helps, especially when going through some of the difficult times, or hearing some of the negative vitriol that has been directed at public health officials.”
She appreciates cross-culture supporters as well.
“Sometimes they’ll just send messages and say, ‘Thank you,’ because they know that we’re here to provide accurate information and that our interest is [in] saving all lives in Sacramento County,” she added.
However, not everyone is a fan of her authority.
“It’s been more by email, or some of the public forums, like the Board of Supervisors meetings, where the comments have been made. But I have to admit, I think it’s saddening for us to see the negative vitriol, because I think when we look at it, we’re not the enemy. It’s the virus. We’re just trying to work with the tools that we know work, to save lives, so when people make those personal attacks, it’s hard to face.
I’ve watched some of my colleagues and some of the experiences that they have had and I know it’s been very hard.”
Dr. Kasirye was also dealing with internal issues during the pandemic with former County Executive, Nav Gill questioning her initial Health Emergency declaration and having to stand her ground in demanding more resources after it was discovered that Gill had approved giving the bulk of federal CARES Act funding to the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department to balance its budget. She previously credited the public health team and County counsel for helping her get through those dark days. A number of African American women activists also spoke out on her behalf, letting folks know that she had people in her corner.
“Leaving it all at the office” at the end of the work day can be difficult, Dr. Kasirye says.
“We were getting phone calls 24 hours a day from healthcare providers, especially [in] the beginning when testing was scarce, and they had to call us in order to get approval to get testing done. Even when I left the office — the emails, the phone calls, the conference calls, it was constant. It’s a little better now because we do have additional resources.”
For their own sanity, she and others have to do what they call “unplugging” and step away from their phones and computers.
“Of course, it’s always in the back of our mind, because we know just how much this has impacted our communities in a lot of ways.”
Being in a highly visible position during a closely watched pandemic, Dr. Kasirye rarely gets a moment where she’s not expected to be “Dr. Kasirye.”
“That’s always a role I have to play, as people are watching,” she shared. “Sometimes I’ve been surprised when I’m in a store or a restaurant and someone recognizes me and they’ll say, ‘Hey, we appreciate everything you’re doing.’ But again, that reminds me, I don’t know who’s out there who’s recognizing me. So in a way, I’m always in that role, even when I’m ‘off duty.’”
Lessons From The Field
Earlier this month, Sacramento County marked the 100th week of its COVID-19 response.
“This is the longest that we have had to be in this mode,” Dr. Kasirye said of the somber milestone.
“Of course, there’s a lot of comparison between the 1918 [flu] pandemic, and how different this has been. For example, the fact that we were able to get a vaccine and identify the virus much sooner. And all of that is because of the advances that have been made in science, but also realization that some of the same measures that had to be used during that 1918 pandemic, had to be used now — face masking, shutting down venues, keeping people in isolation and quarantine — those are still very effective. And those are still things that we need to do. Also, looking at the comparison of 2020 to 2021 and the difference that [the] vaccine has made. Compare the numbers from where we were at this time last year, it’s a very different story. But we also do need to recognize that we’re not done yet. We still need to be even more vigilant.
“It’s a very small sacrifice” to still have to wear masks everywhere you go. We’re not there yet, but Dr. Kasirye does see an end.
“I believe that there will be. That’s why it was important for me to read about the 1918 pandemic, because I’m very sure that at that time, too, they were like, ‘Oh, my goodness, are we ever going to get past this?’ But they did and I believe we will get past it too. But I think one thing we need to look at is what are the lessons learned and how do we do better next time when we have to face another pandemic?”
One of the biggest lessons, she says, was the importance of the community.
“When we had to do the vaccination, the community came out really strong in helping us to get the vaccine out, in making those connections with people that we didn’t have connections with, in helping one another. Of course, there are other [aspects] that are a little bit out of our control [such as] how this was politicized and how do we prevent that from happening again. I think that is important as well.”
Dr. Kasirye says she appreciates community advocates who have supported efforts to get the vaccine to the people.
“It’s helped to solidify for me the importance of building that resilience, building that relationship, working with communities even prior to a disaster, because that is what helps take us through it. We had already started working on those relationships. When we came up, they said, ‘Yes, we’re going to work with you, we believe you, we believe in you.’ That helped a lot. In public health, we can have the best plans, we can have all the resources, but if we don’t have that trust from the community to do what we’re asking them to do, it doesn’t help.”
Leading By Example
Growing up in Uganda, Dr. Kasirye’s parents gave her books that depicted women in medicine to encourage her. She had an interest in the biological sciences and her parents urged her to go into medicine.
“There was always an emphasis in our family on the importance of education and excelling,” she shared.
Dr. Kasirye received her medical degree in 1988 and moved to the United States. She later completed a master’s degree in epidemiology at UC Davis in 2003, and a residency in Public Health and Preventive Medicine, through the California Department of Public Health in 2004.
“When we were going through our rotations in the pediatric clinics, we would see children in the clinics and then we had to go and do home visits. One thing I really recognized is the fact that a lot of the factors in the environment — because many of these [families] were very poor — were actually contributing to these children falling sick, like lack of sanitation, poor nutrition.
“After I came to the United States, in looking at where my interests were, I found that oftentimes, when I was working with patients in the clinics, I would listen to their family history, not just the fact or the reason why they had come. That drew me towards public health, because public health not only looks at the individual and the illnesses that they may present with, but also looks at the environment.”
Most folks don’t know what an epidemiologist is or does, but that is changing.
“I remember in previous times, when we would go and talk to high school students, they didn’t really think of epidemiology as a career path. When they were looking at medicine, they were looking more at people like the surgery, the clinics, but I think with the COVID pandemic, it really brought to the forefront the role that public health and epidemiology plays, because this is how we’ve been tracking the pandemic and also making decisions on what recommendations, advice and mandates [to follow].”
In her pioneering role, Dr. Kasirye has become an example for others looking to become leaders in the health field. Being a role model started closer to home with her two children, now adults in their 20s. One is a nurse and the other works as a sterile processing technician.
“Actually, at one point, especially at the beginning of COVID, we were all working on COVID-related things. That was interesting.”
She encourages women and girls, in particular, to be confident, to go after their dreams and find mentors to support them.
“There are times when I’ve had students come to me seeking advice or wanting to do an internship. I always welcome times when I’ve been able to encourage them on their path,” Dr. Kasirye said.
“It’s always such a pleasure when they can email back and say, ‘Hey, I took your advice and I got this job’ or when they can contact me and say, ‘Hey, I need a reference, can you help?’ and then they call me later and say, ‘Guess what?’ They got the job. That, to me, is going to last after I leave this job. My hope is that I’ll be able to continue to encourage girls and that as they see me going through this, it’s something that they can look to and realize that they can do anything and can be whatever they want to be.”
THE OBSERVER proudly salutes Dr. Olivia Kasirye as the 2021 “Person of the Year.”