By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
The Sacramento Grand Jury investigating Sacramento County’s use of federal COVID-19 funds has validated Dr. Olivia Kasirye, the Black woman who has led the region’s pandemic response.
The Grand Jury has found that the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors “abandoned the Public Health Office as COVID-19 emergency engulfed Sacramento.” Following a nearly year-long secret investigation, the Grand Jury concluded that the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors “made questionable and opaque maneuvers that skirted the intent of the CARES Act, to the benefit of County coffers and with scant regard for the needs of its citizens.”
As first reported by the Sacramento OBSERVER, the County Board of Supervisors allowed then County Executive Nav Gill to give $132.86 million of its federal pandemic response funds for payroll for public health and safety employees, with the Sheriff’s Department receiving 78%, $104.2 million, of that money. The OBSERVER obtained documents from a whistleblower back in 2020 that detailed the spending.
“An extensive investigation into the handling of the COVID-19 crisis by the Sacramento County Office of Public Health (OPH) has led the Grand Jury to find that the County Board of Supervisors ignored its Public Health Officer for five months before finally engaging in any sort of dialogue regarding the County’s COVID-19 activities and its impact on County residents,” reads a statement released earlier this month.
Being well-versed in public health crises like ebola and the H1N1 flu of 2009, Public Health Officer Kasirye responded immediately when the current coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020 and continually sought the funds and support to protect County residents.
“Despite asking for assistance early on, Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye was
allowed to appear before the County Supervisors only after Board members received a confidential email from Dr. Kasirye,” the Grand Jury’s statement reads. “The Board’s apathy during the most significant public health emergency in over a century, one that impacted every resident of Sacramento County, delayed needed OPH program funding and undercut public health order enforcement.”
During August 2020 board meetings, Gill repeatedly maintained that “anything (departments) asked for they got.” He practically dared Dr. Kasirye to contradict him.
Kasirye stood her ground and remained adamant that her department needed more funds to respond to the continued pandemic, which was forecasted to still be making an impact well into 2021. That was before the Delta and Omicron variants wreaked havoc. In documents obtained by The OBSERVER, Dr. Kasirye originally requested $90 million for public health costs related to COVID-19.
Needs included laboratory operations support, personal protective equipment, two vehicles for pop-up COVID-19 testing, a strike team that would conduct mass testing in congregate settings like nursing homes and other areas where outbreaks have occurred; paying for eight laboratory technicians and four microbiologists needed to process tests including on evenings and weekends to meet the demand; paying for four epidemiologists to conduct data analysis and monitor vulnerable populations; and paying for four health educators to help with community outreach efforts.
Dr. Kasirye said the process for the first request from Gill’s committee to submit what their needs were was “unclear” and they continued to get mixed messages and erroneous information about requesting funds. She and then-County Health Director Dr. Peter Beilensen were forced to repeatedly ask the Board of Supervisors for more money in piecemeal fashion.
Dr. Kasirye was among those who filed several lawsuits against Gill, who was ultimately made to step down from his position after the Board of Supervisors issued a vote of no confidence against him in light of the CARES Act funding scandal. While she didn’t want the details of the lawsuit played out publicly, Dr. Kasirye did issue a statement at the time.
“Nav Gill made it clear to me from the beginning of this pandemic that he was not pleased with my request to declare a Health Emergency. From then on, through intimidation and manipulation, he created blocks at every step in issuing Health Officer Orders,” she said. “He withheld resources despite our multiple requests for funding, and sought to silence me and alienate me. All this caused me a lot of anxiety, and were it not for support from the Public Health staff and County Counsel, I would not have been able to do my job.”
Foreperson Deanna Hanson said the Grand Jury was dumbfounded that the County Board of Supervisors seemed completely disconnected from the Office of Public Health in the midst of the pandemic crisis.
The Grand Jury is recommending that the County Board of Supervisors, Gill’s successor Anne Edwards, and the County Office of Public Health jointly develop a public health emergency response plan that will aid in the implementation of future public health orders and best ensure the safety of Sacramento County residents.
Dr. Kasirye previously told The OBSERVER that it was hard for her, her staff and volunteers to face people’s vitriol about the pandemic, the restrictive mandates and vaccination. Getting blocked by County officials, who were supposed to be on the same team, had to be crushing. However, she “went high” and remained focused.
“What I have found is that people do respect the office that I hold, regardless of what other thoughts they might have about me,” she said. “So what I always remind myself is that the important thing is the words and the advice that I provide, always trying to make sure that I provide good information, always trying to show that I’m doing my best to take care of the communities that I’m responsible for.”