Sacramento County has tapped a new leader to tackle the latest chapter of the pandemic.
Chevon Kothari is the new county Health Services Director, a position that has been vacant since December following Dr. Peter Beilenson’s resignation. Previously, Kothari was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom as the chief deputy director of the California Department of Social Services in June 2020.
CapRadio's Insight host Vicki Gonzalez spoke with Kothari about why the county has been unable to move out of the red tier of the state's COVID-19 reopening plan, and what has to happen after the state reopens June 15.
When it comes to COVID-19, Sacramento County remains in the red tier. Forty eight other counties have looser restrictions, nearly 90% of the state's population. What are the specific issues that you see within Sacramento County that you plan to address?
I'm working with Dr. [Olivia] Kasirye, who is our public health officer, and really the expert here. But what I'm understanding is that we really need to be getting our vaccination rates up. And so her and her team have really been working diligently to ensure that we have vaccine clinics that are not only accessible to the communities that we serve, but really engaging those underserved communities who may may be experiencing a little bit more vaccine hesitancy or may have some trust issues, slower to decide whether they want the vaccine. And so one of our targeted efforts has really been looking through an equity lens at how we can get vaccines out to communities that are having lower uptake rates.
Last week it was approved for adolescents ages 12 to 15 to begin to get the vaccine. So another community with which we're engaging with the schools and the local churches to see if we can get youth and their families vaccinated.
The other thing that I would say is that we have to continue to maintain a lot of vigilance when it comes to COVID-19. Although we are approaching June 15, a date that we move beyond the blueprint and no longer have these colored tiers or restrictions in the same way, we're going to have to maintain that vigilance and ensure that we're doing those things necessary to keep the pandemic at bay and keep our our most vulnerable populations safe.
In a recent poll from CapRadio and Valley Vision of the Sacramento region, 40% of the respondents who had yet to be vaccinated said they would probably not or they would definitely not get the vaccine. Do you think the county has enough resources to close that gap?
I would definitely say one of the things that CDPH at the state level has been working on quite diligently is the issue of vaccine hesitancy. And how do you engage communities that are vaccine hesitant? There are a spectrum of different issues and reasons why people aren't choosing [to get the vaccine], and so there's not a one size fits all approach to how you really address it. It's not all about just increasing knowledge or education or awareness. It also has to do with building trust and engagement.
One of the things that I know at the state level and the local levels that we're really thinking about is how we as government continue to strengthen partnerships with those community based organizations that already have built trust, that have already built relationships with the communities who are more hesitant. And so that is one of the strategies that we're looking to, to further as we move forward here, because we do realize the more folks we can get vaccinated, the better it will be for our whole population in terms of keeping us safe.
How do you get these communities that feel left behind or overlooked, how do you get that engagement level up, which ultimately can lead to trust when you talk about strategies, if you have specific strategies in mind?
I definitely think listening is a really big thing. We have to listen to people's voices in terms of what their own experiences have been. That's the only way we can really shape strategies. I certainly can't put my lens on everyone else and assume that it's the right lens. And so that listening, that really ensuring that we're taking people's voices and lifting them up, ensuring that when we're creating leadership bodies or advisory boards or whatnot, that we're really strategically getting the right people to the table who will be able to lift up the voices of those underserved communities.
Additionally, I think resource allocation. The May Revise [state budget proposal] came out last week and we're really excited about the opportunities for the Health and Human Services field, both federal and state dollars coming down to support our programs. What we want to do with those resources is really be strategic moving forward so that we're putting them in the right places and in the right hands so that folks can use those resources to engage their community.
Despite the move to in-person learning, how can the county better support children suffering learning loss, lack of child care, nutrition and English learning?
This is one of those areas that I intend to really look at closer, because as schools have kind of started to open up, as they'll start to go back in the fall, we're really getting a better sense, I think, of the overall impact on youth and families.
The governor’s May Revise does lift up a number of programs that I think will be very beneficial to families. My philosophy has always been an every door is the right door philosophy. I really think that it's important that no matter how a family or a child touches our systems, whether it's through the behavioral health world or whether it's through the child care world, that we're really linking families to the array of services that they can get in the background of that. And that that's seamless, that they don't have to jump through hoops or have barriers in their way in terms of accessing that.
The state is planning to reopen June 15. What needs to happen between now and then for Sacramento County to be prepared and safe?
We need to continue to be vigilant going forward. As you know, there is guidance coming down from the federal level, from the CDC around masking, for instance. And so we will be taking the state's lead when it comes to that masking guidance, for instance.
Our investment in our ongoing public health infrastructure is going to continue to be really important. The state is making some really significant one time investments into public health and infrastructure and behavioral health and all of the services we provide. We really do need to see ongoing sustainable funding for those programs, because what we do know and what we've learned from the pandemic is our ability to strengthen our systems in the what I'll call in between times really predicts our ability to pivot and react quickly when we do have a major crisis, when we do have a major disaster, when we do have another pandemic. Hopefully we won't see that in our lifetime, but our ability to invest now is really important to ensuring that we can keep people safe going forward.
Correction: In a previous version of this article Chevon Kothari was misspelled. It has been corrected.
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