Public Health Officer, Sacramento County
In 2016, four years into Dr. Olivia Kasirye’s tenure as public health officer of Sacramento County, the fentanyl overdoses began. Fifty-two people in the greater Sacramento area overdosed after taking counterfeit narcotics in March and April of that year alone. As federal agents launched their investigation into the source of the pills, Kasirye’s media team lined her up for TV appearances and radio and print interviews around the region.
Kasirye was a stable figure at the center of a crisis. With carefully chosen words, she cautioned listeners against taking the pills as calmly as she would remind them to stay hydrated in the summer and to get flu vaccines in the fall. Kasirye reprised this role frequently in the following years whenever Sacramento County residents needed a reminder that — as long as they took the right precautions — the latest public health incident would not lead to end-times.
“It’s really important for us to make sure that the information that we provide is as accurate as possible and that people will trust the word that we give them,” Kasirye says. “We are the ones who gather information and are able to get that information out to the community.”
During more than two decades in public health, Kasirye has served as the Sacramento County communicable disease controller, STD controller and tuberculosis controller, and spent three years as El Dorado County’s public health officer. Her current position requires her to oversee a staff of 200 working on multiple programs, including disease control and surveillance and health education. The common goal among the programs is to arm Sacramento County’s 1.5 million residents with the tools they need to protect their health.
The public health officer position carries some unique powers. Failure to comply with an order from Kasirye’s office is a legal misdemeanor, so she can order people with infectious disease who fail to take their medication or segregate themselves to be put in jail. “Getting to the point where you’re actually turning someone in is not easy, because you’re basically taking away their freedom,” says Kasirye. “But, of course, the most important thing is to make sure that we protect the community.”
Kasirye left her homeland of Uganda in 1991, after watching the country pass from hand to hand in a decades-long series of military coups and lived in the Bronx and Youngston, Ohio, before coming to UC Davis for her master’s in public health. Establishing a medical career in the United States with a foreign degree, even from the prestigious Makerere University in Kampala, proved to be an uphill task, requiring new coursework and grueling exams.
Her experiences have given Kasirye insights that help her connect with the diverse population of Sacramento County and her staff. “Being able to have an open mind and hear what other people have to say, I think, is really important,” she says.
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