Supervisors respond to Placer County public health officer’s resignation
Special to the Sierra Sun
After supervisors declared the end of Placer County’s state of emergency last week, Public Health Director Aimee Sisson, appointed in October 2019, announced her resignation.
Since Gov. Newsom issued a stay-at-home order on March 19, 14,606 people have died in California. The national total of deaths is approaching 200,000 people.
As of Thursday morning, five Nevada County residents had died from COVID-19. Thirty-nine people have died in Placer County since the pandemic arrived on the West Coast in late February.
The number of cases will only get higher, Placer County District 1 Supervisor and Board Chair Bonnie Gore said, but the death rate, albeit tragic, is significantly more manageable than it was at the pandemic’s onset.
“The numbers of (additional) cases per day have been declining since mid-July,” Gore said. “Of course cases are increasing because it’s a virus, and people are still getting it.”
This slowing trend, combined with findings from Gore’s individual outreach to nonprofits providing social services in the area, are what inspired her vote in the board’s unanimous decision to end the state of emergency on Sept. 8, she said.
“Domestic violence calls have gone up,” Gore said. “Calls for the Mobile Crisis Hotline have gone up. Suicide attempts and suicides have gone up. The increase in isolation, anxiety and depression has increased, not to mention the economic impact the shutdown has had on individuals because they can’t work or their businesses aren’t surviving.”
Gore said she verified the trends with the county’s Health and Human Services Office. Adult System of Care Director Amy Ellis told her that calls to the mobile crisis hotline are up 40%, she said. Aside from government guidance, Gore said she contacted the sheriff and local nonprofits focused on providing social services to assess more complex damages of the virus.
District 5 Supervisor Cindy Gustafson, whose district includes eastern county, concurred. Gustafson said she voted in favor of lifting the emergency order after weighing the county’s current capacities — available PPE and hospital beds — with the secondary impact of the government-enforced shutdown on financial and mental health issues.
CRISES EXTEND BEYOND CORONAVIRUS
Until 2020, the national unemployment rate had not risen into the double digits since 1982, and before that — 1940. By mid-July, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 13.3% of Californians were unemployed and 12.4% of Californians underemployed. The United States as a whole’s unemployment rate is 8% — up from last month, still twice that of pre-pandemic.
In a May 2020 Sierra Sun article on the region’s financial health, Liz Bowling of the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association estimated 60% of the Truckee-Tahoe region was jobless at the time. The Employment Development Department records that March unemployment rate jumped from 4.1% to 13%. Placer County’s Business Development Manager Paul Griffith said the last hard unemployment numbers his office has are from July — at 9.8%.
According to the Washington Post, a $1,200 relief payment to 80 million people in April was part of the $2.2 trillion government subsidy via the CARES Act, which also offered relief to big corporations, small businesses, state and local governments and public health — in that order. The additional $600 unemployment benefits recipients got on top of their state’s unemployment insurance rates ended in July.
Today, that means the average registered unemployed Californian receives roughly $370 a week, or $1,480 a month. According to a Californian listing service, the average rent in the state is $1,420.
The financial tensions, combined with their mental impact in a new age devoid of regular human contact, have created a crisis of their own, Gustafson said. Operating and non-operating small business owners are struggling alike, and the state of emergency denied them their “livelihood.”
Gustafson said the board met with a panel of experts, including Sisson and Nobel laureates, over a month ago to determine the true cost of the emergency order-imposed restrictions.
“The board debated, because it’s a little bit like crying wolf,” Gustafson said, explaining that part of the motivation for lifting the emergency order was to be trusted and an act of trust. “It’s an emergency, but really, what are the factors? An emergency is different. It’s still a crisis.”
Gustafson said when used in a governmental context, an emergency implies a resource shortage. In any case, Gustafson added, the crisis has now expanded beyond the novel coronavirus.
“You declare an emergency so you can take extraordinary actions,” Gustafson said. “Maybe in the case of a fire or a flood. We’re seven months into this.”
“It’s a mental health crisis, it’s a food insecurity crisis, it’s an unemployment crisis.”
‘NO LONGER EFFECTIVELY SERVE’
“It is with a heavy heart that I submit this letter of resignation,” Sisson wrote on Sept. 8. “Today’s action by the Placer County Board of Supervisors made it clear that I can no longer effectively serve in my role as Placer County Health Officer and Public Health Director. I intend to remain in my current position until September 25 to facilitate a smooth leadership transition. I am grateful to have been granted the tremendous privilege and responsibility of protecting and promoting the health of Placer County’s 400,000 residents over the last 10 months.”
Gustafson said competing needs of the related crises caused by the pandemic puts public health officers in a horrible position.
Sisson’s resignation comes with a slew of resignations from public health officials statewide. Kaiser Health News and the Associated Press reported that 49 state and local public health leaders have resigned, retired or been fired since April across 23 states. Dr. Ken Cutler retired as Nevada County Public Health Official in July.
Gore said she appreciated Sisson’s guidance and steadfastness over the last six months.
“I respect the work Dr. Sisson has done for us, especially in the last six months,” Gore said. “I also respect her decision to resign. Our board took a position that she could not support, and she made that decision. I respect that.”
Gore said public health officers take direction from the California Department of Public Health, an overhead institution that is physically distant from a particular region’s varied and changing needs.
“My job, our board’s job, is to look at the health of our community as a whole,” Gore said. “That includes as a result of the shutdown the effect on the mental and emotional health of my constituents.”
Gustafson said Dr. Rob Oldham, who served in the county seat from 2014 to Sisson’s appointment in 2019, will return to the position after Sisson departs Sept. 23.
According to the Placer County website, Oldham’s return comes “after serving for the last year as chief medical executive for Sutter Center for Psychiatry in Sacramento and as medical director of acute psychiatric services across the Sutter Health system in California and Hawaii.”
Gustafson said she hopes the trust between government and state will go both ways. Gustafson said her constituents trust her to vote in their livelihood’s best interest and hopes they, in turn, mask up and sanitize.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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