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It's a position that's been vacant since December, but Sacramento County now has a new Department of Health Services director.

a person holding a sign: sacramento county's new health director © KCRA sacramento county's new health director

Less than a year after being appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom as chief deputy director at the California Department of Social Services, Chevon Kothari was selected to be the county's top health official.

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She officially began Monday. KCRA 3's Brandi Cummings was the first reporter to interview her in the new role. Responses have been edited for style, clarity and brevity.

What are the urgent needs in Sacramento County?

Chevon Kothari: As some of these new initiatives come down from the state and federal government and some of these new dollars, we want to ensure that we are leveraging those dollars and bringing them in so that they can benefit the residents of our communities. We also want to ensure health equity. It really is something that we are taking very seriously, engaging with our community and our stakeholders to determine what are those needs that have been unmet and how do we best strategize moving forward so that we can meet those needs.

What are the specific things you are looking to implement within the department?

Kothari: I just started a few days ago, so I have a lot more discussion to have with my team and with my county executives and board about where they would like to take the county, but I will say that I know that our businesses in our community, they have struggled throughout, not only Sacramento County but throughout the state during this pandemic to ensure that they can stay afloat.

One of the things that we want to ensure that we are doing is, as the guidance evolves, absolutely taking the state's lead, but as the guidance evolves we want to make sure that we are getting that information and resources and tools out to our businesses to ensure that they can open safely and that they can sustain themselves moving through this next, what I'll call the next chapter of the pandemic, which is really recovery and healing from a time that's been really challenging for our community and our businesses.

Also working alongside our schools. Child care has been impacted, and so we want to make sure that we are partnering with those organizations in the community that are working to ensure that kids are getting what they need. That's education, that's mental health care, that's access to adequate food and nutrition and exercise and all of those things that are really important to the health and well-being being of our community.

Why is Sacramento still in the state's red reopening tier?

Kothari: Vaccinations, case rates, vigilance -- those are all things that are going to continue to move the needle. I'll also say that as we've seen case rates drop, I think surveillance testing has gone down as well. What that really means is that fewer people are getting tested, so we're only seeing those folks who are getting the positive results, if you will, because they are the ones who are feeling symptoms of COVID-19.

What are your plans to reach underserved communities with vaccines?

Kothari: We recognize vaccine hesitancy is real and communities, especially in light of recent events and stories around some impacts of vaccines on certain communities -- albeit the negative impacts being small -- it's still a real fear and we want to acknowledge that fear.

We also want to work to get information out to ensure that people understand the benefits of the vaccine. The more folks we can get vaccinated, not only the safer will you be, you'll have more liberties too. What we're finding is as the guidance changes, folks who had been vaccinated are really able to do more things these days. They're able to gather socially with other individuals who have been vaccinated without wearing masks. Those are all really exciting things.

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So we really hope to get the word out there that getting vaccinated is not only important for you and your own individual health but for the health of your family and the health of the community.

As soon as we can get an adequate number of folks vaccinated, we will feel more confident I think as a state, as a nation, as a country really moving into this next chapter, which does include opening back up. It does include getting our kids back to school. It does include businesses opening up and folks being able to resume daily life.

We do want to work with those underserved communities that do have fears and are hesitant to get the vaccine to really better understand what the concerns are. What the issues are so we can specifically address those within each of those communities.

We recognize there's not a one-size-fits-all approach to working with communities and to outreach. We are very dedicated to ensuring that we're listening and that we're tailoring solutions to meet the unique needs of each of those communities.

How will you work to address the social determinants of health?

Kothari: One department, one agency, one community-based organization alone is not enough to impact the totality when it comes to social determinants of health. So what really becomes important when we are addressing those determinants are those partnerships.

One of the philosophies I've always had is that we should adopt an "every door is a right door" approach. We want to make sure that no matter what door an individual or family comes through that they are really afforded the opportunities to access all types of supports and care and housing and income security jobs all of those things.

It is our role to take down those barriers for them. We want to ensure that as much as possible we are not inadvertently putting up barriers to folks accessing services. There are already enough individual barriers and community barriers, so our role is to take those down as much as possible.

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READ THE FULL STORY: > Q&A: Sacramento County’s new health director Chevon Kothari on vaccines, challenges, goals

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