Regretful Sonoma County health officer Sundari Mase says she wants to continue leading campaign against COVID-19
Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said Tuesday that she does not believe her alcohol-related reckless driving conviction last summer undermines her ability to guide the county through the pandemic, even as critics call for her resignation.
In a statement to The Press Democrat, Mase again expressed her “regrets and apologies” for what happened and thanked those who have rallied to support her.
“I am very grateful for all the support I have been receiving from colleagues in the county and members of the public,” she said.
“I do not believe this incident has interfered in any way with my ability to do my job, nor will it,” she continued.
“I have expressed my regrets and apologies for what happened, and I stand by that statement. Otherwise, I’m maintaining my focus on the work at hand, which concerns limiting the impacts of COVID on our community and getting people vaccinated and boosted.”
Mase’s conviction stemmed from a Dec. 2, 2020, arrest in Alameda County on suspicion of misdemeanor driving under the influence of alcohol with a prior offense. She later pleaded no contest to a “wet reckless,” the informal description of a DUI-related plea bargain.
(Read a message from the editor about why The Press Democrat pursued and published the story on Dr. Mase here.)
This week, two members of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors said they intend to address the matter at the next board meeting on March 1.
Mase and public health staff are expected to give a COVID-19 briefing at the meeting.
All five county supervisors said they did not find out about Mase’s arrest and conviction until The Press Democrat began reporting the story last week. Mase said last week that she reported her arrest at the time to her boss and to the county’s chief legal counsel. Both are no longer with the county.
“My only disappointment is that the county knew, but I and the other supervisors did not know,” said Board of Supervisors Chair James Gore.
The Board appointed Mase in March 2020 at the outset of the pandemic. She made $282,450 last year. Newly named Health Services Director Tina Rivera is her direct supervisor.
Gore said he intends to ask Rivera to look into the county’s initial internal response and determine if there should be any further action.
“This is not an issue unless Tina and HR make it an issue beyond what we have seen so far,” Gore said. “Somebody who made a gross mistake during personal time, and how that impacts their job is really going to be up to Tina to figure out and bring back to us.”
Gore added that Mase, a former World Health Organization infectious disease expert, has been “a consummate professional” throughout her time working with the board.
However, “that kind of a mistake is a big one,” Gore said of her arrest. “It is about credibility and it is about the perception of you and how you do your job. Having said that, it’ll take a little bit to figure out where this goes, or how it links to her work.”
The board is expected to vote to approve Rivera as the new Health Services director at that same March 1 meeting. She has been serving as interim director for the past nine months.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who said she was “shocked and disappointed” by news of Mase’s arrest, plans to request a review of what employees are legally obligated to report regarding off-duty incidents.
The county’s top lawyer, County Counsel Robert Pittman, said Mase was under no obligation to report her arrest and misdemeanor conviction to county officials.
“The incident involving Dr. Mase did not occur during work hours, did not occur on County property, and did not involve a County vehicle,” Pittman said in an email to The Press Democrat.
Mase has been the public face of the county’s pandemic response. She has garnered praise from public health advocates, while receiving withering criticism from anti-vaccine and anti-mask protesters. She has also been criticized by prominent members of the business community over what they saw as excessive unilateral mandates.
Peter Rumble, CEO of Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, said members of the local business community have been “shocked and surprised” by the news of Mase’s arrest and conviction. Rumble said he personally was saddened by the news.
“I hope she’s well and getting whatever support she needs to move forward positively,” Rumble said.
Some health care workers who have been on the front lines of the pandemic said they fully support Mase, whose efforts have led the county to an 80% vaccination rate, which is well above the statewide rate.
Dr. Panna Lossy, founder of IsoCare Network, a local nonprofit that has helped struggling families isolate and quarantine safely, said Mase’s work as health officer has saved lives in Sonoma County.