Trial by fire: new Sonoma County health officer leads front line of pandemic battle
Dr. Sundari Mase returned a reporter’s call at 11:17 on a recent weeknight.
“Long day,” she explained.
That would imply, incorrectly, that Mase has had any short days since being hired March 10 as Sonoma County’s interim health officer. Two weeks later, in a sort of battlefield promotion, the county removed “interim” from her title.
The health officer serves as a kind of physician for the entire county. It’s a critical job that came open at a terrible time. Mase’s predecessor, Dr. Celeste Philip, had announced her resignation March 2, with the coronavirus outbreak on the cusp of becoming a pandemic. On her way out the door, Philip declared a public health emergency in the county.
On March 11, before Mase had so much as unpacked the boxes in her Santa Rosa office, she banned gatherings of 250 or more people, and closed nursing homes to visitors. A week later, her eighth day on the job, she issued the unprecedented stay-at-home order that has drastically altered daily life - and upended business and commerce - in the county. She followed that up by effectively closing local beaches and parks, then advising all public schools to keep students off campuses through May 1. Those extraordinary directives, some of the most restrictive in the nation, are meant to give county residents a fighting chance against this virus that’s taken close to 30,000 lives around the globe since it first took root in China three months ago.
Asked how she’s holding up - Mase is averaging 16-hour work days - the 53-year-old seemed puzzled by the question.
“I’m doing fine,” she said in an interview. “For my entire medical career, this is what I’ve been preparing for.”
Like a relief pitcher rushed to the mound with no warmup, Mase took her $263,316-a-year post without any kind of transition. “We said hello,” recalled Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, “and threw her in the deep end.”
Taking a longer view, looking back on the life of the woman tasked with guiding the county through its gravest public health emergency in a century, it seems clear Mase has been preparing for this moment, this battle with this pathogen, since she was a teenager.
She is the daughter of Ramachandran Sastry Ranganathan, a Ph.D. in organic chemistry who came to the United States from India in the mid-1960s as a Fulbright scholar. He moved the family to California when Sundari was 4 years old.
As a freshman at UC Berkeley, she aspired to be an engineer. That plan changed the following summer, when she spent 2½ months at a health clinic in Madras, India. The experience was “eye-opening,” she said. Resources were scarce. Every day she cleaned hypodermic needles with bleach, so they could be reused. One man who frequented the clinic suffered from elephantiasis, a mosquito-borne disease that attacks the body’s lymph system and can cause dramatic swelling of the limbs.
“Every day I debrided his wounds,” she said, using the medical term for removing dead or infected tissue, “and rewrapped his legs.”
Rather than being repulsed, she found her calling. “I loved working with people,” recalled Mase, who speaks fluent Tamil, “and I loved the science of medicine.”
After earning her medical degree from UC San Francisco in 1993, she worked as an internist with Alliance Medical Group in the East Bay. In 2001, she made another life-changing pivot, leaving private practice to take a job with California’s Department of Health Services in its tuberculosis control branch.
She’d enjoyed patient care, but wanted to help on a bigger scale.
“In public health, you can really impact large numbers of people with policies and guidelines that are evidence-based,” she said.
For 18 years, in California, then with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, then the World Health Organization, she has been the scourge of tuberculosis, a renowned expert in the battle against a disease that still kills 1,000 people a day.
In Atlanta, she worked with the epidemiologist Suzanne Marks, who described Mase as “one of the most brilliant physicians and researchers that I know,” a team leader who provided guidance to clinicians on the diagnosis and treatment of the most difficult-to-treat TB patients.
“I can’t overstate (her) qualifications,” Marks said.
Among Mase’s duties at the CDC, where she worked from 2008 to 2016, was the supervision of its four “centers of excellence” in the fight against tuberculosis. One of those was directed by her friend and mentor Dr. Lee Reichman, retired executive director of the Global Tuberculosis Institute. He remembers the grace with which she handled potentially difficult situations.