Orange County officials, giving in to public pressure, are preparing to follow other counties in releasing city-level specific data for coronavirus cases, which would show the number of residents in each city who have tested positive for coronavirus.
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Officials announced at a 1:30 p.m. news conference Wednesday that the data will be posted on a county website starting Friday. The briefing comes after officials announced last night the first death in Orange County from COVID-19, of a man in his 70s with underlying health conditions.
Health experts have cautioned that city-level data is not very useful, for several reasons. The data will not show where people were infected, because it could have happened anywhere in the two weeks before people started showing symptoms. And it could seem like larger cities are more at risk even if they’re not, because raw numbers don’t take into account the size of a city’s population.
Officials also consider the city-level data unreliable because of uneven access to testing across the county.
The main message from health officials at the county, state and federal level is that the public should be cautious about coronavirus everywhere, and that the most effective tool to stop the spread is to maintain six-foot distance from others as much as possible.
“There is community transmission occurring in Orange County, regardless of where you are in Orange County. We all need to be taking precautions that the governor has ordered around social distancing, around staying home unless you’re an essential worker or going out to get groceries. If you’re ill, stay home,” said David Souleles, deputy director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, during the news conference.
“If we are not all-in on this, it won’t be effective. We need to be all-in as a community to protect and preserve the health of our community and [the health of] the most vulnerable among us,” he added.
“Our goal with social distancing…is to spread out cases over time so that our hospitals are able to effectively respond and not be overburdened.”
OC was days behind its neighboring counties, like LA and San Diego, in releasing city-level data. The issue became a rallying cry among many residents questioning why Orange County was not being as transparent as other counties.
The decision to release the data comes after days of questions and concerns from the public about why the city-level data weren’t being released. Those concerns were highlighted in a Voice of OC article Tuesday that was widely shared.
A video of Wednesday’s news conference is available here.
While some city officials have wanted the data released, others have expressed strong concerns it could stigmatize their community and affect business in their city.
The man in his 70s who died was being treated at a local hospital, officials wrote in a news release Tuesday night, adding they would not be releasing the name of the hospital or which city the man lived in.
“We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the patient’s family and friends,” said Dr. Nichole Quick, the county health officer, in a statement about the man’s death.
“This serves as a very unfortunate reminder to the community about the importance of staying at home and social distancing when leaving the household for essential activities, or to work at an essential business, in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 and help protect our most vulnerable neighbors.”
Amid a shortage of tests and hospital protective equipment, people with mild and moderate coronavirus symptoms are being asked to isolate themselves at home for weeks and avoid contact with their family members as much as possible, to avoid spreading the virus.
That’s the strategy across the United States, though public health experts have cautioned that having ill people isolate at home risks infecting their family members. Many leading health experts are calling for opening up facilities at large centers, such as at convention centers, where people with mild COVID-19 symptoms have the option to recover without risking infection to their families.
There continued to be concerns Wednesday about a shortage in OC – and across the nation – of N95 masks and other critical protective equipment for hospital staff, paramedics, law enforcement, and other first responders. Orange County has requested at least 1 million N95 masks, and it wasn’t clear Wednesday how many of those were on the way.
Hospitals and other emergency medical responders are facing an “overwhelming” shortage of face masks and other protective equipment at to fight coronavirus, according to a report Monday from county officials that was obtained by Voice of OC.
Many hospitals have cancelled non-essential services as they prepare for a surge of coronavirus patients in the coming days and weeks.
“The best available epidemiological data suggests that the United States is currently 7-10 days behind the scope and scale of COVID-19 seen in the Lombardy region of Italy, meaning that we are likely on the precipice of potentially overwhelming and catastrophic strain on our health care system,” wrote doctors at UCI Medical Center’s anesthesiology department in a March 17 letter to administrators.
Officials at the county’s Emergency Operations Center say they do not have a centralized list of the money and supplies – like N95 masks – that they’re asking state and federal officials for.
Orange County’s jails also emerged as a major focus Wednesday, after the prior evening’s announcement that an inmate at the county’s Central Men’s Jail tested positive for COVID-19.
Deputy sheriffs who work in jails have been expressing concerns for their safety amid a shortage of N95 masks and other personal protective equipment.
“Where the guys are very concerned, is the PPE [protective equipment] is starting to trickle in, and we would like to see it trickle in much faster,” said Tom Dominguez, president of the union that represents deputy sheriffs, probation officers, and county park rangers, in an interview Wednesday morning with Voice of OC.
“It’s stressful on the personnel working in the jails [and juvenile hall], especially now that we have at least one confirmed patient testing positive for the virus. So when you have that occur in an environment that’s completely enclosed, it does cause some stress,” he added.
Sheriff’s Department leaders say the protective gear is provided for deputies who are with people being isolated, and that they’re working to secure more masks.
“I know that we are providing PPE specifically to deputies who are working with individuals who are isolated and quarantined,” the department’s lead spokeswoman, Carrie Braun, told Voice of OC Wednesday morning.
Asked about efforts to secure more protective equipment, Braun added: “We are, as a department, working actively. We have a department operations center that is responsible for the distribution of PPE throughout the department, and they are working proactively throughout the day to obtain PPE for our department needs.”
The jails were expected to be a topic of discussion at the 1:30 news conference.
“We just have to make sure that our first responders are protected as much as possible, because they are a limited resource,” said Dominguez, the deputies’ union president, adding that he would be meeting with Sheriff’s Department leaders to figure out a plan.
“The virus is indiscriminate – it does not make a distinction between inmates and staff. So we’re all in this together.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.