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All seven of Orange County’s members of Congress are demanding to know why people who live in OC are getting coronavirus tests at far lower rates than Riverside and San Diego counties and what’s being done to increase access.
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“We write today with concerns regarding Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) testing disparities between Orange County and other counties. Because research has shown that a significant portion of individuals with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, especially critical to quickly identify and contain small outbreaks and strengthen public confidence as the state gradually relaxes its stay-at-home order,” states their Tuesday morning letter to Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the OC Health Care Agency.
The members of Congress, whose districts include all of Orange County, wrote the county health care agency in the wake of a Voice of OC article published last week about the issue.
“As of May 11, 2020, approximately 52,982 tests had been conducted in Orange County. Meanwhile, San Diego County, which has a similar population size, had conducted 82,116. Riverside County, whose population is one-third smaller, had conducted 73,149,” the full congressional delegation wrote in its letter Tuesday.
The members of Congress – Mike Levin, Gil Cisneros, Alan Lowenthal, Lou Correa, Linda Sánchez, Katie Porter, and Harley Rouda – requested “a briefing to understand the factors contributing to Orange County’s comparably low testing volume so that we may work together to address this disparity,” and listed a series of questions.
Orange County’s senior health care administrator, Clayton Chau, declined to publicly address the concerns of Orange County’s congressional delegation about the lack of testing. His office instead relayed a general statement from the lead spokeswoman at the county CEO’s office.
“[The Health Care Agency] is in receipt of the letter and is looking over the questions posed within it and will be engaging with members of our Congressional delegation in the near future,” county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson said in an emailed statement.
As debates continue over relaxing stay at home orders, there’s widespread agreement among county officials, the governor, and business leaders that testing for coronavirus is key to re-opening the economy.
Yet when it comes to the share of residents who have gotten tested, Voice of OC reported Thursday that Orange County continues to lag behind other large California counties.
County officials have cited a shortage of swabs and other supplies to administer tests, which has prompted OC to set more restrictive requirements for people to get tested.
In Los Angeles County, any resident can schedule a coronavirus test regardless of whether they are showing symptoms of COVID-19, according to the county.
As of earlier this week, OC had limited its county testing to people with symptoms who have undergone a screening and have been unable to get testing elsewhere, according to Orange County’s testing website. OC officials indicated last week they had no plans to expand testing access to everyone.
People with no symptoms can spread coronavirus for up to 14 days before they show symptoms, and sometimes never show noticeable symptoms while they’re contagious, according to health researchers.
Statewide, there’s been about 26,000 coronavirus tests per million residents as of Tuesday, while Orange County has had 17,000 tests per million residents, said Andrew Noymer, an associate professor of public health at UC Irvine.
“That is a pretty big difference. Orange County’s pretty far behind,” Noymer said in an interview Tuesday. “Orange County should aspire to do better.”
“It’s through testing that we’re going to keep track of the evolving epidemic, and so we should always aspire to do better. And clearly we’re below average statewide,” he added.
On Tuesday, the number of people hospitalized in OC’s intensive care units hit a new high of 100, according to the daily point-in-time data from the county Health Care Agency, Noymer noted.
OC supervisors have set up a closed-door committee of supervisors Andrew Do and Doug Chaffee to look at testing in OC and how to expand access.
On Tuesday, they noted new state guidelines recommending expanding the highest priority for testing – known as “Tier 1” – to essential workers who aren’t symptomatic but at higher risk of getting COVID.
In recent days, some county officials have claimed no one who wants a test in OC is getting turned away, though the county’s own website says tests are available only to people who have symptoms or a doctor’s note.
It’s unclear how many people have been turned away from getting tested in Orange County.
OC Health Care Agency officials said Tuesday they did not have any data on the number of people who have called doctors and clinics to request COVID testing but were not allowed to get tested.
Asked why OC isn’t offering testing to everyone regardless of symptoms, county officials said it’s not a priority under federal and state guidelines.
“As more resources become available, the local priority for asymptomatic testing is for [nursing home] workers, other health care workers, first responders, and people working in congregate settings (jails, shelters),” said Dr. Donna Fleming, a public health services consulting manager at the county Health Care Agency, in a written response to questions.
“Testing of asymptomatic people is best used to help protect patients/residents from workers who may be infected and not know it. Other essential workers (with less intense contact with the public) will also be prioritized once resources allow.”
Also on Tuesday, supervisors’ Chairwoman Michelle Steel continued to question why the county isn’t collecting and reporting data – an issue highlighted Monday in a Voice of OC article.
“We want you to mention…how many recovered out of 3,557 [confirmed cases in OC],” Steel told Chau, the health agency director, at the county supervisors’ meeting Tuesday.
“Great. So I’m going to ask Dr. [Nichole] Quick to address that,” Chau responded, referring to the county health officer. “We had that conversation as well, because I know that’s something that some of the media are also interested in.”
County officials have not yet provided a timeframe for when the recovery data will be posted.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.