Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.

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Orange County supervisors keep ignoring the numbers right in front of them.

Since the Coronavirus pandemic broke out in Mid-March, unleashing a dual public health and social services nightmare in real time, county supervisors have spent most of their time on the public dais reacting to public health restrictions like masks orders or closures of beaches and golf courses.

At the same time, they have completely ignored from the public dais the mounting deaths and infections in Orange County’s largest cities, Santa Ana and Anaheim – places that are also among the most diverse, the youngest and most working class in the region.

While Orange County’s two largest cities are home to only 20 percent of the county’s residents, they make up for 40 percent of the number of residents who have tested positive for Coronavirus, as reported by Voice of OC’s County Reporter Nick Gerda yesterday.

I think the first time any Orange County official actually reflected in public about what’s happening in Santa Ana and Anaheim was last week when I asked about it during the always-brief, official County of Orange weekly press conference last Thursday.

Orange County Health Care Agency Director – and now also Public Health Director – Clayton Chau admitted that pondering the impacts of the virus’ spread throughout the cities of Anaheim and Santa Ana keeps him up at night.

It should.

The alarm bells have been going off – and muffled – almost from day one.

That’s in large part, due to the weak public information – or disinformation – effort at the County of Orange with county bureaucrats hesitant to publicly discuss their Coronavirus response or consider changes to data collection in realtime that might allow for better crisis response.

Just about all of the County of Orange public information efforts so far have clearly been put through a political lens, most visible recently when Supervisors’ Chairwoman Michelle Steel reads opening remarks at every weekly press conference but leaves immediately and takes no questions.

The weak public engagement at the County of Orange, I think, is one of the remaining ghosts from the 1994 County bankruptcy, where taxpayers literally showed up at county supervisors’ offices asking hard questions about how their money was misspent.

That’s why today, there’s a glass bunker on the Fifth Floor of the Board of Supervisors largely designed to keep the public out.

Yet the bunker legacy has gone beyond just the physical.

This is a place where public technocrats truly work with a bunker mentality when it comes to the public’s right to know.

Note that other counties around Orange County and the state seem to have been way ahead when it comes to transparency on the Coronavirus.

For example, curious about what restaurants in your community have been closed down due to Coronavirus?

LA County will tell you.

Orange County will not.

In the beginning of the crisis, Orange County also refused to release city infection data at all – largely due to the pressing from local city managers who didn’t want a stigma attached to their cities.

LA County released that kind of data.

After Voice of OC raised the issue, county officials started releasing public data from cities.

We also saw the same issue on the publication of hospitalization rates, where county officials often undercount the number of local hospitalizations compared to similar state tracking efforts, which are more up to date.

Again, once pointed out by Voice of OC, county officials adjusted.

It’s hard to have the public understand the magnitude of certain actions – like mask orders – unless there’s a healthy amount of valued information going around about the nature of the threats facing us.

The national CDC’s own communications guide for pandemics makes it pretty clear that effective public communication is key.

Yet that’s exactly what didn’t happen as county officials anxiously opened up certain sectors right before the Memorial Day weekend, which in turn prompted Orange County’s then-Public Health Director Nicole Quick’s abrupt mask order, an order that also featured no public information rollout or explanation and was rolled out on a Friday night.

The order would later be rewritten, just as the two previous public health orders issued by Quick were, to be clearer, officials said.

It’s not just on orders that there’s confusion.

Note that as reporters we often wait long response times from the Emergency Operations Center for basic questions.

County press conferences now also limit reporters to just one question and the Q&A session rarely goes on for more than a half hour. I clocked one recent presser to just about 40 minutes.

Also keep in mind that the top three executives at Orange County’s Health Care Agency have all resigned in the past three months, so reporters aren’t dealing with a deep bench.

Two – Richard Sanchez and David Souleles – were near retirement and chose to pursue other career goals.

Public Health Director Quick resigned after several heated exchanges with county supervisors that were followed by what officials deemed death threats over her mask order

When Chau – a trained psychiatrist –  took over as Public Health Director for Quick earlier this month, he quickly found himself under fire from county supervisors over the existing mask order, which he publicly defended…but later recalled.

YouTube video

The very nature of the mask debate itself was marred by county supervisors’ odd approach of requiring public comment in person – thus not allowing phone-in comments or reading emailed comments sent in, as other cities have done in recent months.

So if you want to tell county supervisors to keep a mandatory mask order as a member of the public, because you fear for your safety, you have to enter an indoor room with others who refuse to wear masks – even though standing county and state orders mandate it – and offer public comment in person.

Note that county supervisors at the start of the pandemic were wearing masks at supervisors’ public meetings but apparently that practice ended some time ago, despite the mask orders.

These kinds of practices, at minimum send a mixed message to the public and at their worst, created a lopsided public comment policy that likely tilted policy votes because of who was able to be in the room these past few months of deliberations.

Yet most importantly, the mask debate seems largely a distraction to a much tougher set of questions.

If the county’s infection rate, raw numbers of about 2,000 cases in Santa Ana and Anaheim are correct, shouldn’t county supervisors be doing some serious questioning about what’s going on in the local hospitals around these two areas?

And while officials argue that many Coronavirus infections and deaths are attributed to nursing homes, where are the other infections coming from?

Are they workplace-related?

Where are the non-nursing home deaths coming from?

Lastly, what’s the impact when you juxtapose such high infection rates onto the same areas that are being hit the hardest by high unemployment rates and food insecurity due to Coronavirus?

The County of Orange needs to find a way of answering these kinds of on-the-ground questions in real time, effectively leading a discussion that ultimately ensures all of Orange County can get back to business.

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