Orange County’s weekly coronavirus news conferences have started with the county’s top local elected official, supervisors’ Chairwoman Michelle Steel, painting a rosy picture of OC’s coronavirus data, saying it’s better than all of the surrounding counties.
Hospitalization and death rates in Orange County – two of the main measurements of the pandemic – have been worsening and outpacing neighboring counties in recent weeks.
Yet at the County of Orange weekly press conferences that Steel introduces, she has routinely mischaracterized the data.
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“Orange County is well on its way to getting out of this situation,” Steel said in her intro to the county’s June 11 news conference, adding “we have reason to be positive about where we are.”
“We have continued to see very low numbers of COVID-19, especially relative to our surrounding counties and region,” she said. “Orange County continues to see the lowest rate of confirmed cases and the lowest rate of COVID-19-related deaths, compared to all our neighboring counties and the state as a whole.”
But by the time of that press conference, the pace of deaths per-capita in Orange County was more than four times that of neighboring San Diego County.
And OC’s hospitalization rate per resident was higher than three of the four surrounding counties, according to mandatory data reported by hospitals.
By the next weekly news conference on June 18, Orange County had outpaced three of the four surrounding counties’ hospitalization and death rates, and had the highest rate of coronavirus patients in intensive care – even higher than Los Angeles County.
Yet Steel continued to proclaim OC had better numbers than the surrounding counties.
“Orange County’s number of COVID-19 have continued to remain lower than our surrounding counties and region,” Steel said at the June 18 news conference.
“Orange County continues to see [the] lowest rate of confirmed cases and the lowest rate of COVID-19 related deaths compared to all our neighboring counties and the state altogether.”
With OC’s coronavirus hospitalizations reaching their highest levels yet, health and business leaders are raising concerns the county’s top elected official is underplaying the truth of the pandemic’s continued spread.
“That’s not reflective of reality – certainly not…the numbers from the county,” said Dr. Paul Yost, chairman of the board at CalOptima, the county’s health insurance plan for low-income residents, regarding Steel’s statements that OC has been doing better than the surrounding counties.
“I don’t know what county she’s looking at, but it’s not Orange County.”
Steel didn’t return phone messages seeking comment for this article. When reporters have questions for her at the weekly news conferences, county officials often reply that Steel is no longer present.
Lucy Dunn, president and chief executive officer of the Orange County Business Council, said it’s important for the public to understand the pandemic is serious and that masks and physical distancing are crucial for keeping businesses open.
When asked about Steel’s statements, Dunn said, “We are not out of the first wave. And thus, irrational exuberance makes no sense in order to keep businesses open in Orange County.”
Dunn insisted that the public “mask up.”
“It is incredibly important that now that we’ve re-opened, we need to stay open. And businesses follow false exuberance at their peril,” Dunn said, calling masks the “first line of defense.”
“We must be mindful, careful, mask up, take nothing for granted. And our job is to stay open and be safe,” Dunn said.
Last week, as hospitalizations continued to rise, county officials did not convene a weekly news conference on coronavirus. It was the first time the weekly news conference wasn’t held since they began in March.
Yost said he’s concerned about what’s happening in Texas – which opened faster and earlier than Orange County – where a major children’s hospital in Houston started accepting adult patients due to a shortage of intensive care units at other hospitals.
“They opened before we did and more aggressively. I think you have to have a lot of caution right now. And unfounded optimism is not helpful,” Yost said.
“The public needs to know how to behave, and they need accurate info to be able to do so,” he added.
“We know what works to slow the spread of a highly infectious disease that is spread by respiratory droplets – and that’s masking and social distancing, and if our leaders are messaging that truth and modeling good behavior, then it doesn’t bode well for the health of the residents of the county.”
Steel has also falsely claimed hospitalizations were going down, when in fact they were going up – and keep going up.
“Hospitalizations are decreasing,” Steel’s office quoted her as saying in an April 30 news release.
In fact, hospitalizations had been consistently increasing – up 23 percent from a week earlier.
And they’ve continued to rise.
On Tuesday, the county reported 510 current hospital patients with coronavirus, up from 292 at the beginning of this month and 218 at the beginning of May.
The contrast between Steel’s narrative and county health officials has at times been stark.
At the county’s May 21 news conference, Steel described Orange County as having “some very promising numbers,” including “the lowest rate of COVID-19-related deaths.”
She then handed over the news conference to the county’s then-health officer, Dr. Nichole Quick, who immediately noted the county had just reported 14 deaths, its highest-ever number of deaths in a single day.
“First I want to acknowledge we reported our highest number of deaths in a single day here in Orange County,” Quick said. “We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the friends, family members and loved ones of the lives that we recently lost to COVID.”
This week, Steel continued to emphasize Orange County’s numbers are lower than surrounding counties.
“Our hard work and determination have paid off for several months, with our numbers remaining low when compared with surrounding counties,” Steel said in a news release Tuesday.
But Orange County’s rates continues to be higher than several of the surrounding counties, with a hospitalization rate per-resident that’s 40% higher than neighboring San Diego County as of Steel’s statement Tuesday.
Orange County’s rate of coronavirus patients in intensive care, per-resident, also is higher than Los Angeles, San Diego, and Riverside counties.
Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at UC Irvine, said the latest data continue to show the county’s situation is serious, with a rising number of hospital and intensive care patients.
“We’re not in a good place right now,” he said. “We’re in the pandemic. People aren’t taking it seriously. As long as they’re not taking it seriously, it will continue to get worse….It’s the opposite of fatalistic. We have the power to change this.”
“We have all the power to bring these numbers back down” through measures like wearing masks and social distancing, he said. “Some infection is unavoidable. But look at some other counties, and they’re doing much better.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.