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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More than 1,000 Orange County residents are now dead from the Coronavirus.

Yet County of Orange officials continue to double down on politicizing the public health department.

After fumbling the public messaging for the Memorial Day reopening along with lax restaurant enforcement since June, the County of Orange this past month quietly lowered medical standards to install a new County Health Officer and also tasked him with running the county’s billion dollar Health Care Agency.

Those are two pretty big jobs to combine.

Not to mention that leaves Orange County with the least qualified medical doctor protecting residents in any of our neighboring Southern California counties.

Instead, OC’s new county health officer is celebrated for his ability to deal with regulators, politicians and business interests.

Dr. Clayton Chau told reporters at a press conference last week he saw himself as a “facilitator,” something that public health officials privately bristled at, saying it’s the exact opposite of how to approach the job.

Several sources told me that public health officers need to do their job as though they are not afraid to lose it.

Yet Chau’s tone when he talks to supervisors doesn’t sound anything like that.

At their installation event last week, county supervisors showered praise on Chau, saying his ability to work state regulators had really piqued their interest in him as opposed to the nine candidates who applied for the position of chief medical doctor for the county’s three million residents.

Yet supervisors left out some important background on why they are so supportive of Chau.

And they definitely didn’t publicly mention all the coronavirus deaths on his watch.

Chau relaxed a controversial mask order on June 11 that was enacted by his predecessor Dr. Nicole Quick the last week of May just before county supervisors had their Memorial Day reopening blitz – an effort that Chau himself later publicly called “sloppy.”

As supervisors publicly pressured for a rapid reopening – and publicly questioned masking mandates – county officials pressured Quick to reopen the economy.

As a doctor, Quick reportedly held the line at an accompanying mandatory mask order, which was announced late Friday night, May 22.

That triggered intense opposition from county supervisors like Don Wagner and Chairwoman Michelle Steel, who now both publicly support masks but back then fought the science and application of face coverings intensely from the public dais. I still remember Steel alleging it was “species discrimination” to force masks on people but not pets.

Eventually, the pressure on Quick was too much and she resigned on June 8, agreeing to a $75,000 severance package and a nondisclosure agreement, which precluded her from saying anything publicly.

Days later, June 11 to be exact – Chau – now in the role of interim county health officer – bent and announced a relaxtaion of the mask order.

Since that decision, local deaths spiked.

It’s a debate that officials will now avoid, talking about the numbers.

But numbers don’t lie.

And despite official attempts to avoid any kind of questioning in public – such as limiting reporters to one question only during brief weekly press conferences and cutting off any follow ups – numbers can’t have their mic shut off.

So let’s look at the numbers.

By early June, there were about 230 residents that had died.

Dr. Chau pulled back the mask order on June 11 – at a time we were averaging around 8 deaths a day.

I asked our Covid-19 daily beat reporter, Spencer Custodio, to help walk me through the numbers he’s watched every day since March.

By the end of June, the daily positive cases soared to around 800 and stayed in the vicinity until mid-July.

And deaths?

On June 22, the deaths spiked up to 14 people that day

Two days later, a similar spike, on the 24th, where another 15 people die that day.

Four days later, another day where 14 people die in one day.

By early July, after Chau publicly announced that HCA inspectors would not be enforcing any kind of Covid-related regulations at local restaurants, the virus numbers explode.

Daily death counts during July often go into the double digits with as many as 14 or 15 deaths a day.

So in the midst of the highest deaths noted, Chau went out and publicly announced that HCA inspectors wouldn’ be looking for violations to protect workers or customers at restaurants.

And later, experts agree that a large number of infections were reportedly spread at restaurants.

By July 13, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued another order shutting down large scale gatherings again.

While daily deaths continued to soar in early August – as high as 18 on Aug. 3 – they seem to have come back down toward the end of the month.

Which leaves us all poised at the next holiday break, this time Labor Day, with lowered Covid numbers and rising hopes for a turn of the tide.

As such, several reporters asked questions about the Chau appointment on behalf of multitudes of readers during last week’s County of Orange press conference, which is broadcast and archived on the County of Orange Facebook page.

Chau brushed off any questions about his qualifications at the press conference, saying he had taught public health at UCLA for a decade and had a dead professor that could vouch for him but ultimately avoided questions about his lack of board certifications or about allegations that rules were relaxed for his appointment.

County officials never publicly released any information about the other candidates for the position nor about Chau’s compensation or contracts for both jobs.

When I attempted to ask questions about Chau’s appointment at last week’s press conference, I was cut off by the County’s Public Information Officer.

Note that for a county of three million people, county supervisors only allow about 20 minutes of questions to officials each week. That’s after reporters are forced to sit through Chairwoman Steel’s latest 15-minute campaign speech for Congress.

There’s still lots of confusion about how the virus numbers are being reported and a new state tiering system that indicates Orange County is moving to reopen large gatherings – like schools – again.

Out in front is Chau – echoing supervisors’ sentiments – seemingly moving in an aggressive manner to reopen venues, even having to walk aback a tweet this past weekend about reopening schools as early as Sept. 8.

Note that public health isn’t the only accountability mechanism county supervisors have short circuited in recent years.

Years back, supervisors created an innovate position called the performance audit division, which went out and conducted management audits throughout the county. After the office showed multiple instances of fraud, waste and abuse throughout the government, county supervisors forced out the chief auditor and then kept the position vacant for years.

Similarly, they created the Office of Independent Review after the 2006 jail beating death of John Derek Chamberlain and again after years of dysfunction left it vacant until recently filling the position.

Former Auditor Controller Eric Woolery fought supervisors on numerous fronts – including their questionable use of official county mail for campaigning, pension benefits and spending. Supervisors eventually took out most of his staff, leaving him with no ability to check them.

Woolery felt the pressure. He died last August, reportedly of heart issues.

Orange County supervisors don’t like to be told no.

Yet that’s a dangerous way to run public health.

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