Santana: Communication Breakdown Fuels Virus Spike

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Emergency sign at a hospital located in West Anaheim.

As Covid hospitalizations skyrocket across Orange County and the state, it should come as no surprise that people have tons of questions — especially about Gov. Gavin Newsom’s most recent shutdown order.

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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Yet amidst the ongoing pandemic, state and local leaders are increasingly avoiding realtime debate, much less inviting any kind of public accountability over their actions or spending decisions.

Take Newsom, who on Monday continued perfecting the art of the longwinded press conference.

Throughout the pandemic, during his Covid press conferences, Newsom usually goes on for extended periods and then only allows a few questions, often times weighted toward the state’s large outlets like the LA Times or out of state press like the New York Times or Politico.

Nobody gets any chance for any public follow ups – especially when officials wander or are unclear in their responses to reporters’ questions.

Thus, massive announcements – like tiered rating systems for shutdowns – are rolled out with just a few minutes of questions.

Talk about fueling confusion.

Here in Orange County, Don Wagner – the most vocal Newsom critic on the county board of supervisors – has taken the governor to task over his lack of cooperation with the legislature, lack of debate on the merits of actions like mask mandates and is ultimately questioning Newsom’s authority to take so many unilateral actions.

Today, Wagner will ask the Orange County Board of Supervisors to file supportive arguments in an ongoing legal case challenging Newsom’s authority.

Wagner has publicly said he doesn’t think Newsom knows what he’s doing on virus response, adding that it’s time for the state’s legislature to get back in the game.

Yet Wagner isn’t as excited about ensuring his own county government operates in a transparent manner over Coronavirus response or procurement, much less press relations.

County of Orange press conferences are just as restrictive as Newsom’s.

Reporters are only allowed one question with no follow ups. The entire question-and-answer period towards the end of what are billed as press conferences are generally shut down after about 15 minutes.

Once a week since March, former Supervisor (now Congresswoman) Michelle Steel was able to use the weekly press briefing as a campaign speech platform, rarely taking any questions from the press but taking up about the first 15 minutes of virtually all press conferences. After that, health care officials generally offered updates and then would take very limited questions from about a dozen outlets covering Southern California and Orange County.

It worked out great for Steel — as she went on to win her congressional seat.

Meanwhile, the public and the press have been left with critical information gaps.

The county’s own chief public information officer takes weeks to get back to reporters on basic questions asked in public at press conferences.

And in many cases, despite what officials say at the public press podium, there isn’t any follow-up on reporters’ questions.

Just a polite blow off.

Meanwhile, the public keeps clamoring for more information.

Keep in mind that during a pandemic, public information is one of the most important pillars of trust.

The county’s own pandemic disaster plan – along with the national response plan – call out the importance of messaging.

Instead, our government leaders keep giving us lame but expensive PR campaigns using our tax dollars to preach to us about the obvious on masks and social distancing.

What they won’t do is take on the hard subjects.

What’’s really driving the infections? What’s all this contact tracing telling us?

Voice of OC has been asking the County of Orange for months for death data about Covid along with outbreaks.

The county refuses.

How are residents to make critical decisions for themselves about where to go without good data on what schools, workplaces and businesses are using good practices and getting good results, and which ones aren’t?

Instead, we are left with generalized guidelines that in some cases, seem confusing.

Consider that under the current shutdown orders, you can’t go to an outdoor playground but you can go to the mall.

In the meantime, the County of Orange Health Care Agency – unlike Los Angeles County – won’t list places that experience outbreaks.

In fact, county officials have essentially said it’s improper for them to enforce any state-mandated Covid rules.

They continue to argue they have a secret county counsel decision that backs them up on resisting any kind of role on state enforcement of Covid rules.

Yet they refuse to let the public see it.

In the meantime, that means that county health inspectors won’t enforce Covid rules at restaurants in their areas of jurisdiction. But in many cases, inspectors in Anaheim and other cities are enforcing those rules.

This is what Gov. Newsom has often referred to as his “localism” approach to Covid, depending on county leaders for standards and enforcement.

Now, it’s clear that transparency breeds accountability.

Consider just a few weeks ago that both Wagner and Supervisor Lisa Bartlett were questioning Orange County’s rating in Newsom’s tier system, both publicly arguing that Orange County’s hospital capacity was solid and should be considered in further opening of the economy.

Both Wagner and Bartlett made it sound like local hospital capacity was something that could be counted on.

Heck, Wagner even publicly quoted the region’s hospital association as saying there were no alarm bells going off.

Yet weeks later, alarm bells are going off.

Meanwhile, the epidemiologists talking to our main Coronavirus reporter, Spencer Custodio, were telling him in numerous daily dispatches that hospital capacity would be stretched based on the numbers they were seeing.

The best way that residents can protect their own quality of life is to be equipped with information.

Given that state and county officials don’t want to lead a conversation, our newsroom will this Thursday again join regional epidemiologists for an open and frank discussion about the Coronavirus numbers and what they mean for our future.

If you have questions you want included, feel free to reach out to me directly at [email protected] and I’ll make sure to include as many questions as we can.

We’ll also work to field as many public questions as we can during the live podcast.

Information is power.

And ultimately, that kind of power will get us all through this.