During the deadliest period of the pandemic this past month, county officials have gone largely silent.

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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Hospitalizations, intensive care unit stays and deaths are skyrocketing more than ever.

Outbreaks are ongoing across local jails, homeless shelters and now throughout the entire county clerical ranks.

Yet gone are the weekly press conferences of the past year that helped keep former County Supervisor Michelle Steel in the media spotlight until her tight election win in her race for Congress last November.

Since Steel won office, the County of Orange no longer seemingly sees a need to communicate with the public or the press through regular news briefings.

Now, we only get press conferences when county officials want to showcase their latest unveiling. And even then, reporters are generally restricted to about one question with no follow ups.

Meanwhile, county supervisors – operating in secretive subcommittees of two members – continue to take a larger role in contracting and procurement decisions behind the scenes.

Consider the consequences.

Supervisors Andrew Do and Doug Chaffee – a Republican and Democrat – themselves as a two-man subcommittee are overseeing testing and vaccine planning.

If you think putting two politicians in charge of contracting, behind closed doors, is a good idea just consider the county’s vaccine app disastrous rollout.

It’s pretty clear now there was no one asking tough questions behind closed doors.

County CEO Frank Kim says “the app is working well and we have scheduled/vaccinated over 21,000 residents at our first Super POD location. There is certainly a supply and demand challenge since the quantity of vaccine is less than the demand. We are really pleased to see the high level of interest in vaccinations from Orange County residents,” Kim said in a text message.

Yet readers keep telling us the application – as opposed to a simple website like the one used by LA county – has been full of glitches since it was unveiled last week.

Officials like Kim keep saying the problems have to do with the large public outpouring but they are ignoring real complaints about specific glitches.

We know nothing about the company that sold this application to the county Health Care Agency or the process where it was identified.

Note that the county has a full IT department, chock full of people that could have run a public website or even developed an app.

Why use an outside contractor at all?

We have no idea how much we as taxpayers paid to this company that can’t seem to deliver a functioning sign-up experience.

There’s also apparently no option to use the application in languages other than English – something that’s a real problem given the high positivity rates across Orange County’s most diverse cities.

And there’s a big focus on drive-up sites – like Disneyland (actually park and walk up) or the new site set to be unveiled this coming Saturday at a 1 p.m. press conference at Soka University.

Yet that doesn’t help seniors or disabled residents who face challenges driving.

Not only that, readers tell us – again and again – that the Othena app just doesn’t work.

“The rollout is horrible,” said Voice of OC reader Roberta Fox. “The criteria (in addition to being over 65… I’m over 75…) seem to be:

  1. Be computer-savvy ( and use a desktop with a printer, mobile seems to be an even bigger issue)
  2. Be very persistent
  3. Be able to drive a significant distance
  4. Be able to walk a significant distance after parking and within the site.
  5. Be able stand for an hour or more (or bring a chair)

In short, that’s a rather small subset of senior citizens, eliminates the ones who really need it most.”

Karen Lowe, a 78-year old retiree living near UC Irvine also was among many who wrote me saying the app was just unusable.

“The major problem is that deplorable app, Othena. I have been on it for more than ten days and have never had it open to me for scheduling. I have been (and still am) stuck in screens caused by a myriad of glitches the app has experienced that never gives me any options. My chief concern is that as the rollout unfolds and teachers, essential workers and younger groups are added to the ranks, I will totally fall through the cracks and may not ever be able to secure an inoculation. I appreciate the coverage you have given to this situation. WHO AND WHERE ARE THE OC PEOPLE RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS DISASTER OF A ROLLOUT? Throughout this whole pandemic, information about OC was never very visible. OC always crows that it’s better LA. Well, this time LA and even the City of Long Beach have left us in the dust! If I thought it would be appropriate to try to get vaccinated in either place, I would do so in a heartbeat. OC YOU HAVE BEEN A REAL DISAPPOINTMENT!”

After dealing with the app, Mark Chapin Johnson, a University Trustee and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University in the Political Science department, questioned why more private sector know-how wasn’t tapped.

“With extraordinary companies, entrepreneurs and CEOs in Orange County, it should take about 6 hours to correct this horrible screw up caused by a clueless Orange County Board of Supervisors giving a sole source contract to a private company completely unequipped to handle the challenge while people are unnecessarily dying every day because of bureaucratic incompetence,” Johnson wrote.

It’s not just on procurement that county leaders are resisting tough, frank discussions about what’s working and what isn’t.

Virus outbreaks across the county have now gone into overdrive, with workers threatened at multiple locations.

And county supervisors haven’t asked one question about it in public.

I’ve had a mountain of emails coming to me from administrative workers across the spectrum who are terrified because their safety – and that of their families – is just being ignored.

When asked about the outbreaks, County CEO Kim insists that the county has been super proactive on letting workers telecommute, approving more sick leave and enhancing work stations.

But many workers, especially those at the Eckhoff building of the Social Services agency say their managers just aren’t managing the situation.

It’s easy to conclude those managers are failing because the outbreaks at places like Eckhoff keep spreading.

Just consider what the county’s main union leader, Charles Barfield of the Orange County Employees Association, wrote to the county’s Human Resources chief last week.

“The apparent unabated spread of COVID-19 throughout County worksites has led our members to reasonably conclude the County is not complying with all of the mandates of the ETS (Cal/OSHA Emergency Temporary Standards). The dramatic increase in COVID-19 outbreaks and major outbreaks appears to support their conclusion,” wrote Barfield in a Jan. 14 memo to Tom Hatch, who heads county Human Resources.

Thanks to recent state legislation and CalOsha regulations, large employers are now required to report virus outbreaks – defined as three or more cases in a 14-day period.

According to the Jan. 14 memo sent to Hatch, union leaders have reported 23 different recent outbreaks throughout county departments.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s a ton of workers affected at places like the the Social Services and Health Care agencies as well as the Sheriff’s Department.

Union leaders alerted county officials about six different worksites that are experiencing “major” outbreaks.

Workers at the 3320 E. La Palma and 1928 S. Grand Avenue SSA offices have seen 32 cases since December.

The Eckhoff building has seen 27 cases of Covid over that same time period.

Many of those terrified workers at Eckhoff wrote me just last night.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the clerical upper management for the Division of Children and Family Services has not given access or permission to many clerical staff to be able to effectively work from home using either county laptops or RDP (Remote Desktop protocol) although these tools have been given to only a select few including upper management,” wrote one worker.

“Although it is a simple and quick setup for these items to start up, upper management has refused to give the employees who are still working from the office the ability to work effectively from home. While the cases within  the 840 building have amounted to an alarming 73 cases as of 1/20/21, we have also not been contact traced. We know of a few people who have gotten Covid-19 in the 840 building who also came in contact with clerical staff, however, clerical staff were not contact traced after those individuals tested positive.  Many clerical staff have been left to continually work in a building that has been considered by OSHA an outbreak building even though it is possible to work from home using RDP or county issued laptops.”

The same worker concluded by noting, “We have families to go home to at the end of the day and we have been left to question ourselves each day WHEN are we going to get COVID-19 working from these buildings. I have read previous articles that Voice of OC has published regarding similar issues within the county, however, nobody seems to bat an eye when it comes to clerical staff who are the backbone of the divisions of Children and Family Services. We have been left to fend for ourselves during this Covid-19 pandemic in terms of safely being able to keep the work going with the little provisions that have been given to us.”

Another worker noted,  “We are averaging about ten new cases in our building each week and our supervisors are not budging on allowing us to safely work from home.”

Yet instead of asking tough questions in public about these issues, more and more we see county supervisors moving the opposite direction, tucking the virus behind closed doors and focusing their efforts onto better PR about the crisis.

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated a vaccine-related county press conference would be held on Thursday, Jan. 21 instead of Saturday, Jan. 23 at 1 p.m. We regret the error. 

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