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While Orange County officials insist on keeping public data about Covid outbreaks secret, new state workplace safety regulations continue to shed light on a number of troubling Covid outbreaks across the County of Orange workforce.

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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While the majority of current Covid outbreaks are at the county jail, there’s also a surprisingly large number at several county buildings — more than a dozen hot spots  — with the most notable outbreaks coming from the Social Services Agency – spread out across nine different divisions at six different addresses, according to a Dec. 21 union memo asking county officials about mitigation.

Four of those addresses match the Social Service public assistance counters closed by the County of Orange during the holidays, with officials only saying in an official press release that “This change in operations is being made as a precautionary measure to help slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Last month, I reported out the first detailed public glimpse about where the latest Covid outbreaks are happening throughout the county government – impacting nearly a thousand public workers and their families.

To date, county officials keep resisting efforts to release public covid outbreak data – as is done in LA county – something that keeps protecting bad actors and preventing good actors from getting credit.

For months, county politicians and public managers have insisted publicly – again and again – that effective measures have been put into place to protect essential workers.

“We’ve added staffing for additional support for employee health. Also provided departments with direct access to take home test kits so employees can get tested sooner,” said Orange County CEO Frank Kim in a text before the holidays. “This is in addition to extending the paid sick hours and adding an additional 40 hours of paid sick time the Board approved last Tuesday. Further, I’ve recommended that department heads continue telecommuting where appropriate to reduce the number of employees in offices during the outbreaks. We are taking measures and working to protect employees.”

Sheriff Don Barnes this month also said during his routine press conference that his deputies had done a solid job of managing the jails during the pandemic.

Yet the infections among workers and inmates keep spiking.

“We have staff in critical safety net position,” Kim replied. “From jails, the probation supervisions, social workers, etc that continue to interact with clients. That certainly presents greater risk. We are continually evaluating our process and procedures to enhance safety where we can.”

Yet what I question – and have publicly from day one of the pandemic – is how can officials understand what’s working and what isn’t if we aren’t all checking under the hood, together, in realtime, publicly.

For example, consider the voice of one of many Social Services Employee that wrote to Voice of OC anonymously this past July complaining about the inefficiency of telling workers what’s happening at the SSA Anaheim Regional Office at 3320 La Palma Avenue – one of the public assistance counters quietly closed down over the holidays after outbreaks.

“To our disdain, we are notified after the employee has been gone for some time and worse they do not tell us what areas in the building were frequented by this employee… it would help to know the whereabouts of this person so we may know whether we have been exposed to this individual or not. Our HR tells us they will notify us if we’ve come into contact with this person, but what if we’ve been in contact with this person in the break room or bathroom and this person didn’t even know us? This is both infuriating and frustrating knowing that many of us have families that we come home to, that we can bring this to.”

The SSA workers fumed that “It is unjust that we are left here at the office to worry and stress each day that we are going to bring something home to our loved ones. At what point is the county going to shutdown the office to stop the infections from increasing? Are they waiting for all of us to become infected?

According to the late December memo from county labor leaders to the County CEO, there are three ongoing virus cases at that very address.

The public isn’t stupid.

They might actually have something smart to add if they had data to work with.

Now, county officials keep insisting that handing over public outbreak data to the public would be too problematic.

And they argue there’s no need for specific data on outbreaks.

“Covid is in the community,” said Kim, who himself contracted Covid at the workplace. “Whether the infections come from outside or from a coworker, we have to exercise safety precautions in both in office and out of work environments. Period.”

Yet how can we really know what public sector executives are actually doing a good job implementing protective measures and managing staff without being able to publicly examine outbreak data?

For example, another Voice of OC reader that works at the Sheriff Department recently wrote in saying

“Per our mgr, Sheriff Barnes does not believe in telecommuting. Even though Don Barnes had a directive to close all Sheriff lobbies effective Dec. 8, our Lobby continues to be open. In addition, unlike the Newport Beach civil office, the Santa Ana office has no one to monitor masks/number of people entering as we are not inside the courthouse. Customers come in with no masks and entire families. They will not reduce staff so as to limit spread even though super slow at the moment due to Covid. When my coworker’s and I attempt to speak to Capt or mgmt, they become completely defensive.”

Another example, in specific hot spots questioned by union officials, it seems one Brookhurst Social Services facility had 8 cases while other addresses that do similar work had less than half with only three.

Another internal compilation of cases showed 26 cases in the past 34 days at the county Social Services’ Eckoff buildings, places that have had historical problems with employees reporting health concerns.

Given the new CalOsha regulations, union officials are asking tough questions about whether workers have been isolated or tested. So far, workers haven’t noticed such actions taking place.

“We expect the County to not only comply with its obligations under all Cal/OSHA standards and guidelines, but to ensure that workers be able to observe visible, verifiable actions commensurate with the rate of positive COVID-19 cases at each worksite,” said Orange County Employees Association General Manager Charles Barfield, confirming he had sent a Dec. 21 letter to the county’s Human Resources Officer Tom Hatch calling for follow up on 14 specific outbreaks at county buildings.

“Cal/OSHA’s new Emergency Temporary Standards were effective November 30 and among other requirements mandate worksite testing and the exclusion of workers from the worksite when an outbreak occurs.  OCEA recently provided the County with a list of 14 specific locations which have positive case numbers requiring an outbreak investigation – OCEA and the OCEA members in those locations will hold the County accountable for thorough investigations and appropriate remediation action.”

Kim declined to speak to the specific cases.

“My staff are reviewing the letter,” He said. “Until their review is complete I can’t speak to the specific issue.”

It will be interesting to learn what happened at these county locations where outbreaks occurred, whether it was, as Kim has generally noted, just a job hazard from interacting at public counters or whether there’s a different reason why so many workers got sick at specific job sites.

That’s the deep dive that can really help us all keep learning about what’s working and what’s not, who’s managing well and who’s not.

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