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This story was updated at 11:50 a.m. to include more comments and reactions from Orange County officials.
An Orange County Grand Jury report released Wednesday found OC officials — for years — failed to take seriously the threat of a pandemic and were caught flat footed on public outreach, vaccines and overall response.
“The Grand Jury’s investigation revealed that while Orange County had emergency plans specific to a pandemic, these plans had known gaps that were not addressed in accordance with state, national and international guidelines,” reads the report.
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Grand jurors also found the county Health Care Agency “had been ‘hollowed out’ with several budgeted positions being vacant for extended periods of time.”
“The Grand Jury reviewed the County’s [emergency operation plan] and the [pandemic response plan] and found that it had classified the probability of a pandemic as “Unlikely.” The “Unlikely” probability classification is shared with a San Onofre Nuclear disaster, an Act of War, a Flood/Reservoir/Dam emergency, and an act of terrorism,” reads the report.
The virus has killed more than 5,000 OC residents — more than nine times the flu kills on a yearly average.
Grand jurors concluded that the county wasn’t able to properly respond because county officials didn’t prioritize the threat of a pandemic, failed to properly engage with media and community groups and lagged in creating a vaccination plan.
Elected Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner, reached for comment Wednesday morning, said he had not read the report yet.
When a reporter summarized a few of the key findings, he called them “troubling things we ought to look into.”
The Health Care Agency’s budget “was not allocated relative to the likelihood of pandemic planning and preparation,” grand jurors found.
Orange County Supervisors have historically shifted millions of public dollars away from the agency while funding other agencies like the Sheriff’s Dept. at far higher levels.
Asked about budgeting, Wagner said:
“It is always a delicate balance to prioritize the problems right in front of us, for example homelessness, for example, mental health problems we see in our jails because they’re the number one provider of mental health services in the county — and that’s a terrible place to be.”
So, he added, “decisions and priorities have to be made and that is inevitable in any budgeting scenario with resources. In hindsight you can always say a different decision could have been made.”
“Although the Orange County Board of Supervisors declared a ‘pandemic’ in March 2020, the [county Health Care Agency] has been unable to effectively implement and execute plans to respond to the current pandemic,” reads the report.
OC saw two virus waves since the pandemic began last March.
Last Summer, over 720 people were hospitalized and hundreds of deaths were reported following a July peak.
But the Winter wave saw over 2,200 people hospitalized at one point, with over 1,000 residents killed by the virus in December and another 1,200 dead in January.
“It is always easier to see what went wrong in hindsight. I think this is an excellent opportunity for us to reflect and consider opportunities to respond better, in the future,” said Dr. Jason Cord, president of the Orange County Medical Association, in a Wednesday text message.
He added: “However we should also acknowledge all the heroes that contributed to ensure bad outcomes were minimized.”
Grand jurors were critical of the OC Health Care Agency for failing to quickly partner with local community groups to help stem the tide of the pandemic in time.
“Nearly half of Orange County is made up of residents with limited English language proficiency,” reads the report. “The [OC Health Care Agency] and County management had not developed strong community partnerships per the CDC guidelines. Although the CARES act funds were available in March 2020, the health care agency did not enter a contract with respective community engagement services organizations until much later in 2020,” reads the report.
Neighborhoods scattered throughout North and Central Orange County were hit hardest by the pandemic, especially in Anaheim and Santa Ana.
County officials didn’t partner with community organizations like Latino Health Access or the Orange County Asian Pacific Islander Alliance until last Summer, months into the pandemic.
Anaheim and Santa Ana — which have a large Latino population — have 34% of cases and 35%, despite the two cities making up roughly 21% of the county’s residents, according to county Health Care Agency data.
The community groups and the local health clinics they worked with were able to bring testing, contact tracing, isolation resources and general education about the coronavirus to the hardest hit neighborhoods.
Now, using that same model, the groups are bringing community vaccination clinics to the neighborhoods.
County officials apparently ignored some of the recommendations made by the community groups.
“The Grand Jury also learned that recommendations provided by the local health initiatives, such as the Latino Health Access amongst others, were not followed by either the health care agency or by county management,” states the report.
The report also found county officials failed to create a vaccination plan in time.
“This contributed to residents with limited English language proficiency receiving only 18% of available vaccines by March 1, 2021,” reads the report.
The Latino community was largely being left behind when the county first began vaccinations.
Local health clinics and community organizations picked up the slack and were able to close those gaps over the past few months.
Grand jurors recommend the county revise its pandemic plans, bolster resources for future pandemic and close funding gaps in disaster and hospital response plans
They also recommend creating a preparedness committee consisting of a group of people from community organizations, county officials, academics, religious institutions and businesses.
The Orange County Board of Supervisors, Health Care Agency and Emergency Management Council have three months to respond to the Grand Jury’s findings.
Meanwhile, OC’s virus hospitalizations remain low.
As of Wednesday, 83 people were hospitalized, including 18 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.
The virus has now killed 5,023 people.
COVID deaths surpassed average yearly cancer deaths in OC.
It’s also killed more than heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes do on a yearly average, respectively.
Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.
Last year, more than 24,400 OC residents died, according to the latest state health data.
According to the state death statistics, cancer kills over 4,600 people, heart disease kills over
2,800, more than 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @photherecord.