Orange County officials are reporting a sharp rise in coronavirus outbreaks at county government work sites, as several workers call on managers to return back to the outdoor services approach from earlier in the pandemic.
Known infections among county employees exposed at work sites have jumped to 71 this month through Wednesday, up from two employees over the first 11 days of June and 8 over the same timeframe in July, according to county data reviewed by Voice of OC.
The Social Service Agency has apparently been hit the hardest.
Three social service eligibility offices were in outbreak status this week, employees said in interviews.
They called on county executives to reverse their policy of allowing residents to wait unmasked in the lobby area, and to go back to the previous approach of handling most public interactions outdoors and over the phone.
“My fear is that somebody is going to get sick from being in our lobbies. And as much as the workers try to help out the clients as fast as we can, as efficiently…sometimes you end up having to assist somebody for a half hour, 45 minutes…so you have folks just sitting there in the lobby,” said Diana Corral, a county eligibility employment specialist at the county’s regional office in Anaheim.
Corral said residents are unknowingly walking into hot spots.
“With these offices in the outbreak status right now, what’s really upsetting is they are not informing the public that they are entering a facility that has been placed in an outbreak status,” said Corral, who also serves as president of the union representing the county eligibility workers, Local 2076.
“At least if they informed the clients that hey you are now entering this facility that’s been determined to be in an outbreak status, you are entering at your own risk. But they’re not even being informed about that.”
Jamie Cargo, a spokesperson for the Social Services Agency, said state officials require essential employees to be in the offices to help residents apply for and receive benefits and other social programs.
“During difficult times, SSA must ensure that clients have access to basic services in a timely manner. This may include meeting clients in a manner that they would like to be served and addresses access constraints for those who may not have access to the internet or a phone,” Cargo said in a Thursday email.
Additionally, Cargo said, there’s plexiglass barriers and masks provided to employees — along with increased sanitization procedures.
Current state Department of Public Health guidelines allow fully vaccinated people to drop their masks indoors through what’s known as a self-attestation process.
It’s an issue county officials have struggled with at Orange County Board of Supervisors meetings, where many residents don’t wear masks when they go to speak during public comment.
“Provide information to all patrons, guests and attendees regarding vaccination requirements and allow vaccinated individuals to self-attest that they are in compliance prior to entry,” read the department’s guidelines.
The guidelines also state officials can verify vaccination status through documentation or simply make everyone wear a mask.
Charles Barield, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, is calling for more public health protocols.
“We know that lobbies in County facilities are open to the public and many people are entering those facilities without masks. If the County won’t verify vaccination status for the public coming into public counters or lobbies, then operations should, wherever feasible, be moved outdoors to create safer conditions both for workers and the public,” Barfield said in a Thursday email.
He also said the same safety measures should go for county Supervisors meetings.
“This is the time for the County to amplify its safety efforts from the Board of Supervisors’ chambers to every work location, including public facing counters, to ensure worker safety,” Barfield wrote.
Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do reinstated some pandemic protocols during last Tuesday’s meeting.
That means residents who want to voice their concerns to the board wait outside the meeting chambers and are let into a separate room to speak through a microphone to Supervisors — for a couple meetings last month, residents were allowed back inside the meeting chambers where most weren’t wearing masks.
Cargo, spokesperson for the OC Social Services Agency, said officials are providing safety equipment and have altered the workplace.
“SSA has made a significant investment in facilities readiness, equipment and supplies for safety during the pandemic. Among the precautions SSA has taken are providing N95 ventilators and face masks to staff who request them, installing plexiglass partitions and touchless sinks and hand sanitizing stations, and enhanced cleaning,” Cargo said.
Meanwhile, county Supervisor Katrina Foley is calling for a universal mask mandate in county buildings.
“Especially for public facing employees,” Foley said at a Thursday news conference, specifically noting the Social Services Agency. “I do think it’s very important for the public and both our employees that we put in stricter protocols during this time period and we have to pivot back to having a little more protection.”
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said it’s time to revise workplace policies since positivity rates around the county are increasing due to the Delta variant.
“We need to revisit our County workplace plan to ensure a healthy and safe environment for our workforce. We should follow appropriate health and safety protocols as prescribed by our [county Health Officer], Dr. Clayton Chau,” Bartlett said in a Friday text message.
At a Friday news conference, county CEO Frank Kim said the county generally has options for people to work from home.
“In general the county still has telework options available. But if you are, let’s say for example, a supervisor managing a group of eligibility workers. That’s very difficult to do if you’re not in the office,” Kim said “We also have to have an in person option available because a lot of our clients who need those essential services may not have access to the internet.”
Kim also noted there’s still protective measures like plexiglass, regular cleaning and high-end masks, like N95s, offered to employees.
“As a general rule, the county still allows telework options. But once the reopening occurred in the health orders from the state … it was important for us to assure that all avenues of access were granted.”
Chau said he’s not considering a mask mandate and wants to be consistent with state guidelines, which allow for fully vaccinated people to drop their masks indoors.
“My health officer opinion has always been that I want to follow the state guidance and make sure we are in alignment with the state and I strongly believe in that. I personally work closely with the state.”
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.