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All surrounding Southern California counties regularly update their residents and respective boards of supervisors on the pandemic’s worsening situation, with some doing weekly news conferences — while Orange County Supervisors haven’t had a public update since late June.
OC Supervisor Chairman Andrew Do — backed by the majority — terminated the public pandemic updates at their late June meeting by tying the county’s local emergency order to the expiration of the state’s emergency order.
This means the COVID update and other items won’t come back until state officials cancel their emergency order, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon as positivity rates around the state are steadily increasing — largely fueled by the Delta variant.
Or until a majority of county Supervisors agree to bring the update back.
Supervisor Katrina Foley has attempted to fashion a public update on her own but her questioning has oftentimes been cut off by her colleagues. Now, she started doing it at the end of the meetings during general comments.
It’s also been more than eight months since Orange County public health officials held a news conference about pandemic. The weekly practice abruptly ended in December, during the height of the Winter wave that eventually killed at least 2,000 residents.
Situation Worsens as OC Lacks Public Updates
OC’s positivity rate was 8.2% as of Wednesday, according to state data.
It was hovering around 1% when the June 15 statewide reopening hit, which marked an end to most pandemic measures like masks and limiting how many people go into businesses.
“What your readers have to understand is that percent positivity and hospitalizations are the two numbers I pay most attention to,” said UC Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer in a phone interview last week.
There were also 375 people hospitalized, including 68 in ICU units throughout OC, according to state data.
The new cases have been hitting coastal Orange County cities harder than the rest, data shows.
Some local public health experts said residents can get the wrong impression from the lack of public updates from local health officials.
“I think primarily the message people are getting is that the pandemic is essentially over. Public health officials are talking as if COVID is behind us. So it’s no surprise that people are getting together.”UC Irvine epidemiologist Sanghyuk Shin in a Tuesday phone interview
Suellen Hopfer, an associate professor in UCI’s department of population health and disease prevention, said public health officials should be pushing out as much information as possible to the public — especially on vaccines.
“Flooding the information environment with how important this is — needs to be prioritized. That’s a key factor in preventing this from getting out of control,” Hopfer said in a Monday phone interview.
OC Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau told Voice of OC that only county Supervisors could bring back the public updates at their meetings and revive news conferences — a practice that ended in December during the thick of the Winter wave.
Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do, and his spokesperson, didn’t answer questions about if updates or news conferences will be coming back.
But, Supervisor Doug Chaffee said it could be time to bring such updates back.
“That’s a suggestion, that maybe we should at some point go to an actual press conference,” Chaffee said in a Monday phone interview.
He added the news conferences are “an interesting question … I will ask the question.”
Hopfer, who examines vaccine hesitancy, said many people who are on the fence about getting the shot can be swayed if local officials commit to more regular updates and a steady public awareness campaign.
She said by increasing those efforts, along with partnering with family care doctors, will not just “address the questions to build confidence, but also provide motivators to vaccinate.”
Officials, she said, should give examples of what residents can expect to do after being fully vaccinated during the updates — like staving off fears of becoming severely infected.
“It protects not only the physical well being, but also mental and emotional health of families — it’s a way to resume many physical activities,” Hopfer said.
Local epidemiologists, like Shin and others interviewed over the past month, say the vaccines are still effective against fighting off the Delta variant and if a vaccinated person contracts the disease, the risk for severe illness is drastically reduced.
“Fully vaccinated people have an extremely high level of protection against severe disease and death and have pretty high protection against symptomatic diseases and pretty high protection against overall infection.”UC Irvine epidemiologist Sanghyuk Shin in a Tuesday phone interview
Neighboring Counties’ Efforts to Publicly Update Their Residents
County supervisors in Imperial, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego all receive public updates about the pandemic situation at their respective meetings.
Some cancelled updates when case rates were low, but then brought them back.
“I know we talked about not doing any COVID update but because there’s been a change in the situation, and Supervisor [Manuel] Perez has asked some questions, we’re going to go ahead today and have a COVID status report,” Riverside County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Karen Spiegel said at their July 27 meeting.
Dr. Geoffey Leung, Riverside County’s health officer, noted trends which are similar throughout Southern California.
“As of this morning our case rate in riverside county is 10.7 per 100,000 [residents]. And that is compared to a low of 1.5 per 100,000 that we saw earlier last month,” Leung said at the meeting.“Overall the numbers today represent a more than fivefold increase in case rates and positivity over the past two months.”
Riverside county spokesperson Brooke Federico said the public updates — along with a weekly news conference — were reinstated late July as cases continued increasing.
San Bernardino county’s interim director of the Public Health Department, Andrew Goldfrach, also noted similar increases during that county’s Board of Supervisors meeting the same day.
“The transmission rate is drastically increasing since June 15,” Goldfrach told Supervisors. “If we were still to have the blueprint for the economy, we would be in the Purple Tier.”
He was referencing the state’s old four-tiered, color-coded businesses reopening guidelines that ended when the June 15 statewide reopening hit.
When the restrictions were lifted, Orange County sat in the least restrictive Yellow Tier.
If the tiers were around today, OC would be in most restrictive Purple Tier.
Dr. Wilma Wooten, San Diego County health officer, also noted similar trends to that county’s Board of Supervisor at their July 13 meeting — the latest public meeting.
”One week after the state ended the Blueprint for a Safer Economy … cases began to increase in late June, as indicated here,” Wooten told supervisors while presenting case graphs.
San Diego County has been holding weekly news conferences since the pandemic began.
While some San Diego County Supervisors said the state’s decision to make students wear masks in classrooms should be left to school districts, one supervisor said the debate has become too political
San Diego County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer began to cry during the mask discussion because she said her daughter with a learning disability could be falling behind other students due to masks.
“She can’t see people’s mouths and she’s not learning to talk. But I would also feel so terrible if she got COVID or transmitted COVID and took it home and someone died,” Lawson-Remer told her colleagues.
“I think I have to come down on not what’s good for my own daughter, but what’s good for the collective — what’s good for all of us. What’s good for everyone. Sorry I’m crying. I just think this has gotten politicized in a way that’s really unhealthy and a way that’s unhelpful,” she said.
Last week, state public health officials released guidelines urging all Californians to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
Some counties, like Los Angeles, took it a step further and mandated masks for all people at public indoor places like grocery stores, department stores and various indoor businesses.
Meanwhile, in Orange County, one supervisor has created a de facto public update at meetings.
Last Tuesday, Supervisor Katrina Foley gave an overview of the county’s virus situation during supervisor comment time at the very end of the meeting.
“We still want to make sure people use preventative measures and be cautious,” Foley said during her update. “If you don’t want to get vaccinated, avoid crowds. That’s really important right now.”
She also said she wears a mask to the meetings because many people who’ve become meeting regulars have also railed against vaccines and masks for months.
“People can criticize me all day long for wearing my mask in this room, but I will continue to do so because people continue to come to this room and tell me they’re unvaccinated,” Foley said.
When she wrapped up her update, there was only Chairman Do left to adjourn the meeting.
All her other colleagues left.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio