As coronavirus outbreaks continue hitting county government workplaces, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has the lowest self-reported vaccination rate among county departments, according to data from county officials.
Just 16% of sheriff staff self-attested to being vaccinated as of last week, compared with 75% of Board of Supervisors staff, according to data obtained through a public records request.
County officials cautioned the data is based only on self-reporting of vaccination by employees who want to work maskless indoors, and that the data might not reflect the actual rates of vaccinations.
During Tuesday’s OC Supervisors meeting, county Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau said roughly 68% of people 12 and older in the county are fully vaccinated.
The biggest ongoing outbreak among county government workers is at the sheriff’s jail and headquarters complex, with 21 staff members infected so far.
The sheriff’s deputies’ union has been pushing back against a state mandate requiring jailhouse workers and certain court employees to be vaccinated, and is considering a lawsuit against the mandate.
Officials previously said the mandate would apply to roughly 1,500 of the Sheriff Department’s 3,800 employees.
In response to questions from Voice of OC about the outbreak, sheriff officials said they quarantine all new inmates to prevent coronavirus from being introduced in the jail, and none of the 15 inmates who are currently positive were infected at the jail.
“Everyone who enters the jail is quarantined in new booking until they are there for 14 days. Then after they receive a negative COVID test, they are released” to the jail’s general population, said sheriff spokeswoman Carrie Braun.
Jails are at higher risk for outbreaks, county health officials said last week.
“We know that in any congregate setting, people are at risk for contracting the virus,” Chau, the county health officer, said at a news conference last week.
Vaccines continue to be offered to all inmates, he added.
“So every single person that goes into the jail, in the orientation process, the sheriff deputies that work in jail make that an offer for them to see if they want the vaccine. And that’s happening every day,” Chau said, adding that the vaccine acceptance rate in the jails has been roughly 40%.
Coronavirus infections at work were the leading cause of death of American police officers last year as well as the first half of this year.
Meanwhile, over 130 county staff have been infected so far this month at work, amid outbreaks at eight offices and buildings.
That’s more than double the number of county staff infected at work in the full month of July, and 18 times as many as were infected at work in June.
Among the areas with active outbreaks are the Sheriff’s Department central jail and headquarters complex in Santa Ana, the 6th floor of the District Attorney’s headquarters, and four Social Services Agency offices – one in Santa Ana, one in Laguna Hills and two in Anaheim, according to county data.
The outbreaks come as county public health officials have said the current surge trends are mirroring last summer’s wave.
OC officials have not publicly announced the outbreaks or scale of the infections.
The DA’s office outbreak involved four employees who have tested positive since late July, officials said.
“Within an hour of receiving notification of the initial positive test, the OCDA’s Human Resources Manager contacted County Risk Management to initiate the appropriate protocols,” said DA spokeswoman Kimberly Edds.
“Every employee on the 6th floor is required to wear face coverings at all times unless they are in an office alone with the door closed. Failure to comply with this directive will lead to discipline,” she added.
Employees are given the option of take-home tests, Edds said.
“At home test kits have been made available to employees and the HR manager has been in constant contact with OCDA management as well as the employee unions regarding the necessary safety protocols as well as employee concerns,” she said.
There was no immediate comment Tuesday afternoon about the outbreaks from the OC Social Services Agency, nor from the employee union leader who represents sheriff’s deputies and DA investigators.
The leader of the union that represents two-thirds of county employees is calling on managers to require masks in workplaces for people who don’t prove they’re vaccinated, and to expand working from home where possible.
“When the State released its new workplace guidelines in June County leadership decided to allow for the most minimal oversight. And, they have never imposed any verification requirements on the public,” said Charles Barfield, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.
“Now, two months later; this decision is resulting in the climbing number of cases (10 cases in June and over 170 so far for August). The County’s own internal reports show that over 70% of positive cases are occurring at work,” he continued.
A union representative for social service eligibility workers says protecting workers from infection also is about protecting the public they serve by helping them get services like food stamps.
“What good does it do [members of the public] if they die in two weeks from Covid that they caught in the lobby?” said Cory Cordova, a union representative with AFSCME Council 36.
Social services managers “still haven’t updated us as to whether they’re notifying the [public that they’re entering a hot zone” of Covid at the offices that are in outbreak status, Cordova said.
“The community, we ask that they pray for us. One of our [union] leaders is at home with her daughter who has Covid right now.”
The highest vaccination rates are among staff of the Board of Supervisors (76%), Treasurer-Tax Collector (68 %) and county CEO’s office (63%).
Among Orange County Fire Authority workers, 54% of operations staff – like firefighters and paramedics – and 65% of administrative staff were vaccinated when the agency offered the shots, an agency spokesman said last week.
OCFA doesn’t have data on how many more staff were vaccinated elsewhere, said the spokesman, Capt. Thanh Nguyen.
It’s unclear whether there are any outbreaks currently at the OC Superior Court, after multiple people at the Harbor Justice Center tested positive in late July – prompting the court to put a temporary mask mandate in place for a few days until Aug. 4.
Court spokesman Kostas Kalaitzidis didn’t have outbreak information when reached for comment Tuesday, but said he was working on gathering it.
County social services workers have been calling on 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,” said Diana Corral, a county eligibility employment specialist at the county’s regional office in Anaheim, in a recent interview with Voice of OC.
“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.”
Corral said residents have been 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.
Jamie Cargo, a spokesperson for the Social Services Agency, previously 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 an email earlier this month.
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.
The guidelines also state officials can verify vaccination status through documentation or simply make everyone wear a mask.
Barfield said it’s time for county officials to update workplace protocols.
“It is beyond time for the County to implement common sense approaches such as expanded face coverings in public buildings for those who cannot or will not proof their vaccination status and broadening telecommuting for the County workforce, where feasible,” he said.
Clarification: This article has been updated to make more clear that the vaccination rates are based on self-reporting by employees.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.