As local coronavirus hospitalizations increase, most Orange County Supervisors continue shutting down public discussions and data presentations about the virus’ spread.
At the direction of Chairman Andrew Do, OC is now the only major county in Southern California that is not providing public COVID updates at their public meetings, despite a 700% increase in local coronavirus hospitalizations since June when Do stopped the updates.
Supervisor Katrina Foley, who has been pressing for public transparency, started presenting coronavirus updates on her own in recent weeks at the end of supervisors’ meetings, displaying the latest county health data and giving updates about her district.
All her colleagues left the room by the end of her presentation at the July 27 meeting. The only one who stayed was Do, who was presiding over the meeting as chair.
This week, Do and the other supervisors moved to further restrict the public updates.
They effectively banned Foley from being able to ask questions of county public health experts when she presents about coronavirus at the end of meetings.
At Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, Do directed that supervisors no longer be allowed to ask questions of staff during the section Foley presents her coronavirus updates, known as board comments.
“It looks like you have somehow decided that we’re not allowed to ask staff questions during our board comments. Was that your intent?” Foley asked Do.
“That is the intent,” Do responded.
“I don’t think board comments, in the way it has been abused, is the proper use of time for this meeting,” he added.
Do said Foley should instead give her presentation before the supervisors’ meeting, but wouldn’t answer if he would allow her to ask questions of county staff.
Foley criticized the situation.
“Crazytown,” she told Voice of OC after the exchange.
“It was just his attempt to prevent me from asking questions of the Health Care Agency during board comments,” Foley added in a phone interview.
“It is absurd that the board members do not have a place on the agenda where they can ask a question about something that’s not on the agenda,” she said, noting there’s no longer agenda items for coronavirus updates after Do had it removed in June.
She said she won’t stop pressing for public updates.
“That’s not going to stop me from asking questions if I think it’s important to ask a question. My job is to represent the community, ask questions, get answers, and make sure that information is factual as it gets presented out into the community.”
Do didn’t respond to phone messages seeking comment.
“In 23 years serving the community as a public official, I’ve never heard of removing the opportunity for a public official to make comments during a board meeting, city council meeting, school board meeting, planning commission meeting, or ask questions,” Foley said.
Last Friday, Foley began convening daily news conferences on the pandemic each weekday afternoon — the first such general pandemic update given to the public since last December during the height of the Winter wave.
“I’ll continue to use whatever tools are available to me to get information out to the public, because that is really my priority…making sure that the public has accurate information to be able to make health decisions for their lives,” Foley said.
As cases and hospitalizations increase, there continues to be no public updates at board meetings from the county health director, Dr. Clayton Chau, unlike earlier in the pandemic.
While epidemiologists say hospitalizations is a key chart they track, it’s nowhere to be found on the county’s main Covid data page, which shows current numbers, but is missing how they’ve changed over time.
Last week, county officials warned first responders that ambulance wait times outside hospitals have been rising to levels not seen since the worst of the Winter coronavirus surge.
A dozen hospitals closed themselves off to new patients at various points during a 24-hour period last week, a trend that’s worsening, county health officials wrote in their message to first responders.
In recent weeks, just as the virus was spreading faster, Do shut down the public’s opportunity to comment remotely at supervisor meetings — something he just reinstated Tuesday after facing public criticism.
For about a year, the county’s top lawyer would read aloud emailed public comments at meetings, after ACLU lawyers warned disabled people were being discriminated against by the supervisors’ prior policy of only allowing in-person comments during the pandemic.
But at their mid-July meeting, county officials stopped reading aloud comments and Do would only allow public comments from people who come speak in person in a boardroom with dozens of people who have railed against the vaccines, masks and other public health measures.
Foley was the only supervisor publicly pushing back, asking her colleagues to let people comment remotely like Santa Ana and other cities have been doing.
She tried again at the July 27 meeting, just as the county’s top health official urged residents to wear masks indoors and “avoid large crowds, where it is easy for the virus to pass from person to person.”
Foley’s effort was shut down by Chairman Andrew Do and the other supervisors.
But Do reversed that approach Tuesday, and started allowing written comments to be read aloud again, citing the spread of the Delta variant.
At a Voice of OC town hall Monday evening, one of the county’s top health officials warned that if hospitalizations keep climbing, hospitals may have to cancel surgeries to make room for Covid patients like they did during the winter surge.
“We want hospitals to be fully functional, to take care of those daily things that people come into the hospital for. We don’t want to reduce that,” said Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, deputy county health officer.
“But if the COVID rates continue to rise, we’re going to start seeing that more and more hospitals will be affected and that ambulance times may increase.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.