In order to effectively check Covid in Orange County, once and for all, real-time information about local virus spread is vital.
It’s the best way that residents can empower themselves when it comes to Covid, in terms of making effective decisions about where to go and what to do, especially during a surge.
It’s also the best way to hold ourselves, along with our elected and appointed officials, accountable on how well we are doing to protect the most vulnerable among us.
Norberto Santana, Jr.
A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.
That’s why county disaster plans put a such a high premium on communication during disasters, especially pandemics.
Now, for months Orange County supervisors worked to shut down Covid public information updates as well as public comment about Covid during their weekly public meetings.
During the deadly winter surge that killed so many residents in the winter months, the board of supervisors went silent.
During the recent surge that started just after the statewide reopening on June 15, the board of supervisors has largely stayed silent.
County Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do even cut out board comment recently from the official proceedings of the meeting.
Meanwhile, Covid cases have been soaring amidst a “open for business” environment, along with a spike in the number of people getting hospitalized and transferred into intensive care units.
Since June, 41 residents across 15 cities have died from Covid, according to county figures.
Given that kind of silence, earlier this month, Voice of OC organized a virtual Town Hall to gather as many health care experts as possible together, drawing on our months of coverage from the trenches.
Experts from the county Health Care Agency accepted the invitation to join in.
In recent weeks, County of Orange officials have continued that trend, beginning to share much more publicly about the vast amount of data they are collecting about Covid virus spread across Orange County.
After my column earlier this month and our Town Hall, County CEO Frank Kim and Dr. Clayton Chau, who oversees the OC Health Care Agency and also acts as the Public Health Officer, committed to holding a weekly, hour-long media call to answer questions from reporters. In addition, Deputy Public Health Officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong also has increasingly gone out in public to discuss the changing nature of the virus transmission in Orange County.
Around the same time as the Town Hall, County Supervisor Katrina Foley openly broke with her colleagues on the board of supervisors who have sought to keep public updates and comments during their regular business meetings to a minimum.
Foley broke with the concept by holding her own daily press conference during this latest surge, brining on numerous HCA experts to talk about the virus spread.
In the process, Foley has raised the profile of the OC Health Care Agency by showing off the smart folks that work at HCA.
She’s also gotten county experts to open up about a host of critical issues like children with Covid ending up at Children’s Hospital, vaccine rates and verification efforts, outbreaks among county workers and schools and the impact of ambulance calls spiking across the county related to Covid.
Another impact of the Foley press conferences has been to show the public the wide array of local HCA doctors and experts, many whose voices were rarely heard, much less celebrated by the current board majority on the board of supervisors.
Yet after hearing from these experts over the past few weeks, it’s clear that they themselves can get overwhelmed, even lost, on figuring out what kind of data they should be offering the public.
We’ve been asking for weeks to see data on what kinds of vaccination rates exist among existing county workers at various agencies.
While that information is gathered, it wasn’t packaged for public release…until we asked for it.
In a media call yesterday, HCA officials also shared nearly a dozen really helpful Covid tracking websites they have created over the last 18 months of the pandemic.
They also admitted what I have pointed out to Dr. Chau in three separate press conferences.
Orange County’s main Covid dashboard page, which is supposed to give an idea of how many Covid cases exist in specific cities doesn’t list cities by this most recent surge, only keeping aggregate tallies – which aren’t that useful for understanding the current nature of the crisis we all face.
The chart doesn’t quickly show where is Covid raging in Orange County.
It also doesn’t quickly show the percentages of people getting vaccinated in Orange County.
On Monday’s media call with Voice of OC, HCA officials acknowledged those two statistics would be worthwhile highlighting.
Now, ironically HCA collects that kind of data and has it spread out on an array, nearly a dozen, of websites set up to track different aspects of Covid.
As interesting as they are, all these websites can’t operate in a vacuum.
They need a community conversation to have those numbers come alive and help protect us all.
County supervisors shouldn’t be afraid of a long meeting, even a heated one, to lay out all the Covid numbers and ask themselves – as well as the broader community – hard questions about the immediate and long term challenges that Covid brings.
Along with the limited relief funds to meet them.
Now, the HCA officials also challenged us at Voice of OC to keep doing Town Halls on virus spread across Orange County, acknowledging it was productive to have journalists get people together to update residents on a rapidly changing virus.
While Voice of OC isn’t geared toward broadcasting town halls, as journalists we acknowledge the public health challenge in front of us and are committed to getting residents the most useful information about the nature of the threat facing us all.
I would ask interested readers to reach out to us on our Facebook page, or directly on email to to our Digital Editor Sonya Quick (at email@example.com) or myself (at firstname.lastname@example.org), and let us know your thoughts, help us gauge whether it makes sense to use our resources to convene local Covid experts on a more regular basis to offer insights and field reader questions.