Orange County Supervisors Andrew Do and Doug Chaffee have blocked county public health staff from participating in COVID-19 information town halls hosted by fellow Supervisor Katrina Foley, who has been critical of her county’s public information approach.
For weeks, Foley has filled a void of public information briefings about the virus left by County of Orange officials — who discontinued their regular, public briefings a couple months ago — with her own briefings, which are simulcast over Zoom and social media.
Yet county public health staff weren’t present with Foley on Thursday, as they usually are, to offer their expertise or contextualize new information about the recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
Foley said Do and Chaffee’s decision to pull staff is likely improper, as it usually takes a formal vote from the elected Board of Supervisors to direct county staff to do anything.
“According to my legal research … and my conversations with our legal team and our executive team, two county supervisors do not have the legal authority to prevent county employees from assisting a supervisor,” Foley said.
Dr. Matthew Zahn, OC deputy health officer, was slated to be at Thursday’s news conference.
But roughly five minutes before the 1 p.m. conference happened, Foley’s office sent an email indicating he wouldn’t be at the conference.
OC Health Officer and Health Care Agency Director, Dr. Clayton Chau, declined to comment on the situation and instead directed reporters’ questions to Do and Chaffee.
Roughly four hours after the news conference, Orange County Supervisor’s Chairman Andrew Do, a Republican, and the panels’ Vice Chairman Doug Chaffee, a Democrat defended the move in a joint statement.
“When we have updated numbers on COVID-19 posted daily, followed by weekly press releases and press calls by the County’s CEO team and our County Health Officer, taking county staff away from their jobs for private publicity events is not the most appropriate use of public resources,” Do said.
Do indirectly accused Foley of self-promoting.
“It is an abuse of power to use county executive staff to self-promote,” he said in the statement.
Chaffee said residents would continue to be updated, but didn’t offer specifics.
“As the COVID-19 situation continues to change, we work closely with the OC Health Care Agency to ensure the public is provided with timely and accessible information,” Chaffee said in the statement.
Before Thursday’s late afternoon statement, Chaffee told Voice of OC that the move to hold back OC health officials was a matter of “good government” and that the information was available online before hanging up the phone on a reporter.
On Thursday evening, Foley responded with her own statement, accusing her two colleagues of politicizing the issue.
“Now is not the time for politics to get in the way of public health. I encourage my colleagues to reverse their directive and join me in sharing information for the benefit of the Orange County residents that we have the privilege to serve,” Foley said in the statement.
She also lambasted the lack of public COVID updates.
“I find it concerning that some view transparency as an abuse of power,” Foley said. “Since December 2020, the county has not held a public COVID-19 briefing.”
“In July, the county removed the COVID-19 item from our Board meeting agendas, which was the only opportunity available to publicly ask our health officials questions on behalf of Orange County residents. We have [an] obligation to inform and educate the community about this ongoing public health crisis,” Foley said.
UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, Sanghyuk Shin, also said now’s not the time to block OC Health Care Agency officials from publicly updating residents.
“So it seems like right now is not the best time for Health Care Agency officials — who are really experts and they do a fantastic job when given the chance — this is not the right time for them to take a back seat. More engagement would be ideal,” Shin said in a Thursday phone interview.
He said public information is especially important since students just went back to classrooms and Labor Day weekend is approaching.
“To me it’s puzzling. As we’re heading into Labor Day it seems like we want more input and presence and engagement from the Health Care Agency with the rest of the community. And I think, even though some recent trends are looking promising, we don’t really know with schools starting out how that’s going to have an impact,” Shin said.
Foley, when asked by reporters for her thoughts on the situation, recounted stonewalling by the county during her time as mayor of Costa Mesa — prior to her election to the board — whenever she and other city leaders asked for county staff’s presence to provide needed information during their city meetings.
She said many of the mayors started talking about creating their own healthcare agencies so they can get timely information out to the residents
“Now that I’m an elected county supervisor, that I can still be denied access to our county health office, is just outrageous,” Foley said on Thursday.
She added she’ll “continue to do my best to provide the information that the community needs, to be able to make decisions” around things like going to barbecues this Labor Day weekend, or whether people should opt not to, “because there might be a surge in cases.”
In late June, the majority of OC Board of Supervisors also terminated the public pandemic updates at their regular meetings.
All surrounding county boards of supervisors have public updates during their respective meetings, with some holding weekly news conferences.
While OC health officials plan to continue a Friday media call that has been held over the last month, those aren’t publicly streamed over the internet.
But, according to the joint statement from Chaffee and Do, they argue that residents are being routinely updated.
“Contrary to public statements, Dr. Chau and the OC Health Care Agency have continued to provide information and updates to the media, the public, and local officials throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” reads Thursday’s late afternoon statement.
Foley said she plans on fighting the decision by continuing to provide information and called on residents to email Do and Chaffee if they felt their decision was wrong and let them know the press calls are valued.
“I invited both of them (Do and Chaffee) to join us today. They were unavailable due to a conflict … I’m going to fight it by continuing to offer information. There is nothing they can do to stop me from doing that.”
She said she will not pursue any legal challenges to the decision.
The move comes on the heels of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors declaring a public health crisis on the COVID-19 misinformation that’s been circulating in that county.
“I don’t know if we have any intent of bringing anything like this forward. I just raised it because I thought it was interesting given the timing of the ad hoc committee directing the health care office not to participate in our calls which are intended to debunk misinformation,” Foley said.
Moving forward, Foley intends to keep holding her press calls and said it is important to have professional health care experts speak.
“We will continue to outreach to our local health care providers, because they have valuable information about what’s happening on the ground and in the hospitals,” she said. “What we’ll do moving forward is we will ask the healthcare office for the information that they might have shared on the call so that we can still provide that data to you.”
This story has been updated to include the joint statement from Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do and Vice Chairman Doug Chaffee and Supervisor Katrina Foley’s response.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.