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Orange County’s billion-dollar Health Care Agency is really starting to fuel a much-needed community conversation by opening up much more about the wide variety of COVID-related statistics and databases that agency officials are gathering and building in realtime.

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.

Late last month, Orange County’s Deputy Public Health Director Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong led reporters and the public through the Health Care Agency vaccination databases the county has developed, noting vaccination rates by zip code.

Chinsio-Kwong is the first agency leader to acknowledge publicly that the agency could do a better job of organizing data for residents to help them quickly understand and monitor the dramatic and constantly changing public health saga playing out for them in real time. 

Her public efforts come as the majority of Orange County Supervisors have seemingly ignored the pandemic’s trends, including the latest surge, by cancelling public updates at their meetings.

Supervisor Katrina Foley is the only one to give updates at the very end of the meetings. She’s also been convening news conferences to inform the public about changes in the pandemic.

Chinsio-Kwong also been much more frank with data in realtime, including at our pandemic town hall last month. 

Earlier last month, when Chinsio-Kwong publicly reviewed trends while looking at vaccination rates, she plainly pointed out her observations that some of the lowest rates are in cities like San Clemente and Costa Mesa, while some of the highest are in Irvine. 

That brief public conversation got staffers for County Supervisor Katrina Foley — who has been sponsoring periodic, COVID news conferences lately with HCA staff — pondering how to quickly compare zip codes, to see the story it told for their district. 

They quickly assembled an Excel spreadsheet listing all Orange County zip codes along with vaccination rates. 

Foley had them put it on Twitter and the public response was intense. 

When you think about that, it’s stunning that one political staffer was able to do a better job of visualizing vaccination data than the entire OC Health Care Agency’s very well funded bureaucracy. At this point, you would think public information – a key component in the county’s own pandemic disaster plan – would be a key priority at the agency.

Consider how much of a community conversation one simple chart has created. 

Our own Digital Editor, Sonya Quick, took Foley’s HCA data and segregated out the top 10 most and least vaccinated cities in Orange County.

County vaccination rates now show that most of Orange County, 77 percent by the last official CDC count, has received at least one dose of the vaccine, Chinsio-Kwong told reporters Tuesday. 

A deeper look at local vaccination data both bolsters and bucks stereotypes about Orange County. 

That’s why data is so important. 

It informs debate, spurs discussion. 

For example, the Health Care Agency data on Foley’s spreadsheet shows that Huntington Beach — which has earned many headlines for anti-mask rallies — has a zip code, 92647, which is amongst the least vaccinated areas in Orange County at 59 percent. 

Yet the same Huntington Beach has another zip code — 90743 — that is Orange County’s second most vaccinated area at 96 percent. 

Irvine also has Orange County’s highest and lowest vaccination rates.

One Irvine neighborhood — the 92602 Orchard Hills area — has a vaccination rate of 100 percent. 

Meanwhile, another Irvine Zip Code, 92617, is Orange County’s least vaccinated at 49 percent. 

The vaccine data also should prompt some interesting questions for many local city leaders.

One zip code in the South County City of Lake Forest – 92610 –  is Orange County’s second least vaccinated area.

That’s followed up by two zip codes in Newport Beach – 92661 and 92663  – that are also tops for low vaccination rates at 56 and 55 percent respectively.

Meanwhile, cities like Santa Ana and Anaheim have vaccination rates that also seem low.

One of Santa Ana’s biggest zip codes – 92701 – is one of the lowest vaccinated areas in Orange County. 

On the other side of the equation, it’s easy to see that Irvine has the most zip codes — five — in the top ten for fully vaccinated areas with the lowest rate, 81 percent, in the 92614 zip code.

Just going over these numbers allows residents an ability to connect to what’s happening around them and also make informed decisions about critical quality of life issues like where to go, what to do, where to congregate and where they spend their money. 

That’s the key to staying healthy in uncertain times.

Information.

Residents need real information, delivered in real-time by credible local officials, in order to have a basis for assessing risk on a daily basis in the world we now live in.

That’s the job of your county government through its Health Care Agency, which is funded by local taxpayers — again to the tune of more than a billion dollars annually. 

For example, local nonprofit medical clinics and community-based organizations can really use this vaccine data to improve neighborhood vaccination efforts.

Note that nearly 50 Orange County residents have died from COVID in August.  

During the last two COVID surges in OC, county supervisors have largely gone silent as a group, keeping public updates to a minimum. 

Now, since my column last month noting that fact and announcing our own Voice of OC pandemic town hall, we really started to see HCA officials engage. 

Afterwards, HCA officials met with Voice of OC, taking suggestions for updating their COVID web data dashboard to make it easier to read. 

County Supervisor Katrina Foley also launched her own periodic press conferences with HCA officials offering public updates on numbers and taking questions from reporters. 

After that, CEO Frank Kim and HCA Director/Public Health Officer Clayton Chau also started taking a weekly press call that is not available to the public as it is not streamed on social media. 

I also noticed on Tuesday that county officials are also going to have a public hearing later this month on how they are spending federal COVID relief dollars, something they have failed to do during the pandemic — despite urging from local taxpayer groups.  

That kind of engagement works to better inform the public and helps ensure debate is clear and constructive as opposed to fueled by conspiracy notions or rumors. 

Regular engagement also creates an environment where civic leaders and county experts can be frank with the public, who can then judge their credibility in real time by the way they answer questions. 

For example, Dr. Chinsio-Kwong on Tuesday told reporters that this past Aug. 27, Orange County residents set a record with more than 11,000 vaccine shots administered.

She also grimly noted that more COVID deaths should be expected to start showing up soon in the data. 

Chinsio-Kwong also directly confronted the mixed messages that public health agencies are sending by encouraging gatherings but also warning about them. 

“Avoid gatherings where people are sharing each other’s air,” she said at one point Tuesday during the public press conference sponsored by Supervisor Foley.

She followed that advice up by noting, “Just think of it as everybody is infected.”

“Gather, yes. But keep your distance,” she said. “If you gather, make sure there’s ventilation.”

“Even if there’s only one person who has an infection and removes the mask, all those respiratory droplets stay in the air.”

At the same time, they are also sending the message that it’s ok to go to indoor venues like the workplace, church, the gym, restaurants and bars.

Now Chinsio-Kwong responded to this question Tuesday without hesitation, sounding more like a family physician than a politician. 

“We are social beings,” she said. “We have to be out and about. Being stuck at home….it was challenging.”

She said people need to socialize.

“We’re social beings. We need to be out and about,” Chinisio-Kwong said.

The deputy health officer also gave a frank assessment on what residents can expect in the future.

“We need to learn how to live with this. Last thing we need to do is lock down and shelter in place … It may sound like a mixed message but the last thing we want is another lockdown.”

Orange County’s Deputy Public Health Director Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong

Fair enough.

But if that’s true, that we have to learn to live with this, then shouldn’t government agencies be leading a much broader public information effort?

HCA is getting much better about posting more public data on things like case rates, hospitalizations and deaths as well as vaccinations. 

But they also send mixed messages by calling the pandemic a serious public health risk and then also taking weekends off from posting numbers.

That’s something that volunteers like UC Irvine professor and biostatistician Vladimir Minin don’t do. 

Minin updates his numbers every day.

The OC Health Care Agency’s break in updating numbers on the weekend is something that Voice of OC readers also keep pointing out. 

Chinsio-Kwong said the agency is taking those recommendations under advisement. But she also notes that trends don’t change that much over the weekends and she fears staff burnout. 

One key data set that OC Public Health Director Clayton Chau continues to resist is posting outbreak data in real time — as they do in LA County — so residents can make informed, real-time decisions and discern for themselves between those institutions that are doing a good job of enacting safety protocols and those that aren’t.

In addition, Orange County officials continue blocking the public release of any COVID-related death data, which makes it tough to draw realtime conclusions in public about pandemic trends, like the average age of people currently dying from the virus. 

If the virus isn’t going away, then isn’t it time for county policy makers to start addressing the long term policy impacts of COVID on things like housing, transportation, commerce, open space and public health?

When will our elected officials start that conversation?

Much of our continued challenge during these unprecedented times seems to be the overall silence from our local governments and elected leaders on crafting realtime solutions or, at the minimum, sponsoring forums that can help find consensus and creative solutions. 

The real crisis behind COVID may end up being a lack of cohesive, local civic leadership.

And that virus may prove much tougher to tackle than the pandemic.

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