This tumultuous year has proven the essential nature of nonpartisan local news. Every day we bring you news critical to staying informed and active in the community. Join us with a tax-deductible donation.
If you needed any more proof that Orange County’s public health department has been hot-wired by politicians keen on keeping the public uninformed about the evolving pandemic, just consider this week’s action by county supervisors:
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.
Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do and Vice Chair Doug Chaffee fashioned a gag order of sorts on OC Health Care Agency doctors who had been taking questions from the public in an effort to combat community disinformation on the ongoing COVID surge.
The gag order comes at an odd time, especially considering yesterday’s public vote by San Diego County Supervisors to move in the opposite direction, declaring pandemic misinformation a public health threat.
Orange County supervisors, in turn, have kept reducing public updates about the pandemic, just after last November’s elections.
Indeed, during Orange County’s deadliest time during the Winter wave, supervisors went silent, reducing public updates and eliminating any public press conferences where the public could question official decisions.
I wonder if that silence has had the impact of keeping many of Orange County’s medical community — no doubt in the midst of responding to this pandemic — from being able to understand what’s happening at the policy level that’s causing them to have to deal with so many waves of patients, again and again.
Now, after the June 15 statewide reopening unveiled by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is facing a Sept. 14 recall election, the message from Orange County Supervisors has been simple and straightforward.
Open for business.
Details like COVID outbreaks at workplaces and schools have taken a back seat to the bid to open back up.
For most of the pandemic, Orange County supervisors have had a unique ability to control the public messaging around COVID.
One factor that has really put them in control in a unique way is their combining the role of Orange County’s chief medical doctor for public health with the agency director of the billion dollar Health Care Agency in one man, Dr. Clayton Chau.
Like the Orange County Auditor Controller, the County public health officer operates under a mixed mandate with both state and local directors and oversight.
But under the state health and safety code, the public health officer also has considerable power to independently restrict commerce and movement during pandemics.
Yet the office is also appointed by the county board of supervisors.
And much like they did with the County Auditor — supervisors used that process to replace a more independent official with a quieter one.
Orange County’s former Public Health Officer, Dr. Nicole Quick, was among the first of many public health directors who came under immense public scrutiny and criticism for the first series of mask orders that were imposed across the state last year.
Without much support from Orange County Supervisors, Quick imposed the mask mandate to go with the first reopening. She resigned her post sometime after protestors waged a public campaign against her and showed up at her home.
Shortly after, supervisors appointed Chau, who lifted Quick’s mask mandate and took a much more relaxed public health officer position in terms of mandates or restrictions.
Note that Chau had public issues with failing to report payments from pharmaceutical companies as a county Health Care Agency staffer and was still put at the helm of the billion dollar agency, overseeing numerous procurement processes.
He was also put in charge as the county’s public health officer, even though there were serious questions about his medical qualifications and educational background.
Chau has publicly stated that he sees his role as working with the county supervisors.
I have consistently questioned whether that is on par with the role of the public health officer under state law.
You would think the public’s doctor would be the most careful with reopening efforts and stringent with implementation of protocols.
You would think the public’s doctor would be extremely supportive of any public information campaigns and efforts on COVID — something the county’s own disaster plan calls for in pandemics.
You would think the public’s doctor wouldn’t be afraid to disagree publicly with county supervisors.
Not this week.
Especially after a call from two county supervisors, both miffed that one of their colleagues was making them look bad by taking time each day to convene a press conference and get a county Health Care Agency doctor to update the public on the latest COVID cases, deaths and outbreaks.
Chau told Second District County Supervisor Katrina Foley that agency doctors would no longer be able to join her for public updates, sending a carefully worded text message.
“I have just received directive from both Chairman Do and Vice Chairman Chaffee for county staff to hold off on participating in District Press Conference until further notice. Hence, Dr. Zahn won’t be joining the call tomorrow. Please clarify with both Chairman Do and Vice Chairman Chaffee.
Read our Thursday coverage here.
You would think that there would be a bit more pushback from a public health officer for a simple request to have local, taxpayer-funded experts join a county supervisor who wants to update the public, offering a chance for questions during a tense time.
When Chau was appointed, I remember one public health official telling me that the job of public health officer had to be conducted without fear of getting fired.
Chau’s own words in public about his views regarding coordinating with supervisors’ vision doesn’t fit that mold.
I also question under the state’s open meetings laws, how two county supervisors — despite their cute tradition of giving themselves the official-sounding name of a subcommittee — can just reach out to an appointed official and offer a significantly different direction with no public notice or debate.
That kind of executive action by a small group of elected leaders — despite their official-sounding title of chairman and vice chairman — seems to violate California’s Ralph M. Brown Act.
Instead of public town halls, Orange County officials seem to prefer the media-only telephone calls, where no member of the public can monitor the County’s non-answers or Chau’s dancing efforts around hard questions like COVID real-time info or outbreaks.
I took special notice during last week’s media call that Chau totally dodged confirming the numerous, ongoing outbreaks throughout the county workforce putting workers in harm’s way.
When our County Reporter Nick Gerda asked him about the outbreaks — now required to be detailed publicly under the state’s CalOsha rules — he completely avoided any comment, seemingly indicating that he was on the way to change the existing definition of outbreak.
Chau also had no comment when I kept asking throughout the month why OC Health Care Agency officials could not segregate listing of outbreaks by surge dates and other specific time-sensitive data.
For example, it’s less helpful to see the total number of infections or deaths for any city at this point over the course of the pandemic.
What would be really helpful is to see a real time listing of cases and deaths by city, say over the last month.
Instead of telling me that more than 5,200 people have died since last March, it might be more helpful to let me know that nearly 50 people died from COVID in August.
That’s still a work in progress at the billion-dollar OC Health Care Agency.
Meanwhile, both Do and Chafee insist the county is offering residents robust information about the pandemic, pointing to a weekly reporters’ call started last month and periodic press releases.
Yet even their own recent statements point out they haven’t done much on public information until August, just around the time I criticized the county publicly in my Aug. 9 column and announced our own Town Hall series to inform the public.
During Foley’s Thursday press call, numerous reporters from large media outlets also publicly noted the frustrations of trying to get information from HCA in real time during the pandemic.
Many were surprised that there would not be any kind of public update just before Labor Day weekend, amidst a COVID surge that while seemingly hitting a plateau is still active.
Foley called on the public to send emails to Supervisors’ Chairman Do and Vice Chairman Chafee.
“Let them know you value this,” Foley said. “It’s important to have the county health office providing information to the public.”
I certainly agree that its key — especially in such an open environment around COVID — that public discussion be heightened, not short-circuited.
That’s why this coming week, we will once again gear up for our COVID Town Hall at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 9 via our Facebook page or viewable on our website.
We will aim to gather many of the local experts and residents who have been keeping their own sets of Covid stats and numbers in recent months.
And unlike the board majority of Orange County’s Supervisors, we encourage all readers and reporters to send as many questions as you like.