All bets are off.

That was the frank assessment delivered by Orange County’s Deputy Public Health Officer Regina Chinsio-Kwong to reporters during an abrupt public health news conference shortly after New Years Day.

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.

The only reason reporters even got a chance to ask the public health department anything over the holidays while COVID numbers were spiking was because County Supervisor, Katrina Foley, a Democrat, essentially brokered a deal with the county executives to get the deputy health officer to meet with the public periodically.

Without those updates, broadcast by Foley on Facebook Live, much of the press corps and residents would largely be in the dark about local COVID trends or response in recent weeks – much less have a chance to hold officials accountable or just ask general questions. 

That’s a pretty lame level of public engagement for an $8 billion taxpayer-funded county government, one that includes an OC Health Care Agency funded to the tune of more than $1 billion annually.

Not to mention a county that has received more than $1 billion in federal bailout money last year to help with the local pandemic response. 

It’s no surprise that public information is a super high priority in all of the county’s official disaster plans.

Yet from day one of the pandemic, public engagement at the County of Orange never seemed to take off.

When it did, it was limited by partisan jockeying. 

The exploding Omicron cases leaves me wondering what those numbers would look like if the county bureaucracy armed residents with tons of practical information about local COVID outbreaks and strategies to avoid the virus. 

That data could’ve been coupled with vibrant and numerous presentations on local case numbers that included local age, city and demographic trends to help better target tax dollars throughout a shifting public health crisis. 

Instead, during most of the last year, public COVID updates became something that Foley’s colleagues on the board of supervisors – three Republicans and one Democrat – largely opposed.

It’s a complete turnaround from their position in 2020, when their Republican colleague Michelle Steel was running for Congress and officials held weekly press updates on Facebook Live, which featured a lengthy opening statement from Steel followed by her quick exit. 

Those regular pandemic briefings abruptly ended once Steel was elected to Congress and Andrew Do became chairman of the OC Board of Supervisors.

That silence ended not long after Foley was elected to her seat in a special election last year. 

Drawing ire from her colleagues, Foley began hosting bootleg press conferences with public health officials, allowing reporters to write localized stories detailing ongoing pandemic trends and recommendations from public health officials. 

Those updates may also have been a factor in Foley’s colleagues cutting her out of her own Second Supervisorial District in drawing up new districting maps, forcing her to now campaign in an entirely different area.

County public health officials can offer much more robust COVID-related data out into the public.

Yet it seems these days at the County of Orange, engaging the public on COVID information is being seen by officials as overkill, browbeating. 

“More information is better,” noted Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner, a leading county Republican voice against COVID-related mandates, in an interview for this column. 

But at this point in the COVID debate, Wagner – who says he asks a lot of questions in private – wonders aloud whether more public presentations on the virus are seen as “coercive” or “not informative.”

Regarding vaccine hesitancy, Wagner says “we are there,” in terms of hitting a wall to convince people to change their positions. 

“If you want one,” Wagner said about a vaccine shot, “you know where to get it.”

The majority of residents holding out, Wagner noted, are “making a choice I haven’t made and don’t recommend.”

Wagner also highlights that “to be anti-mandate, is not to be anti-vaccine.”

“At some point, adults get to make their own decisions, even bad ones.”

Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner

Foley sees her role as county supervisor differently and defends her efforts to heighten public briefings and outreach.  

“My office was calling for testing in early December, before anyone else – and handed 10,000 test kits in December and nearly 1,500 already so far in January. We led the charge on John Wayne airport testing and keeping clinics going – including our in-person presser at the Costa Mesa senior center,” Foley texted Monday while recovering from surgery

While residents have been reporting long lines to get tested, if they can find one, Foley said “we have been asking for 24-hour super pod testing sites for two months.” 

Last week, county public health officials said there’s no plans to open testing supersites anytime soon.

“I’ve been advocating for evening school site vaccine clinics. I’ve pushed for wearing masks indoors for 2 years. At county, not until state mandate did they agree to require masks,” Foley texted.  

Regarding Wagner’s position, Foley texted, “Well, I guess his office doesn’t receive as many inquiries as we do.”    

“It’s an evolving crisis,” she said. “The basic information is the same (get vaccinated, wear a mask, stay home if sick), but the issues regarding spread, variants, testing and vaccine efficacy change and the information evolves.”  

I believe information is power. I want to empower our residents not just leave them to fend on their own, frustrated.”

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley

Bits of advice for county officials from interviews with scientists, public health experts, reporters and other interested residents in the trenches include things like updating COVID data over weekends and holidays.

Weekly question and answer sessions broadcasted on accessible platforms like Facebook Live or Zoom would help broaden understanding, debate, maybe even spurring cooperation on different fronts. 

There’s also a deep desire among many for more detailed information on things like hospitalizations so we can all understand the real impact in real time.

For example, we keep seeing data showing that 87 percent of people in the hospital in OC are unvaccinated. 

What about the 13 percent that are vaccinated? 

There is often no data on how many of the people who came into hospitals because of COVID symptoms and how many people are there for something else and happened to test positive.

Or how many people came in negative, but got COVID because of being in the hospital?

Most importantly, given the limitations of any government mandate, what residents need is current, reliable information they can use to make their own decisions. 

Anything less flies right in the face of the most conservative thought. 

I engaged Jon Fleischman, a well-known OC Republican and former state party executive director, who noted that real-time information and transparency can help prevent the need for mandates.

“If the county is not fully informing the citizens, not only does it mean the citizens can’t make informed decisions on their own, but it invites the government to make those decisions for them.”

Jon Fleischman, who publishes the conservative Flash Report on California politics

Now for roughly two years, OC Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau – who was appointed without a public search or public health training and has disappeared from virtually all press conferences – has repeatedly told reporters that to list any kind of outbreak information across Orange County would create stigmas for areas or entities with outbreaks.

Los Angeles County residents are able to see where outbreaks are in their communities.

It’s the same approach for restaurant inspections in Orange County, where there is no letter grade for restaurants, only a pass or fail system – again different from other counties.

Yet consider the recent outbreak numbers coming out of the County of Orange workforce – thanks of course to the state’s regulatory agency, CalOsha, requiring the release of public outbreak data.

The numbers offer residents an ability to question how different departments are managing COVID.

For example, that CalOsha public data shows OC Sheriff staff are getting hit with COVID-19 illnesses at a much higher rate than other large county departments, and are by far the largest share of pandemic-related workers compensation costs the county has paid so far, according to county data obtained through a records request by our county reporter, Nick Gerda.

In addition, Sheriff staff had the lowest self-reported vaccination rate – 21% — among county employees, as of the latest available data from December.

Data also shows that certain county buildings for social service workers and local prosecutors are having considerable outbreaks that should be prompting public questioning from elected officials, especially since some workers have even died from the virus. 

Who benefits from hiding pandemic data?

The public? 

Or special interests?

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