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.

Concerned over skyrocketing COVID cases at the County of Orange, social service case workers today will demonstrate publicly outside one of the most infected county worker buildings in Orange, calling on county leaders to pay more attention to rising infection rates among workers. 

At the Orange County Social Services Agency, there’s an increasing unease among frontline caseworkers watching their bosses working from home while they get sick. 

Indeed, COVID infections among county workers have spiked significantly – nearly fivefold – in the last month from 87 cases in November to 432 in December, according to county data obtained by Voice of OC.

And despite a small drop in Orange County’s positivity rate, there’s still a lot of new cases out there.

It also looks like COVID cases have taken off inside county buildings, with over 90 employees testing positive during the first week of January.

Just like last year, the majority of the infections are at the Sheriff’s Department and the Social Services Agency.

And just like last year, the center of the storm at the Social Services Agency is at 840  N. Eckhoff, where workers will be demonstrating today between 11 am and 1 p.m. 

Unfortunately, just like last year, Orange County’s Health Care Agency seems unprepared, currently denying that outbreaks are even occurring. 

“HR COVID Response isn’t aware of any outbreaks in the County at the present time,” said County of Orange Spokeswoman Molly Nichelson in email responses to Voice of OC Staff Writer Brandon Pho when he wrote about the rising number of infections among county workers last week. 

“Outbreaks are declared by the Public Health Department,” Nichelson wrote. 

Yet this is the same public health department that’s seemingly suppressing COVID information from OC residents.

Decisions are being made by a public health director who increasingly looks like he’s a political appointee.

From the outset, Orange County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau has continued to argue publicly tracking COVID outbreak numbers has low value because there’s too much community transmission to make tracking numbers worthwhile. 

Yet local schools publicly track numbers. 

Places like Los Angeles County publicly track numbers – even listing outbreaks at private businesses. 

And the state’s workplace safety agency –  CalOsha — also tracks COVID numbers.

Indeed, it’s thanks to those numbers that county workers can take action and ask about what precautions are being taken. 

They want their managers to manage, make adjustments that ultimately allow businesses and agencies to stay open and functional. 

Now, these social workers, who are among the county’s lowest-paid employees and help provide critical services to at-risk families, say they sure see what looks like an outbreak to them.

More than 30 COVID-positive cases at the Eckhoff building alone in the first 10 days of the year.

The workers wrote a public letter to Orange County CEO Frank Kim earlier this month, anonymously for fear of retaliation, noting that they were frightened for their health – noting managers aren’t listening to their concerns.

The workers complained that OC Social Services Agency managers were not being flexible on telecommuting, warning that there are “many people continuing to contact COVID at this specific building.”

“Clerical workers were the last people in this building who were offered a telecommuting schedule. We only ever got to telecommute part time. And we were the first group of people to have that telecommuting schedule revoked. All the while many supervisors are allowed to work safely in their own homes. This is one of the many examples of how we have been severely underappreciated by upper management. They don’t understand the work we do and wouldn’t be able to train new staff themselves if they had to,” reads the open letter to Kim.  

“As of January 11, 2022, we have had well over 29+ positive cases in our building alone since the beginning of the year,” read the letter asking County CEO Frank Kim to 

“Please investigate this and do the right thing by all employees by limiting the number of people in the building at one time. Approve a telecommuting schedule – even if it is only part time.”

Most importantly, the workers want Kim to “eradicate this hopelessness we are all feeling and prove to us that the County of Orange cares about the health and safety of its workers.”

Again, since the start of this pandemic, I have pointed out again and again that the county’s own disaster plan calls for thorough public information during a situation like a pandemic. 

It’s a standard we keep missing. 

Had we focused a robust effort on good reporting of numbers locally over the past two years, along with lots of public updates and discussions, we would have surely developed a better contract-tracing effort than we currently have, which seems virtually non-existent. 

Instead, it seems Orange County’s Health Care Agency keeps get caught by surprise during every COVID surge.  

Now, OC CEO Frank Kim continues to defend the county’s management of the COVID crisis, acknowledging that senior Social Service Agency executives did hold a meeting last week with concerned clerical staff.

As a result of the meeting, Kim said, “We’ve increased staff distribution in the workplace to enable greater distancing. We also notified staff that additional telecommuting options would be considered. Additional PPE was also provided.”

Kim also noted county officials are upgrading their contact tracing efforts. 

“We have also added overtime to all HRS staff to support the increased volume of contact tracing and support for handling the increased number of COVID cases. We have a large number of cases, so we understand the concerns. The goal is to maintain critical services while doing everything we can to minimize risk to our employees.”

Yet again, none of that would have happened unless workers took action. 

And whatever meeting the employees had with management was so effective that they are now staging a public demonstration. 

Kim also said “we follow CalOsha,” but it’s unclear what that means because on Wednesday, the county’s largest union wrote Kim demanding that the county implement CalOsha rules that require more vigorous contact tracing and communication with workers in departments where outbreaks are ongoing, like at the Eckhoff building. 

Orange County Employees Association General Manager Charles Barfield also directly challenged Chau’s public statements on the lack of outbreaks at the county, noting that just because the county’s contact tracing has broken down, and outbreaks can’t be epidemiologically confirmed in real time, doesn’t mean they aren’t happening. 

“Specifically, it appears the County Health Officer/Health Care Agency Director is relying

on the absence of the epidemiological data to justify the County’s position that multiple worksites are not in outbreak status,” Barfield wrote Kim on Wednesday. 

“This specious reasoning is misleading and the absence of outbreak protocols, where required, creates a safety risk for our members and our community.”

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