Orange County bans health officials from supervisor’s COVID-19 press briefings

Orange County has barred county health officials from providing COVID-19 updates at a county supervisor’s news conferences.

The briefings held by Supervisor Katrina Foley had become one of the few sources of regular COVID-19 information in California’s third-most populous county after the Board of Supervisors stopped providing updates by its top health official at its meetings and suspended press briefings by health officials for several months.

In response, Foley launched on Aug. 9 her own regular COVID-19 news conferences. On Thursday, however, the chair and vice chair of the Board of Supervisors — Andrew Do and Doug Chaffee — ordered county officials to stop participating in the briefings.

Do, in a statement, said the news conferences were political stunts that provided information that was already available. Foley said the regular health updates were needed to combat misinformation and sound the alarm about the Delta variant and its impact on hospitals, which have been strained by the numbers of COVID-19 patients entering emergency rooms.

Only after Foley began her COVID-19 news conferences did the county Health Care Agency, on Aug. 13, begin resuming its own regular press briefings, now held weekly on Friday afternoon.

“We’re just trying to give accurate health information out to the community, and they claim that it’s a waste of staff time to participate in these calls,” said Foley, who featured county health officials and other experts, such as doctors from local hospitals and an epidemiologist, at her events. “I think the information that we’ve been sharing has caused more people to question some of the misinformation that’s coming out.”

In the statement, Do characterized Foley’s COVID-19 news conferences as events designed to boost herself politically. Foley, a former mayor of Costa Mesa, joined the Board of Supervisors earlier this year after winning a special election to replace Republican Michelle Steel, who in November won a seat to Congress by defeating Democratic incumbent Harley Rouda.

“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,” Do said. “Taking county staff away from their jobs for private publicity events is not the most appropriate use of public resources. It is an abuse of power to use county executive staff to self-promote.”

Foley’s news conferences were initially held five times a week; most recently, they were held twice in one week.

In the briefings, county health officials and other experts alerted the public when hospitals began to show signs of strain as the fourth wave of coronavirus infections intensified, explained the importance of mask wearing and offered tips on how to stay safer during the Labor Day holiday.

Besides reviewing the latest numbers of cases, hospitalizations and COVID-19 conditions in the county’s schools, experts were also available to counter pandemic misinformation, a problem U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has declared an “imminent and insidious threat to our nation’s health.”

Foley said the news briefings were not an attempt to get her quoted in the news stories more often. Foley said she invited Do and Chaffee to speak at Thursday’s briefing, but they declined.

“Whether or not I’m quoted in these stories is irrelevant. It is important that the information is getting out,” Foley said.

Foley pledged to continue hosting COVID-19 briefings even if county health officials are not allowed to attend, and would invite other healthcare professionals including from the state Department of Public Health to speak and take questions.

But it’s still a problem if local health officials can’t attend, as they are the ones with the expertise on Orange County, Foley said.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors routinely hears a COVID-19 report from its public health officials at every regularly scheduled meeting, often spending more than an hour listening to officials and asking them questions.

The L.A. County Department of Public Health recently increased its frequency of live COVID-19 press briefings to twice a week. That agency issues press releases daily.

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