Orange County’s fourth wave of COVID threatens public services

The surge in COVID-19 cases has now hit dozens of Orange County offices that provide vital public services and government functions, said the leader of a labor union representing about 18,000 public sector employees in the county. county.

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The county’s fourth wave, powered by the Omicron variant, also delayed trash pickup in Santa Ana, where city officials reported a driver shortage affecting their municipal trash hauling service.

“The number of county facilities currently in ‘outbreak state’ is alarming,” Orange County Employees Association Executive Director Charles Barfield said in a written response Wednesday to questions from the Voice of OC.

As of Tuesday, 37 county facilities are in “epidemic status” and five may be in “major outbreak status,” Barfield said.

Yet Orange County officials, when asked about the situation the same day, gave a starkly different account of the situation.


“HR COVID Response is not aware of any outbreaks in the county at this time. The outbreaks are declared by the Public Health Department as it investigates whether […] the cases have an epidemiological link,” Orange County spokeswoman Molly Nichelson said in a written response to questions from the Voice of OC on Wednesday.

That’s because Orange County officials say they use technical standards set by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health to measure outbreak situations.

The county’s risk management team is “monitoring and working with departments on several cases that may be considered minor or major. Several cases under [standards set by Cal/OSHA] are unrelated to epidemiology,” Nichelson wrote in his response.

“Orange County is following Cal/OSHA ETS safety measures on reported positive cases,” Nichelson added.

Some workers at the county’s Social Services Agency – one of the county’s largest departments, which runs programs to help disabled, poor and elderly residents – say there is indeed a problem.

And they’re calling county leaders while demanding accommodations for remote work, in a joint letter they wrote anonymously to Orange County CEO Frank Kim, who has reported up to 29 cases of the virus to the Social Services Agency on January 11.

In an emailed response Wednesday to the letter, Kim said the county needs to keep government services in place to some extent, citing the need for in-person administration of essential public services.

“Our job as county staff is to serve the citizens of Orange County. We cannot shut down our services that we provide, especially services that are essential for safety, security, health and well-being. -be citizens we serve,” Kim wrote.


Kim was on vacation when contacted by phone for comment earlier today, but – reacting to Barfield’s outbreak figures – said:

“We inform the work in terms of the number of cases reported on the sites, but it is also important to distinguish if these cases are from employees actually in the office or if they are in the field or are employees who telecommute. ”

Kim said the data “needs to be looked at, but obviously any time you have cases in the workplace, in the office, that’s something we look at very carefully and contacts are traced.”

The letter from social services office staff is undated but appears to have been written this month, citing case numbers since January 11.

It reads:

“Yes, many people have been vaccinated, and yes, the county has provided us with face masks and sanitizer to help us stay safe in our building. While we appreciate these steps being taken, it is clearly not enough as we are still receiving a high enough number of positive cases to be labeled as a building with not just a minor outbreak, but a MAJOR OUTBREAK.

Despite calls for accommodations for remote work, the letter from social services employees says, agency administrators are “still refusing to allow office workers access to telecommuting.”

Management’s reasoning is “that working from home wasn’t as productive as the staff thought”; however, “several programs were able to work competently to do everything as needed,” the letter read.

Office workers “raised their voices in protest at management’s failure to respond to their calls for more telecommuting,” Barfield said Wednesday.

“We are meeting with the agency this afternoon (Wednesday) to address these concerns,” Barfield said.


Perhaps “more alarming” is “how late the county’s contact tracing unit can be,” Barfield added, “leaving workers to speculate whether or not their workplaces are safe.”

“It is clear that the county has again been caught off guard to manage the rapid increase in positive cases,” Barfield said. “County workers, especially in the Social Services Agency […] require prompt corrective action to ensure their safety.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, the uncertainty and health safety issues facing county workers appear to be repeating themselves.

After the pandemic started, in 2020, Voice of OC also reported outbreak situations to the Social Services Agency that year as well.

“Office workers were the last people in this building who were offered a telecommuting schedule,” reads the letter to CEO Kim. “We have only ever been able to telecommute part-time. And we were the first group of people to have this telecommuting schedule revoked. »

Throughout this time, the letter states, “many supervisors are permitted to work safely from home. This is one of many examples of how we have been grossly underestimated by senior management.

“They don’t understand the work we do and wouldn’t be able to train new employees themselves if they had to.”


Meanwhile, surging cases also threw a wrench this month into such basic services as garbage collection in Santa Ana, one of Orange County’s most densely populated cities.

City officials were told by their municipal waste hauler, Waste Management, that there was a shortage of workers due to COVID-19, city hall spokesman Paul Eakins said during a briefing. a brief telephone interview on Wednesday.

“Waste Management is still collecting residential recycling carts that have not been serviced in the past week. Additionally, less than 10% of the residential recycling carts scheduled for Monday were not collected,” reads an email Wednesday from the City of Santa Ana to residents.

“These combined issues are impacting recycling collection services this week. Delays due to COVID-19 cases may continue,” he continues.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and a body member of Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.


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