Why Orange County officials have been downplaying COVID data

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Orange County public health officials reported 663 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, with three more deaths. The change in hospitalized patients over a three-day period is up 12%. However, OC leaders continue to downplay the COVID-19 data, and in some cases, misrepresent it. KCRW talks about this with Gustavo Arellano, host of Orange County Line.

KCRW: Where does Orange County stand with coronavirus cases, and how many people have been hospitalized or died per capita compared to nearby counties?

Gustavo Arellano: “At first Orange County seemed to be ahead of the curve in combating coronavirus, and so the case per capita death rate was far lower than Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties. 

But around June, that's when the numbers start going up. And now as of June 15, the per capita rate in Orange County of deaths was higher than Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego County. Of course, Los Angeles County (which has more than three times the number of people than Orange County) has a higher rate of it, but here was what was supposed to be a success story. Now it's just like everyone else.”

Orange County has been holding regular coronavirus news conferences. Can we trust the numbers that they're putting out?

“You can't even trust the outlook that they're putting out. Since the beginning, they've really been trying to downplay it. ... But infamously Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel on April 30, in arguing for opening the beaches, she said that the hospitalization rates in Orange County were going down and Orange County had flattened the curve. 

Here we are, almost a month and a half later, and the cases have only been going up. … There was one case where the county had overstated the testing that they were doing by 30,000 tests, which meant that it seemed like Orange County was doing far better than what it actually was. And county health officials, they said, ‘Oh yeah, we were counting those serology tests, the antibody test, and we weren't supposed to do that. Oops, our bad.’”

There's a new website that public health officials in the OC are promoting. But there's no breakdown of cases by race, ethnicity, age or gender. Why is it so rudimentary?

“It's interesting because their original website was very simple. They didn't break things down maybe as much as other people wanted it to, especially the chart showing the rise of coronavirus cases per day. 

… Now they took a page out of the Johns Hopkins [University] website, which they've been tracking all over the world. So [the Johns Hopkins] website is very wonky, but it's very thorough. 

For instance, in the Orange County case, they are about a week behind on their tracker of cases reported every single day, so I don't even bother with the county website anymore.”

How much of a cue are OC officials taking from the Trump administration?

“Four out of the five supervisors in Orange County are Republicans. One is Michelle Steel. Her husband Shawn Steel was a longtime chair of the GOP party here in California. And Michelle Steel herself has made appearances with Donald Trump, so they are following the cues. 

On the other hand, though, I do understand why they would like to downplay what's going on with coronavirus, just like any elected official, but even more so in Orange County. This is a place that's heavily based on tourism, not just Anaheim and Disneyland, but also the coastal cities with camping and whatnot. You don't want coronavirus to exist, period. So you're going to do everything possible to try to assure both residents and the public that ‘Hey, we don't have it as bad, as evil Los Angeles County.’ But at the same time, these officials have an obligation to the public to tell them the truth, no matter how ugly it may be. And right now in Orange County, coronavirus doesn't seem to be getting any better.”