Top OC Health Officials Face Public, Answer Coronavirus Questions in Online Town Hall

Two of Orange County’s top public health officials went front and center Thursday with local residents, answering questions about the coronavirus in an online Town Hall, where residents raised concerns over access to testing and the safety of their kids in public schools.

The virtual meeting — which got nearly 2,000 comments and more than 16,000 views on Facebook as of Thursday — comes as health officials have reported only six known cases countywide, out of the 3.2 million total people in OC, and no evidence of the virus spreading in the county yet.

It was an opportunity for OC Health Care Agency Director Richard Sanchez and County Health Officer Nichole Quick to take questions from the public — such as how many testing kits are available in the county and how many OC residents have been tested.

While some people are being tested for the virus in the county’s local public health lab, others are being routed to private commercial laboratories, one known as Quest and the other known as LabCorp.

Those labs “are not just Orange County labs, those are nationwide,” Quick said.

Quick wouldn’t directly answer when asked how many testing kits are currently available, saying only that the county has “sufficient test kit supplies in our local public health lab for the time being.”

“We do not have a shortage of our test kit supplies,” she added.

The two health officials took questions via phone calls and Facebook live, accompanied by the county’s public information officer, Molly Nicholson. The questions were random, but people had to call in beforehand.

Many questions centered on the safety of children in the county’s public schools, and why they weren’t closing out of precaution.

“We are following guidance from the state, as are our schools, and right now, we do not have a case of COVID-19 in our schools, in a student or a teacher,” Quick said.

Sanchez added: “We are following the guidance of the state here in every county in the State of California. However, that doesn’t stop any particular school district, any company, any venue from taking their own action.”

Quick cited a recent advisory from Gov. Gavin Newsom, that groups of 250 people or more should not gather in events like concerts, sports venues and conferences — that number drops down to 10 “if there’s individuals that are meeting that are of more at-risk population, those 60 and older, as well as those with diabetes, heart disease” or other underlying conditions.

“The California Department of Public Health issues separate guidance to schools, so at this time that guidance does not call for school closures in Orange County,” she added.

Meanwhile, a more unfiltered conversation played out in real time in the Facebook comments section.

“This was a hugely disappointing briefing. Every time someone asked how many test kits were available the answer was enough. What? No mention of preparing for a surge in cases,” read one comment.

“Dodging questions and talking in circles, directing ppl back to the state…no answer to how many test kits…no more information than the news…” reads a portion of another.

Some people defended Quick and Sanchez, praising their openness to engage.

“These folks have their hands tied. I’m sure they are doing their best,” read another comment.

Another comment reads: “To sum it all up: Everyone just quit your jobs and homeschool your kids in a box on the street OR wash your hands, practice good hygiene and keep living. Bigger fish to fry, seriously.”

Public officials have been tasked with managing public fear stemming from news of federally-mandated travel restrictions from Europe, stock market woes, canceled public events and closures of local universities and large attraction venues around the county.

As preventative measures, officials are urging people to wash their hands frequently, not touch their eyes, and stay at least six feet away from others as much as possible.

Officials are also warning people to stay calm — and avoid “panic buying,” where people buy large amounts of food or other products out of fear for their safety — so supplies and infrastructure can remain available for those who need it.

Late Thursday, a slate of OC cities like Santa Ana and Fullerton posted agendas for their next City Council meetings recommending that members of the public stay home in favor of watching the meetings online or on TV.

For members of the public with questions about coronavirus, OC health officials have a hotline at 800-564-8448 that runs Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.