By Lillian Boyd and Costa Beavin-Pappas
Rep. Mike Levin led fellow Orange County Congressional delegates in sending a letter to Orange County Health Care Agency Director Clayton Chau regarding COVID-19 testing.
The letter, which was signed by Levin and Representatives Harley Rouda, Katie Porter, Gilbert Cisneros Jr., Alan Lowenthal, J. Luis Correa and Linda Sanchez, requests a briefing to better understand the factors contributing to the testing deficiencies so they may work together to address the disparity.
The letter states that by May 11, Orange County conducted 52,982 tests while San Diego County conducted 82,116 and Riverside conducted 73,149. Levin noted that San Diego County has a similar population to Orange County, and Riverside has a smaller population by one-third.
As of May 12, Orange County conducted 54,769 tests while Riverside County has conducted 75,069 tests and San Diego County has conducted 84,556, per respective county healthcare agencies.
The letter asks Chau for a briefing to address questions regarding why Orange County has a low testing rate and what steps are being taken to increase the testing volume.
“All levels of government must pursue the greatest testing volume possible,” said Levin. “And we stand ready to assist with any federal resources needed to support your work.”
The letter also asks if OCHCA has spoken with other local public health agencies to exchange best practices. State officials have set criteria for minimum daily testing of 1.5 per 1,000 residents—a standard that board members seemed wary of.
According to Nichole Quick, a county public health officer, countywide lab capacity exists to test approximately 9,000 individuals per day. Labs are currently scaling up to meet changing demands but supplies may still be a challenge as expansion occurs.
“A strong system exists for individuals to be tested in accordance with state guidelines through hospitals, health care providers, and safety net services provided through the OC COVID-19 Testing Network and new state test sites,” Quick said, adding that Kaiser Permanente has sufficient lab capacity to manage testing for all 580,000 of its members.
During a presentation Quick gave to the OC Board of Supervisors, Supervisor Don Wagner asked for her expertise to justify why a customer could go into a big-box retailer like Target or Walmart to buy shoes but not a small business.
“I can get curbside delivery of a pair of shoes if I go to a mom-and-pop store,” said Wagner. “I can buy the same pair of shoes if I go to a Costco, or a Walmart, or Target. Is there any kind of medical justification that allows me to walk into a Target, or a Walmart or a Sam’s Club but not into a mom-and-pop shop?”
In response, Quick said she could not comment on the state’s orders to determine opening up curbside retail.
“I think, overall, any interaction we can cut down reduced a chance for transmission,” Quick said. “There is a potential risk in any sort of interaction but as for the specifics for why the state is allowing some (businesses) and not others is not for me to comment on.”
Wagner proceeded to direct his questions to Chau on the agency’s approach to testing and meeting any benchmarks in order for businesses to reopen.
“Over the weekend, we tested 303 people. So we left 8,700 tests on the shelves,” Wagner said. “So when people are complaining we need more tests … the fact is people are not accessing the tests but they are available.”
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, whose district includes San Clemente, took issue with the state’s requirements for testing.
“According to state criteria, they want us to test 4,800 a day based on our current population in Orange County,” Bartlett said. “We’re not testing anywhere near that because we don’t need to. We don’t have that many physician referrals. In order to meet that 4,800, we’d have to pull random people off the street. That tells you a lot about our county … We’re doing very well and we’ve flatted the curve.”
Chau told the board his staff was working on putting together public-facing guidelines on criteria for expanded testing. Bartlett’s office confirmed after the board meeting that she was aware of the letter from the Congressional delegates.
“(Supervisor Bartlett) understands that HCA intends to engage with our congressional delegation on the issues outlined in the letter,” spokesperson Pauline Colvin said in an email.
Board Chairperson and Supervisor Michelle Steel, as well as chairpersons in Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties, signed a letter asking to meet with Gov. Gavin Newsom to discuss reopening requirements to more populous counties.
While the county does not meet the state current benchmarks, county CEO Frank Kim said the county has the option to submit its own plan.
Lillian Boyd is the senior editor for Picket Fence Media and city editor for Dana Point Times. She graduated with a degree in journalism from Humboldt State University. Her work experience includes interviewing incarcerated individuals in the Los Angeles County jails, an internship at the Pentagon covering U.S. Army news as well as reporting and anchoring for a local news radio station in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @Lillianmboyd and follow Dana Point Times at @danapointtimes.