Here we are at mid-year 2020, nearly six months into the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.  The numbers tell a terrible story.  Worldwide, the pandemic has afflicted over 12.2 million people and killed more than 553,000.  And, even though the U.S. population of 330 million is only 4.1 percent of the world’s nearly 8 billion people, Americans account for more than 25 percent of all COVID-19 cases and deaths in the world.

By any measure, when compared with other nations, these numbers tell a story of our country and our national government being shamefully unprepared.  We never had a real plan in place, and we still don’t have a national plan.  Instead, we have a President who is obviously unwilling and unable to mobilize his own government in an organized national response to the biggest public health crisis in 100 years.

But the failure of planning and leadership isn’t limited to the White House.  While the spread of infection and the response to COVID-19 has varied from state to state — and while the numbers in California and here in Orange County have been better than elsewhere in the U.S. — the scale of disease and death in Orange County is unprecedented.

There have been over 21,500 reported COVID-19 cases and 402 deaths in Orange County.  To make matters worse, because of bad decisions centered on a rush to “open up” our local economy while also resisting mandated use of masks, we are now witnessing a rising trajectory likely to double the cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19 over the course of the summer.  The further setback to the economy will likely be profound as well.

As you can see in the charts below, the trajectory of the virus in Orange County continues to surge.  On July 8th, the County reported 1,333 new cases, which is the highest daily number of new cases reported since testing began.  The previous daily high was on July 6th when the County reported 1,028 new cases.  In addition, the number of hospitalizations across the County continues to rise.

A Closer Look at Orange County and Irvine
Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on locally.  Our own County Supervisor and former Irvine Mayor, Don Wagner, has shown himself to be a menace to public health by first urging in May that the County be “opened up” without meeting State public health metrics.  Soon after that, Wagner began questioning the usefulness of masks, bullying the County’s chief Public Health Officer Nichole Quick, MD over the masking matter. What was Dr. Quick’s transgression?  Quite simply, she was doing her job.  To protect workers and customers alike, Dr. Quick issued an order that required the use of facemasks in public as our small businesses reopened.  Wagner challenged the science behind masking, forced the rescission of Dr. Quick’s order and, ultimately, he forced her resignation.  Fortunately, Governor Gavin Newsom ended this dangerous nonsense in Orange County by imposing a State mandate of facemask use in public, effective June 18, 2020.

The lack of leadership in Irvine is very disturbing as well. Irvine is no longer a small town.  Our population — 300,000 — ranks us among the top 100 American cities.  Our average workday population, with commuters from all over Southern California, swells to 500,000 people.  What happens in Irvine impacts the health and well-being of all of Orange County and other Southern California counties as well.

While Irvine does have a requirement for facemasks, this seems to be the only area where our City has led the way with an appropriate public health intervention.  The importance of testing and contact-tracing has been known since February.  And, yet, the City is still struggling to organize a City-sponsored Coronavirus testing program, available to the general public, including everyone who works in Irvine.  After a bungled attempt to begin testing in May, the City is trying to get a pilot program up and running in July.  Better late than never, but precious time has been lost.

Irvine’s Rainy Day Fund: It’s raining!
At the June 23rd meeting, Mayor Christina Shea and Councilmembers Mike Carroll and Anthony Kuo congratulated themselves for helping out small businesses with cash assistance when, in fact, the City was simply acting as the conduit for distributing federal funds to 500 businesses struggling to reopen.  When it came to the question of using City funds to help businesses and to help renters in distress — by tapping into the City’s robust $53 million dollar Rainy Day Fund — Shea, Carroll and Kuo would have none of it.

The fact of the matter is this: Irvine, which has historically prided itself on good planning and preparedness, now appears to be leaderless and lost.

As the dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic were becoming clear, the City should have put in place an Office of Emergency Housing Assistance and an Office of Small Business Assistance.  And how can it be that Irvine does not have an Office of Public Health with a highly qualified Chief Health Officer?  One more thing: The City should quickly allocate several million dollars from the Rainy Day Fund to help with the reopening of Irvine schools, beginning with hiring of additional school nurses to ensure that all Irvine schools reopen — and stay open — in a safe and healthy way.

Phyllis Agran, M.D.