Santa Clara County and San Jose elected leaders this month criticized local public health officials over a lack of clarity and adequate notice in their plans to ease shelter-in-place restrictions due to COVID-19.
The criticism, which follows relative strong support for local measures taken to stop the coronavirus spread by health officials, began at the San Jose City Council meeting Tuesday. Councilmembers questioned the county’s sudden announcement Monday of its latest change to the shelter-in-place order — which opened in-person retail, manufacturing, religious services and outdoor dining — beginning Friday. City leaders complained they didn’t have enough time to prepare businesses for the changes.
“I pressed the issue repeatedly, asking the county… to please articulate a clear basis for when openings will happen,” said Mayor Sam Liccardo.
Since March, Santa Clara County has been under some of the nation’s most restrictive health measures that have slowed the pandemic’s effects locally. Now as the county peels back restrictions, city leaders say they’re struggling to stay on the same page with county health officials.
“I’m a little frustrated by the county in that we didn’t know ahead of time that they were opening things up this Friday,” said Councilmember Pam Foley.
Councilmember Dev Davis said the county’s failure to notify the city promptly about its latest plan to reopen businesses stalled restarting the economy.
“I think it would be helpful for businesses to be able to plan if we had known outdoor dining was coming up next. I think our city staff would have worked more quickly to get our Al Fresco initiative going and bringing it to us this Tuesday so it would be ready this Friday,” Davis said. “At this point we’re basically playing catch up.”
The City Council called for Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody and other county leaders to have a joint meeting to better collaborate. The county’s largest city, San Jose, has the vast majority of the region’s COVID-19 cases.
“We have half the population of the county and I understand we are not their bosses, but we have valid questions and this game of telephone going through you, going through our supervisors, is very difficult and is not very transparent to the public,” Davis added.
Meanwhile, during the Board of Supervisors meeting, county leaders also questioned the rollout of Friday’s order by County Executive Jeff Smith and Cody.
Aside from a news release, social media posts and new FAQs to the order, there wasn’t a formal announcement of the new order. Smith defended the decision Tuesday.
“We thought it would be basically tone deaf to have a press conference right after major violence and injury in the community so we intend now to start our proactive outreach,” Smith said, referring to local protests over the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man.
Smith added the county notified mayors that “something new” was happening and they would explain details, but San Jose leaders appeared to contradict those claims.
“We weren’t, in this case, necessarily privy to the order before it gets published,” said San Jose City Manager Dave Sykes. “I don’t think we have any clear picture of any subsequent stages or phases.”
County officials said revising the order was based on the Bay Area’s indicators of testing, new cases and hospitalizations, among other factors.
Cody told supervisors with low rates of infection locally, the county can move toward containment of new cases with testing and contact tracing to safely reopen. The county health officer plans to ease restrictions every three weeks.
However, the county has not met its goals on increased testing, officials revealed, which Cody said was a scale based on need in the community.
“From the public perspective, it’s an incredibly frustrating answer,” Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said. “The indicators are not really measurable lines, goal posts. It seems to be softer, which I think will continue to increase anxiety for people who are waiting for information to know when things are starting to change.”
Ellenberg worried that officials may mislead residents on when restrictions might lift based on the indicators.
Under indicators by Bay Area health officials, the goal was 200 daily tests per 100,000 people, but the county averaged less than half that through May.
The county’s head of COVID-19 testing, Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, blamed three hospitals: Kaiser Permanente, the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and Regional Medical Center. Issues with availability of reagents, test kits and a “desire to follow guidance” make it difficult for hospitals to increase testing, he explained.
Regional Hospital is located in East San Jose, which has been most affected by COVID-19, with disproportionate numbers of Latinos contracting and dying from the virus. Fenstersheib said there’s anecdotal evidence Regional has turned away people from testing.
San Jose Councilmember Maya Esparza said mobile COVID-19 testing sites are available in her East San Jose district, but blamed the county for failing to adequately inform residents on what resources are available.
“I have requested the county to bring fliers about what to do if people test positive, which they did not have,” Esparza said.
The councilmember said that overcrowding in East San Jose homes deters people in her district from isolating or seeking testing.
“I have heard from a number of my residents who are afraid to get tested because they have nowhere to go and they are living (with) multiple families in apartments and we don’t have a good enough answer to them,” Esparza said.
Smith said the Bay Area’s testing indicator was based on a previous positivity rate, but the number of new cases identified has dropped “precipitously.”
“We thought we knew we needed more (testing), but we did such a good job with shelter-in-place that we could make decisions to relax shelter-in-place with less testing,” Smith said.
Board President Cindy Chavez, who also represents part of East San Jose, asked for clarity on goals to ease restrictions using testing indicators.
“While I understand there are risks to not wanting to be in a position of overpromising, I think the alternative is to leave people feeling foggy,” Chavez said.
In response to criticism about a perceived lack of clarity and providing San Jose ample notice about upcoming changes, County Counsel James Williams said health experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus’ effects on people and conditions in local communities.
“It’s important that when we share things about what’s going to happen, it’s not false precision,” Williams said. “Putting out specific dates, I think, is a challenge when so much is changing so quickly.”