New report looks at county government’s actions during pandemic

People wait in a line in at the Cubberley Community Center in Palo Alto for a Covid test in December 2021. Post photo by Braden Cartwright.

Daily Post Staff Writer

“Lockdown,” “over-reach,” and “scary” stood out as terms residents used to describe Santa Clara County’s response to the Covid pandemic, according to a consultant’s just released “after-action report.”

Santa Clara County fined nearly 400 businesses totaling about $5 million for breaking the county’s rules during the pandemic.

“This was a far higher rate than virtually all other surrounding Bay Area counties at that time, with little evidence the fines resulted in better public health outcomes in Santa Clara than in the other counties in the region,” wrote Dawn Thomas, a managing director for CNA Corporation.

Following the county’s orders was a challenge because they were complicated, Thomas said.

“Many people, even public health experts, struggled with interpreting the health orders and how the frequent changes affected daily activities and business status. This challenge was magnified for the business community,” Thomas said.

For example, the county’s PR employees recommended the website say “remove the mask to eat or drink.” But county lawyers overruled them to have the website say “only remove your mask for biological functions,” Thomas said.

She recommended writing materials at a fourth-grade reading level for the general public.

The county Board of Supervisors hired Thomas and CNA Corporation for $242,610 in October 2022 to review the pandemic and the county’s response.

No names named

Her 100-page report was released ahead of a Health and Hospital Committee meeting on Wednesday. She didn’t name any names.

That includes not naming Dr. Sara Cody, the county’s public health officer, or former County Executive Jeff Smith, the two people in the county government who made many of the calls during the Covid shutdown.

Thomas said in an email yesterday that the county removed quotes from her report that were used to demonstrate certain points.

“But that’s fair, as it in no way interferes with the integrity of the findings,” Thomas said.

Her report focuses mostly on the county’s operations, and not how residents and businesses were affected.

For example, Thomas said that county workers suffered from burnout, but she didn’t look at the mental health impacts of stay-at-home orders on residents.

Deaths from drugs and alcohol rose “dramatically” in the United States during the pandemic, according to a study published by the Royal Society for Public Health.

All county employees received a $2,500 bonus for working during the pandemic — even those who worked entirely from home.

Supervisor Joe Simitian said the after-action report was designed to assess the county government’s performance and not all of the outside impacts.

“The (report) we had at the committee met the technical requirements of a report back, but left some looming larger issues that required a discussion,” Simitian said yesterday.

Simitian said the scope of the report was decided by county employees and the consultant.

Simitian declined to weigh in on whether the report should’ve looked at the county’s legal battle with Calvary Chapel in San Jose, a church that sued the county over $1.2 million in fines for having indoor worship services.

Who calls the shots?

Simitian is focused on who makes decisions during an emergency. Dr. Sara Cody was given unprecedented authority as the public health officer, and Simitian had questions on Wednesday about what it would take to fire her — hypothetically.

County Executive James Williams said only the California Department of Public Health could overrule Cody’s orders, and only then-County Executive Jeff Smith could’ve fired her during the pandemic. The Board of Supervisors would be inviting a lawsuit if they tried to fire Smith for not firing Cody, Williams said.

Cody defended her response on Wednesday. She said she issued lockdown orders because tests weren’t available from the federal government.

“I used health officer authority in a matter that was a bit more aggressive than my counterparts across the country because there weren’t other options,” Cody told the Health and Hospital Committee. Simitian said that residents lost trust in public health orders because they were inconsistent, even between San Mateo County and Santa Clara County.

“I did get questions and comments from people who wanted to know why when they went to lunch in Menlo Park, the rule was one thing, and when they went to dinner in Palo Alto, the rule was another thing. That seemed hard to fathom for a lot of folks,” he said.

Cody defended

Williams defended Cody. He said coordination with the state and federal government was a challenge, and not all of the orders were hers. For example, schools fell under the guidance of the California Department of Education and local districts, Williams said.

“One of the things we did very well locally is have a quick, aggressive response. Tremendous credit goes rightfully to Dr. Cody for bearing that decision-making burden,” Williams said.

Santa Clara County had the highest Covid-related death rate per capita in the nine-county Bay Area. A total of 1,901 of Santa Clara County residents died due to the virus through November 2021, according to state records, or 96.6 deaths per 100,000 residents.

To read the report, open this link and go to Item 6. Click “a. Attachment A – OEM COVID-19 AAR.”

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for writing about this. We lost our restaurant because we weren’t able to recover after the lockdown. Nobody from the County offered to help us, or even apologize. The County’s handling of this was terrible.

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