In early 2020, as COVID-19 cases began popping up across Southern California, Rep. Michelle Steel’s message to her constituents brimmed with the optimism that Orange County might be able to avoid an outbreak.
“We will do whatever we can do [to] keep Orange County coronavirus-free,” Steel — then the chair of the county’s Board of Supervisors — said in late February. Less than a month later, the county identified its first COVID-19 infection from community spread. Over the course of 15 months, the virus would infect more than 254,000 people and kill over 5,000 in Orange County alone.
An investigation by the Orange County Grand Jury shows Steel wasn’t alone in thinking it was possible to stem the rising tide of a pandemic. A report released last week showed that county officials for years had largely underestimated the threat of a global pandemic — classifying it as likely as a disaster at the San Onofre nuclear plant or an act of terrorism. That mindset resulted in a response that stymied outreach efforts to hard-hit communities and hindered access to testing and vaccines, according to the report.
It’s an issue that bedeviled other jurisdictions across California and the U.S. as COVID-19 infections picked up steam and areas struggled with calibrating how hard they should respond. But Orange County stands out because of the distinct role some of its politicians and residents played in fighting back against tough restrictions meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
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