Orange County declares emergency over coronavirus

A coronavirus health advisory is posted in the emergency department at St. Joseph Medical Center in Orange.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Orange County has declared a local health emergency in response to the novel coronavirus, which has killed thousands globally, officials announced Wednesday.

The move is largely in response to a proposal to move coronavirus patients to a facility in Costa Mesa, which has sparked a bitter court battle, Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel and Vice Chairman Andrew Do said at a news conference. At the center of the dispute is a proposal to use the Fairview Developmental Center as a coronavirus quarantine site, an idea that drew swift and fierce condemnation from city, county, state and federal officials representing the area.

“The county of Orange continues to support Costa Mesa in opposition of state and federal government’s decision to move COVID-19 patients to the Fairview Center,” Do said.


He and other officials say the transportation of patients into Orange County does not “preserve the health of our community,” which has a population of more than 3 million.

The city of Costa Mesa requested a temporary restraining order from a federal judge on Friday that blocked possible plans to send the affected individuals to the center.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton ordered federal and state officials to meet with local officials from the county and Costa Mesa to answer specific questions about how the Fairview center was chosen. According to Steel, the status of the restraining order will be decided on March 2.

“We will do whatever we can do keep Orange County coronavirus-free,” she said.

The declaration of a local emergency and a local health emergency creates a mechanism for officials to ask for mutual aid from county, state and federal partners in the event that resources are exhausted, county health officer Nichole Quick said. The declaration allows Orange County to better leverage resources for staffing and agency coordination.

“It expands our ability to respond in a nimble and flexible way in the future,” county health officer Nichole Quick said.

Quick said Orange County will start testing patients who exhibit flu-like symptoms for coronavirus.


There has not been any outbreak of the coronavirus in the county so far, although one resident has tested positive for the illness. That individual has since fully recovered, health officials said.

Wednesday’s decree follows San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s declaration of an emergency a day earlier on the heels of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s warning that COVID-19 is likely to spread within U.S. communities.

“Ultimately, we expect we will see coronavirus spread in this country,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said Tuesday. “It’s not so much a question of if, but a question of when.”

“With 60 U.S. cases of coronavirus, we are facing a real-life crisis that must be managed,” Orange County Supervisor Donald P. Wagner said. “I support an emergency declaration, not because I necessarily believe the public is in more danger, but because the federal and state governments refuse to give us enough information to discharge our public health responsibilities. We want to be vigilant in ensuring the county is prepared and has sufficient resources to prevent and combat any possible outbreak of COVID-19.”

Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) reiterated the declaration’s intention to prepare, not panic, the community.

“Coronavirus is a serious and growing threat, and the only way we’ll manage this public health emergency is with collaboration grounded in science,” she said.

San Diego and Santa Clara counties have already issued similar declarations.

Health officials in Orange County confirmed one of the first cases of coronavirus in the state in late January. Another patient tested positive in Los Angeles County. Both had traveled to Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak.

On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters how the state is addressing coronavirus concerns.

“We’re not just preparing — we’ve been actively participating in addressing this issue for many months, aggressively,” he said. “In fact, there’s no other state in America that’s been more involved in addressing the issue.”

Newsom said he met with Trump administration officials to discuss the coronavirus when he traveled to Washington D.C. earlier this month to attend a National Governors Assn. meeting and the state continues to work closely with the federal government.

“We have had a very good relationship, open lines of communication, two-way conversations,” Newsom said. “We’re developing quite good levels of trust, and continue to work through this dynamic moment. I am proud of also being a Californian, where we’re not turning our backs on people, and that’s not the case in every state in this country.”

The governor said the state has been involved in monitoring and identifying individuals who have been repatriated to the state and other travelers returning to California independently on commercial flights.

“Everyone’s concerned,” Newsom said. “There hasn’t been a day since December that’s gone by where we haven’t demonstrably been engaged, and I think that’s an example of the resolve that we have to meet this moment head on. And so, rather than expressing concern, expressing anxiety, I want to demonstrate resolve to address that concern and anxiety, and I think that’s happening in all levels of government, both the county level, obviously at the state level and I couldn’t be more proud of our folks. But also I’ll say this, there’s no reason for me to say it, unless I believe it: at the federal level as well.”

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti said the city is taking precautions to monitor the spread of the virus.

“The city of Los Angeles will continue to be proactive and take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and I commend our city and county response agencies for their hard work to keep us safe. My office is working closely with federal, state and county agencies to monitor the situation,” Garcetti said in a statement to The Times.

The mayor’s office said Los Angeles International Airport is also taking precautions to keep travelers and employees safe, including the use of CDC health screeners at the LAX.

There have been more than 81,000 cases of confirmed coronavirus and more than 2,700 reported deaths, most in mainland China.

Times staff writers Dakota Smith and Taryn Luna contributed to this report.