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Orange County public health officer resigns in coronavirus controversy

Orange County Health Care Agency officer Dr. Nichole Quick
Orange County Health Care Agency officer Dr. Nichole Quick at a news conference in March.
(KTLA-TV)

Orange County’s chief health officer resigned Monday after several intense weeks defending her countywide face mask order in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The mask order, which requires that people wear face coverings while in public, faced immediate resistance after Dr. Nichole Quick mandated it in late May. Some residents and elected officials have challenged the need for the widespread use of face coverings as businesses in the region reopen. That ire at times was directly aimed at Quick.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department provided a security detail for Quick after she received what officials deemed to be a death threat during a county Board of Supervisors meeting last month.

During the meeting, a woman who identified herself as an attorney disparaged Quick’s experience in the medical field and read her home address aloud, saying she planned to take a group to Quick’s home and “do calisthenics in masks on her front doorstep” in an attempt to prove that face coverings are unsafe.

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The woman echoed what other critics had said about face coverings posing a danger to people’s oxygen levels. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has previously said that children younger than 2 and anyone with a breathing issue should not wear a face covering.

“When people start dropping like flies, and they will,” the woman said at the meeting, “I am going to ask every first responder in a 30-mile radius to roll lights and sirens to her front door, and you had best pray they can revive whoever went down because if they can’t … I will be asking the O.C. D.A.’s office to charge it as murder.”

Later that week, Orange County Board of Supervisors Chair Michelle Steel condemned the threat, saying, “It should never happen again.”

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“No one deserves to be threatened or intimidated the way she was,” Steel said at the time.

During another Board of Supervisors meeting, some members of the public brought a poster with Quick’s photo on it with a Hitler mustache on her face and swastikas.

Quick, who was hired as the county’s health officer last June, could not be reached for comment Tuesday morning. The Board of Supervisors appointed Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, as the county’s new health officer.

The county agreed to pay Quick $75,000 in severance in exchange for her decision to voluntarily resign, according to a settlement and release agreement signed Monday.

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The agreement notes that County Executive Officer Frank Kim won’t disparage work done by Quick while she was employed with the county. In exchange, Quick agreed not to criticize the county or the Board of Supervisors, according to the document.

Kim characterized the agreement Tuesday as “fairly standard practice for the county” when it comes to executive-level employees.

“I had a very good working relationship and I thought she did very good work for the county as our health officer,” he said during a phone call with reporters.

He added that he was surprised and disappointed by Quick’s resignation, but declined to elaborate on her reasons for doing so aside from saying, “I do believe that all of the challenges of the job weighed in on her decision.”

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“It’s not an easy job,” he said, adding: “It’s not uncommon for the public staff to be working 80-hour weeks.”

Quick is the third high-ranking healthcare executive to leave the county in the midst of the pandemic. David Souleles retired in April from his post as the deputy agency director of public health services. Weeks earlier, Richard Sanchez left his role as director of the county’s healthcare agency for a position with CalOptima, a county-organized health insurance system.

During a board meeting last week, Supervisor Don Wagner, who has been a fierce advocate for reopening businesses and public services in the county, questioned the need for face coverings, saying other parts of the state were backing away from those orders.

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Several surrounding counties, including Los Angeles and San Diego, require residents to wear masks in public settings.

Quick responded that face coverings could help prevent the transmission of COVID-19. She also noted that the county was seeing an increase in instances of community transmission of the virus and that hospitalization numbers had been trending upward.

“There is evidence to support that,” she said, “and I feel strongly we need a face covering mandate in place as we continue to send more people back into social interactions.”

Wagner noted Tuesday that many of his constituents look at wearing a mask as a restriction, and said his frustration comes from a lack of transparency about the issue.

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“We put guidelines together for businesses reopening that the board had over a month ago. Dr. Quick was involved in all those conversations and never said, ‘Oh, but I think we’ll need masks,’” he said. “And then, suddenly, we get masks without any warning and without any explanations. That’s not the kind of transparency I would like to see from government.”

Both Wagner and Kim condemned the threats against Quick. Kim said other county staff members have received threats, as well, and such issues are reviewed by law enforcement.

“None of the staff deserve that type of treatment,” he said. “We’re in these jobs to provide a public benefit and, while we respect the rights of individuals to disagree or speak their minds, I think going beyond that to issuing threats is really inappropriate and I hope that those things do not continue.”

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On Tuesday, the county reported an additional 93 cases of coronavirus infection, bringing the number to 7,614. County officials also reported eight additional fatalities, for a total death toll of 185.

Orange County saw its largest two-day surge in the number of reported cases on Friday and Saturday, according to data provided by the county.

Nearly 300 new cases were reported Friday, marking the highest daily total since the onset of the pandemic, while 271 new cases were reported Saturday. This comes amid an increase in testing countywide.

The county’s hospitalization numbers also are trending upward. As of Sunday — the most recent data available — the county had 304 people hospitalized with the virus, a new daily high. Data showed that 146 of those were in intensive care units, also a new daily record for the county.

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The latest maps and charts on the spread of COVID-19 in Orange County, including cases, deaths, closures and restrictions.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday pushed Chau for a definitive answer about when he planned to lift the county’s mask order. Members of the public could be heard screaming in the background as Chau responded to questions from the board.

“We cannot impose restrictions on people based on fear, just based on theoretical fear,” Supervisor Andrew Do said. “If we open up and we have testing and we start to see changes, I understand the change in position. We’re shooting at a moving target. I’m not asking you to be reckless, but the decision-making process to me is flawed.”

The push comes as the county prepares to reopen additional sectors of the economy beginning Friday, including movie theaters, public pools, museums, zoos, schools, day camps, wineries and bars.

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Chau said he planned to look at the county’s infection rate and hospitalization numbers over the next 21 days with more public spaces open to determine whether those numbers showed it was safe to amend the mask order.

“We have to watch and see how we do when we enter that ecosystem before we make any decision to downgrade the mask order,” Chau said.

Kim said the county plans to launch a recruitment effort to find Quick’s long-term replacement. He acknowledged that the position presents challenges, but said it’s also an “incredible opportunity for a qualified physician that wants to make a difference, to help their community and to be the tip of the spear in developing all of the strategies that will reduce the disease burden and save lives in Orange County.”

When asked how he would reassure prospective applicants that their advice would be taken to heart — given not only the heated dispute over the mask order but the fact that county Sheriff Don Barnes said publicly that his department wouldn’t enforce it — Kim said, “You have to communicate and you have to justify. And if you communicate and you justify, then I do believe we’ll get through all the perhaps uncomfortable discussions that may occur.”

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“I don’t want to diminish the difficulty of the position and the uncomfortable situation that our new health officer will be faced with,” he said. “That is all real. Happens every day.”

City News Service contributed to this report.


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