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Unhappy with L.A. County COVID-19 response, Lancaster to form its own public health agency

Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris led the motion for his city to form its own public health agency.
Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris led the motion for his city to form its own public health agency, following a wave of new restrictions from L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Dissatisfied with Los Angeles County’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lancaster City Council has voted unanimously to form its own public health agency.

The council also on Thursday unanimously passed a symbolic “vote of no confidence” of Barbara Ferrer, the county’s public health director, who has been leading the county’s charge against the coronavirus.

Mayor R. Rex Parris blamed county officials for not considering smaller cities — like Lancaster, where the population is about 158,000 — when making sweeping decisions, such as the county’s recent decision to suspend outdoor dining.

“What I don’t want our city to do is to make decisions based upon anything other than what’s supported by the research and the people most knowledgeable about this — which I would suggest to you is not Barbara Ferrer,” Parris said.

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A representative for Ferrer did not respond to a request for comment.

“If you compare what the state has done when it comes to regulating COVID, and the additional changes the county has made, they seem to be minor changes at best that are not based on science,” Lancaster City Manager Jason Caudle said. “They seem to have an unbalanced impact on restaurants specifically.”

Although Lancaster’s case rates are lower than Los Angeles County’s, the city’s positivity rate is soaring and two local hospitals are filling up, said Deputy Mayor and infectious-disease specialist Dr. Jonathan Truong. He said Antelope Valley Hospital is caring for 68 confirmed COVID-19 patients, up from 23 last month. There are 45 COVID-19 patients at the nearby Palmdale Regional Medical Center, compared with 18 last month, he said.

Still, Truong did not dispute the City Council’s displeasure with new county restrictions.

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“Sometimes, not having the detailed number down to the local area, you end up making policies that’s one size fits all,” Truong said. “You basically close everything down, even when this community is doing well or the other community doing poorly. That’s the problem with one-size-fits-all numbers.”

Dr. Lawrence Stock, deputy mayor and an emergency medicine physician at Antelope Valley Hospital, said his workplace is preparing for the worst, erecting new tents outside the emergency room to expand capacity. He also said hospitals have yet to see the effects of Thanksgiving gatherings, which probably helped spread the contagion even further.

“Together with the rest of California, the rest of the county, [we’re] at some risk of overwhelming the normal hospital capacity,” Stock said. “We’re in a serious surge right now.”

Parris, who called a special meeting of the council Thursday, acknowledged the gravity of the city’s current predicament in the pandemic. He blamed the city’s 77 coronavirus-related deaths on a failure of county leaders to enforce a mask mandate or properly educate people about the pandemic.

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“We don’t have the leadership with the courage to make those unpopular decisions,” Parris said in an interview Friday morning.

He called the county Department of Public Health too big and “dysfunctional.” The city could maneuver faster on its own to secure resources and make necessary changes, he said.

But despite his displeasure and the council’s unanimous vote, it could be months before a public health agency like the one Parris proposed — possibly as a joint effort with neighboring cities such as Palmdale — is operating. He acknowledged that the coronavirus crisis would probably be long passed by the time Lancaster formed its own agency. Still, he said, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inefficiencies in the county’s public health response and underscored a need for the city to take care of its own.

The vote of no confidence in Ferrer also has no practical outcome. But Parris said the unanimous vote sent a message that the city felt “betrayed” by her handling of the pandemic.

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“What we’re about to do may not have an effect on her but, nonetheless, we’ve never had to do it to somebody before,” he said at Thursday’s meeting. “Without this expression of our contempt, and that’s really what it is, nothing’s about to change. … In my opinion, she failed.”

Lancaster’s vote followed similar actions on Wednesday by the Beverly Hills City Council, which unanimously called for a repeal of the outdoor dining ban and pledged to explore forming its own public health agency. Demonstrators in recent days have gathered in front of Ferrer’s Echo Park home to protest some of the county’s new restrictions.


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