Editorial: Time for oversight

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Editorial opinion

By all measures, Santa Clara County should have been better prepared to send the coronavirus packing. The county spends $3.9 billion a year on its public health care system—$1.2 billion more than it spent four years ago. It’s also home to the renowned Stanford Medical School and health care system, as well as hundreds of biomedical and testing companies and private hospitals run by HCA Healthcare, El Camino Health and Kaiser.

The county operates a massive tax-supported medical system. It spent $235 million to buy two hospitals last year, and before that $465 million on a new Valley Medical Center hospital opened in 2017 after cost overruns and delays. Taxpayers supported increased funding for the health care system with $840 million in bonds in 2008 and 2012’s Measure A half-billion dollar sales tax, which Mike Wasserman, to his credit, was the only supervisor to oppose.

We should have been golden. When the key turned in the Ferrari’s ignition, though, it stalled in the driveway. Damn!

We were flabbergasted when our colleagues at Metro Silicon Valley last week asked how many Santa Clara County residents had been tested for COVID-19. County health officials stalled for nine days. So we asked the county executive, Dr. Jeff Smith, who in addition to running the county’s largest employer, after Apple and Google, happens to be an M.D. After he scrambled to collect the data, he released the embarrassing results.

Just 647 of the county’s 2 million people had been tested.

Smith believes the county’s actual infected population as of Tuesday is closer to 10,000, rather than the official count of 459 announced earlier this week. After we asked, Santa Clara and seven Bay Area counties issued a public health order requiring all laboratories, including private ones, to disclose all their results to local public health officials, so we can get some reliable numbers based on sample sizes. You can’t have a numerator without a denominator, which is why the total number of tests, negative and positive, is critical to the knowledge base.

If Smith’s estimate of 10,000 local COVID-19 infections was in the ballpark, that’s nearly a quarter of Tuesday’s reported 44,183 in the entire United States of America. (The number was 64,675 a day later.) The bigger problem is that we just don’t know.

Despite the billions of dollars local residents have spent on building out our health care system, there’s not enough beds to attend to the sick and dying patients we may see in coming days. We hope Santa Clara County will not resemble Wuhan, Italy and Spain.

Shamefully, county supervisors used health care monies as a political slush fund, steering money to political groups and buying pizza for campaign volunteers with funds that came from all of us.

The colossal coronavirus failure of 2020 is a clear sign that politics needs to be decoupled from keeping us safe. (Hear that, Washington, D.C.?) It’s time to put the $4 billion annual health care system under independent public oversight—with its own board—and prevent county supervisors from deriving political benefits from public health spending. And we hope that South Valley representative Wasserman, who too infrequently stands against the majority, chooses principle over pragmatism this time.