SANTA ANA (CNS)—Orange County supervisors Jan. 26 offered blistering criticism of Othena, the county’s app and website for COVID-19 vaccinations, as they raised concerns about a shortfall in the medicine and rising costs for testing and vaccines.
Supervisor Don Wagner said many of his constituents have called him to complain about Othena.
“Othena sucks,” Wagner said. “I’m getting that from 65-plus-year-old constituents of mine who are using that word. It’s a mess. It’s gotten better, but you know it’s a mess. Everyone on this board knows it’s a mess.”
Dr. Clayton Chau, the county’s chief health officer and director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, defended the app and website, which he authorized before informing the board.
“When setting up a system, there’s always glitches,” Chau said, adding that in recent days it has “improved significantly.”
Chau said a “large city” on the East Coast has called to inquire about the app.
“We know there are frustrations, but we have close to half a million people in Orange County on Othena.”
Chau said the main problem is managing expectations.
“Just because you register on Othena doesn’t guarantee you have an appointment,” he said, adding that Othena is designed to do more than help residents schedule a vaccination. It is also aimed at reminding the inoculated to get a booster shot and provides more information about the medicine.
Chau said vaccinating people with medicine that requires a booster shot is much more complicated than the seasonal flu shot distribution.
Wagner and Orange County Board Chairman Andrew Do also criticized the app’s failure to offer services in foreign languages such as Spanish and Vietnamese. Chau said a foreign-language version will be rolled out by week’s end.
Chau defended debuting only an English version first because the bugs needed to be worked out first or else the foreign-language versions would have had to be rebooted altogether instead of just updated.
“Boy, that’s causing a lot of frustration and confusion and looking to be inept even if there is an explanation,” Wagner said.
Do said he had to “push back” on saying that frustration with Othena is a “carryover from the lack of supply” of vaccines. He said that explanation leaves out the issues seniors who are not tech-savvy are having navigating or even accessing the app or website. Do also emphasized the need to improve and better staff a county hotline to support Othena.
Do said some residents have complained that calls to the hotline go unanswered and some non-English speakers say they have been shifted over to English-speaking operators or have been disconnected.
Do also said some residents are “gaming the system” by creating multiple accounts to get an appointment, another issue that has to be fixed.
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said she has been assured that Othena is likely able to integrate with the state’s new pilot project app, MyTurn, in San Diego and Los Angeles counties.
“I think we’re going to be able to import the data right into the state system … so we shouldn’t lose anything in the translation,” Bartlett said.
Do and Wagner scoffed at that, with Wagner pointing to issues with the DMV’s system and the recent fraud scandal plaguing the state’s unemployment program for workers laid off due to COVID-19.
“I share some of Supervisor Wagner’s skepticism,” Do said. “The last time we tried to do software statewide, it was a monumental failure.”
Chau told the supervisors that his agency is working to provide “small” and “medium” points of distribution for vaccinations. The board approved a program to work with CalOptima, the county’s insurance agency for the poor, to provide shots to seniors at community clinics and other locations other than the mega sites at Disneyland and Soka University in Aliso Viejo.
Meanwhile, County Chief Executive Frank Kim told the board that the county is on an “unsustainable” path of spending to support testing and vaccinations.
“Our CARES Act money is fully expended,” Kim said. “But our costs have not diminished at all. In fact, they have only grown. We continue to provide the same robust testing options, and that has significant cost.”
The new super points of distribution could cost $60 million to $70 million, Kim said.
The federal government has promised some reimbursements through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the agency only covers overtime staffing costs. Without a stimulus from Congress, counties “will have to make difficult choices come June,” Kim said.
Do had Chau remind the public that the county only provides 20 percent of the doses of vaccines, with larger health care providers and hospitals doling out the rest provided by the state. The state has authorized county health officers, however, to take back some of those doses and distribute them if the health care providers fall short of at least 65 percent distribution.
“I’m glad to report that the majority of the folks have been doing a very good job, and they say they will be able to meet that criteria,” Chau said.
The county on Jan. 26 reported 1,365 new COVID-19 cases, raising the cumulative to 225,983. The county also reported an additional 64 deaths, raising the death toll to 2,768.