Dr. Eric McDonald, a public health officer, speaks at a press conference about the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Every day for the past week, reporters have shown up to press conferences held by San Diego County public health officials – the very people managing the crisis facing our community – to demand answers on behalf of the public.

They’ve pressed officials to define the scope of the outbreak and pushed them to acknowledge shortages of medical equipment. Reporters do this so community members can have the information they need about problems that affect their daily lives. In some extreme cases, like the current coronavirus outbreak, that information can be of life-or-death importance.

But now, San Diego County officials have made it harder for reporters to get the answers that community members are searching for. Until recently, reporters had largely unlimited access to the officials managing this public health crisis at daily press briefings. Now, county officials have taken the briefings online and are no longer making those officials available for questioning as they did previously.

“It is far less than ideal,” said Michael Workman, the director of communications for San Diego County, who is managing the daily press briefings. “I get that the depth goes away. We didn’t want it to get to this.”

Previously, the briefings worked like this: Various officials made opening statements. Then they took questions from the press – all while airing the press conference live on television and radio. After that, public health officials stayed around to answer questions from reporters, in a more unrestrained setting, without the live television feed rolling.

That last phase of more in-depth questioning is now gone from the press briefings, even though it previously turned up vitally important information. (The first and second phases of the press briefings are still held, though they are fully online.)

Just last week, Dr. Eric McDonald, a public health officer, told reporter Paul Sisson and I that the number of COVID-19 cases in San Diego is at least 10 times as high as the official numbers reflect. Reporters had already been looking for answers on the true scope of the outbreak during the televised press conference for days. But they hadn’t been getting straight answers. That period of in-depth questioning gave Sisson and I the opportunity to press for the truth.

I asked Workman if he might make public health officials available for phone chats after the press briefings as a workaround. But he said that wouldn’t be happening.

In an email to reporters on Tuesday, county officials said they had implemented the new online press briefings “to support social distancing guidelines and limit the number of the people in the room.” Implementing social distancing policies is vital to slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus and ensuring that San Diego’s health care system isn’t overwhelmed with more patients than it can handle.

At Tuesday’s press conference at a county administration building, I stood outside and listened on my phone. I could see roughly 15 county employees through the window putting on the press conference. Workman told me reporters weren’t allowed, before heading inside himself.

The press conferences are now held inside a smaller room. Not everyone inside was easily able to maintain social distancing. The previous press briefings were held in a larger room, and most reporters and county workers were able to maintain six feet of distance at all times.

Workman told me that reporters can still make requests for information from the county’s communication staff. But he acknowledged, “I know that isn’t as timely for you.”

Getting timely information in this fast-moving crisis is critically important for the citizens of San Diego. Going forward, it will be more difficult and county officials know it.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at will@vosd.org or 619-693-6249.

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