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San Mateo County Health Officer Calls State COVID-19 Watch List 'Fundamentally Flawed'

SAN MATEO COUNTY (CBS SF) -- The Health Officer for San Mateo County on Thursday issued a scathing criticism of California's current COVID-19 watch list and policy for closing businesses, calling the state's system "fundamentally flawed."

"There's people losing their jobs, there's people losing their homes," said San Mateo County Health Officer Scott Morrow over the phone.

In his statement, Morrow outlined his criticism of the state's testing data and what he called the "arbitrary and constantly changing framework that the State has set up to put counties on the watch list" in a message that posted to the San Mateo County Health website on Thursday.

"I wish to apologize to all the businesses that were closed this week," the statement read. "I am not supportive of these actions and, for San Mateo County, I believe they are misdirected and will cause more harm than good. This action is a bit like looking for your lost keys under a streetlight even though you lost them miles away."

Morrow believes that if business owners practiced social distancing and made mask coverings mandatory, they could open. He told KPIX that the state should balance its focus on both managing the virus and the economy.

"In general, most businesses can put all these things in place," Morrow said.

Morrow went on in his statement, adding that he agrees with the state's aim to minimize the spread of the virus, but also said that goal needs to be reached "while not destroying everything else in the process."

Morrow said that San Mateo County's case numbers have stabilized with hospitalizations "stable and/or decreasing" and death counts low, leading him to believe it is safe for many business that are currently restricted to continue operation.

"We also have a good idea of what's causing the spread and it's not primarily from barber shops, nail salons, or the other businesses that were targeted in this most recent closure," explained Morrow. "While it's certainly a theoretical possibility that some transmission can occur in the businesses/operations that were just closed by the State, there is no evidence that I have, and no evidence the State has provided to me, that leads me to believe the spread is higher in these businesses than those businesses/operations that are allowed to operate."

"It's people without workplace protections who can't isolate, who live in crowded conditions," Morrow told KPIX. "I mean those are the things that need to be addressed, not closing up barbershops."

Amber Foster, who is a single mother, is now without work after the barbershop she works at in San Carlos was forced to shut down.

She said she's appreciative that Morrow is fighting for them to reopen.

"I worry about keeping a roof over my daughters' heads," Foster said. "It's a week by week, day by day kind of thing. So to even think about two months, another three month, would be devastating."

Morrow told KPIX that there is no process to get off the state's watch list that he knows of; he compared it to "Hotel California." He said you can always check in, but never leave.

"It's totally unnerving, the thing that me and my coworkers have built and given our all to, to be worried about possibly need to find a new career," Foster said. "I hope that he continues to stand up for us."

Morrow went on to outline some of his issues with the framework of the California watch list that has brought on the business closures, first and foremost being the problems with COVID-19 case data being provided by the state.

On Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said California recently stopped receiving a full count of tests conducted, or positive results, through electronic lab reports.

Morrow also noted issues with benchmarks and time frames being used that may work on a state level but don't necessarily apply on a local level. County numbers changing due to actions by the state do not take into context what is actually happening locally, such as large out-of-county hospital transfers or testing restrictions.

"To me it feels like some newly created bureaucratic box is just itching to be checked," Morrow wrote in his statement.

Wednesday was Day 1 of enforcement in San Mateo County after supervisors passed the new ordinance making those who don't comply with health orders subject to fines a day earlier.

Morrow closed his latest statement by offering up what he said was the collective best course of action: "No gatherings outside of immediate households, use facial coverings extensively, and social distancing."

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