State public health officials have told Orange County that the earliest schools could reopen for personal instruction is Sept. 22, two weeks later than the date county officials were hoping for.

The county falls within the state’s new “purple tier” of counties for COVID-19, the worst level, but is on the verge of being upgraded to the next tier of red. Monday was the county’s ninth day off the state’s monitoring list.

Local officials learned Monday evening that the state decided that if Orange County moves up from the purple to red tier by Sept. 8, it would have to wait another two weeks before classrooms could reopen for personal instruction. That means Sept. 22 is the earliest date for all schools to reopen if the county’s trends continue in a positive direction, according to Orange County Health Care Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau.

Meanwhile, the agency reported Tuesday that eight more people have succumbed to COVID-19, raising the death toll to 988. The county also reported 287 more diagnoses of coronavirus, raising the cumulative total to 48,825.

The rate of county residents testing positive for COVID-19 inched up from 4.9% Monday to 5% Tuesday, but remains below the state’s desired threshold of 8%.

Other metrics continued to show improvement, including hospitalization rates, which continued to drop, falling from 317 Monday to 307 Tuesday, with the number of intensive care unit patients dipping from 98 to 93.

The county’s new case rate per 100,000 residents over 7 days is 5.6. To move to the next tier, which is red, the county has to be between 4 and 7.

The county has 37% of intensive care unit beds available — up from 34% the previous day and better than the state’s 20% threshold. And the county’s hospitals have 62% of their ventilators available, well above the state standard of 25%.

The change in three-day average of hospitalized patients stands at -10.4%, much lower than the 10% state standard.

Of Tuesday’s death toll, one was a skilled nursing facility resident and four lived in an assisted living facility.

The county’s total death toll includes 372 skilled nursing facility residents and 67 assisted living facility residents.

The OCHCA reported that 657,140 COVID-19 tests have been conducted, including 6,339 reported on Tuesday. There have been 41,860 documented recoveries.

“We continue to look better, we’re making gradual improvements and we expect — barring anything unusual — that the trend would remain level and we would be one of the counties permitted to go to tier two, the red tier,” County CEO Frank Kim told City News Service on Monday.

Schools in the county are still able to apply for kindergarten through sixth grade waivers. Most of the waiver applications are coming from secular and other private schools, Kim said.

The new system unveiled Friday by Newsom focuses more on case and positivity rates because of breakthroughs in testing and the ability to get results more quickly, which allows public health professionals to more efficiently quarantine and address hot spots and surges. Before, state officials focused on hospitalization and intensive-care unit beds because they wanted to be prepared for any surges that could hasten more deaths.

“It actually encourages more testing and contact tracing,” Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said of the new system.

The new system is also more fair to higher-population counties because the overall case counts were being held against them and now officials are focusing more on present-day case counts, she said.

The state also includes a “seven-day lag” as a failsafe to account for slower laboratories. But the new system also focuses on a third criterion beyond case and positivity rates, and that is still vague, Bartlett said.

“When they define the third criteria more, that should bring more clarity to the counties on how they can operate within the guidelines, and which business sectors can open and to what capacity,” Bartlett said.

Hair salons and indoor malls at 25% capacity were allowed to reopen Monday statewide, Bartlett said. If Orange County’s trends continue and it makes it into the red tier, then indoor dining, for example, could be added at 25% capacity after next week, she said.

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