The Orange County Health Care Agency has reported seven new COVID-19 fatalities, hiking the overall death toll to 704, while only reporting 43 new diagnoses of coronavirus, which is likely due to the state’s ongoing glitch in reporting positive cases.

Of Friday’s reported deaths, one was a skilled nursing facility resident and two were assisted living facility residents. Since the start of the pandemic, 280 skilled nursing facility residents have died of COVID-19 in Orange County and 35 assisted living facility residents have succumbed to the virus.

The 32 deaths announced by the county on Thursday — the highest number reported on a single day since the pandemic began — actually all happened over the past couple of weeks, but tend to get clustered together at times because the reports come from many different sources.

The single worst days the county has had in terms of COVID-19 deaths were July 7 and July 8, when 15 people died on each of those days. Before that, the record was June 24, when 15 people died.

Fifty-five fatalities have been reported in Orange County since Sunday. The county logged 87 coronavirus deaths last week and 70 the week prior.

Orange County CEO Frank Kim told City News Service that officials are cautiously optimistic. It’s difficult to prognosticate because there have been glitches with the state’s platform for reporting coronavirus case rates, Kim said, but he noted that hospitalization rates are trending downward.

The number of patients being treated for COVID-19 in county hospitals dropped from 517 Thursday to 511, while the number of patients in intensive care increased from 171 to 177, according to the HCA.

Hospitalization numbers are a more reliable barometer, Kim said, because the hospitals use a different online software platform to report to the state. State officials have directed laboratories to send manual copies of test results as a backup until the software glitch is corrected, he said.

“If you look at the hospitalization numbers, the ICU rates peaked sometime around July and it has been trending steadily downward,” Kim said. “That’s an encouraging sign. We’ve had a spike in hospitalization and ICU rates in the middle of July and both have been trending down since then. We think it’s a positive sign and hopefully we’re back down to a much more stable workable environment.”

Kim noted that the age group with the highest positivity rates are young adults, who also are among the least vulnerable to deaths because fewer have underlying health conditions. And he said the numbers of deaths among nursing home residents has been steadily trending downward, “so hopefully we’ve reversed this trend” of fatalities.

Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the Health Care Agency and the county’s interim chief health officer, said state officials have said about 300,000 tests in the state system have not yet been tabulated. He said he was “confident” the state can fix the problem.

According to Kim, the demand for COVID-19 tests has significantly trended down at the county’s testing site at the Anaheim Convention Center.

“We’ve had a huge percentage of testing capacity and it’s free and yet less people are using it than several weeks ago,” he said.

County officials are discussing whether to open a second site at the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa since they can handle capacity now in Anaheim, Kim said.

He said it appears that more widespread usage of face coverings, as well as the state’s closure of bars and in-restaurant dining, has played a substantial role in curbing the spread of the virus. But Orange County — which has had 38,754 documented cases — remains on the state’s watch list for counties experiencing high rates of new cases and hospitalizations.

The rate of residents testing positive for COVID-19 in the county has inched up from 8%, which is the state’s desired rate of 8%, to 8.1%. And its case rate per 100,000 residents increased from 97.9 to 103.8, which is far higher than the California Department of Public Health threshold of 25 per 100,000 residents.

The change in the three-day average of hospitalized patients went from -3.8% to -5.1%, much lower than the state’s threshold of 10% increase.

Available ICU beds are at 34%, and the percentage of available ventilators at 64%. The state’s threshold is 20% of ICU beds available to handle a surge and 25% ventilators on hand.

The county reported that 452,608 COVID-19 tests have been conducted, including 4,521 logged on Friday. There have been 29,009 documented recoveries.

As local school officials prepare for classes to begin, county officials are tabulating the number of coronavirus cases by various age groups.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 370 children up to age 3 who have been infected; 471 in the 4-to-9-year-old age group; 373 from 10 to 12 years old; 348 among 13- to 14-year-olds; and 1,286 in the 15- to 18-year-old age group.

Many elementary schools are preparing applications for waivers from the county and state that would allow for in-person classroom teaching up to the sixth-grade level. The state has mandated that schools in counties on the watch list must do distance learning until they get off the watch list.

About 80 Orange County schools, most of them charter and private schools, have expressed interest in obtaining waivers, Chau told reporters on Friday afternoon.

He said discussion has perked up among educators and state and county officials regarding holding classes outdoors.

“We have actually talked about options of having classes outdoors as much as possible,” Chau said. “I believe schools in Orange County are very open to it, both public and private … And I think the state is very supportive of it.”

The main concern educators and public health officers have is how much weather will affect those plans, Chau said.

“The issue is always about the weather — is it too hot and when winter comes is it too cold for the kids,” he said. “But we know outdoors is much better than indoors, and that conversation has started.”

The state has released updated guidance for youth sports activities, allowing activities to resume, but with participants adhering to physical distancing and safety protocols. Participants must stay six feet from each other and activities must take place outdoors as much as possible. Tournaments, events and games indoors that require close contact among participants are not allowed.

A day after Orange County officials rolled out a new program to provide $1,000 grants to eateries to reimburse them for efforts they have taken to comply with COVID-19 guidelines, an influential restaurant critic for the Orange County Register published a damning survey.

Brad Johnson, who won the James Beard award for restaurant criticism, surveyed 15 Orange County establishments, giving many middling to poor grades for their efforts to follow the state’s guidelines. Johnson intends for it to be an ongoing series as he reviews how well restaurants follow social distancing and face-covering protocols.

“On the whole, Orange County restaurants aren’t very good at following the experts’ recommendations,” Johnson wrote.

He gave one restaurant in Costa Mesa an F and said the operator does not appear to “embrace” any of the safety protocols.

Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do urged caution on the reviews.

“We are talking about health standards and if someone is not trained on health standards, especially COVID-19 standards, then whose standards are you applying,” Do said. “Without any of those things, any grading would be necessarily subjective and can be accused of being arbitrary.”

Do said it would be important for the critic to follow up in case the eatery had a bad night when he visited. He also worried about “stigmatizing” certain restaurants.

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