Orange County reported 22 additional COVID-19 deaths and 181 new cases Tuesday, bringing the county’s totals to 52,382 cases and 1,150 fatalities as some school children returned to campuses and county officials were anticipating an upgrade to the next, less restrictive tier in the state’s monitoring system.
The deaths were spread out over the past few weeks, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency. The lag in reporting is common since the data come from multiple sources, officials say. The last double-digit day of fatalities occurred at the end of last month.
Orange County officials say COVID-19 numbers are improving enough to move it up a level to the orange tier within a week if trends continue. The overall positivity rate went from 3.9% to 3.1%, and the daily case count per 100,000 people dropped from 4.7 to 3.6.
“I expect we will go to the orange tier next Tuesday,” Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said. “That’s another huge milestone relative to getting the upper hand on coronavirus in Orange County.”
The county has to remain within that range for another week and then it can move up from the red to the orange tier, Orange County CEO Frank Kim said.
“There has been a steady but consistent decline in testing positivity rate,” Kim said. “Things are looking good.”
Considering the average incubation period of two weeks, if Labor Day gatherings were going to have an effect, county officials would be seeing it by now, Kim said.
Kim said he believes the adherence countywide to facial coverings and other social distancing has helped stop the spread of coronavirus.
“It’s a big week,” Kim said. “If we miss it this week you have to wait another seven days.”
Moving up to the orange tier means retail businesses could operate at full capacity, instead of 50% in the current red tier. Shopping malls also could operate at full capacity, but with closed common areas and reduced food courts just as in the red tier.
The orange tier boosts capacity for churches, restaurants, movies, museums, zoos and aquariums from 25% capacity to half capacity. Gyms and fitness centers could boost capacity from 10% to 25% and reopen pools.
The orange tier also allows family entertainment centers like bowling alleys and wall climbing to open indoors to 25% capacity.
Orange County’s schools are already eligible to reopen for indoor, personal instruction, but not all of them will reopen right away. Schools in Fountain Valley reopened on Tuesday.
Bartlett, the president of the California State Association of Counties, said Orange County has succeeded in part because of a quick response to issues at its skilled nursing and assisted living facilities as well as quarantines at the county jails.
“But it’s no one thing,” she said. “We attribute it to more people following health and safety protocols, increased testing, increased contact tracing, a variety of things that were put in place that allowed us to go from purple to red and red to orange.”
When county officials saw that many of the privately owned skilled nursing facilities in the county lacked an personal protective equipment they dipped into the county’s supply and swarmed onto the problem. The county also provided temporary workers to bolster staff shortages when caretakers got infected.
“We made sure they were all equipped with a minimum of two weeks of PPE,” she said. “They needed to protect themselves and their clientele… They were short 65,000 pieces of PPE and the county was tasked with supplying that. They didn’t have any stock on hand or the means to acquire it. We actually had to borrow 67,000 pieces of PPE from our hospital system to give to the skilled nursing facilities. Other counties might not have had the wherewithal or resources to do that.”
The county also had “extra capacity in our jail system to test and sequester those who tested positive for COVID, and in some other counties they may not have had excess capacity… So we were fortunate in a number of ways,” Bartlett said.
The county also adopted a mask ordinance for food service industry workers in April and larger cities such as Costa Mesa and Irvine had their own mask ordinances.
Now county officials are keeping a close eye on schools as they return to personal instruction.
It is up to school districts to decide and many are offering “hybrid models” of some in-person instruction and some online-only instruction, Kim said. Some school districts will allow parents to continue with distance learning only.
If there is a breakout at any of the schools, they would have to close for two weeks and have no more COVID-19 cases before reopening, said Dr. Clayton Chau, the county’s Health Care Agency director and chief health officer.
Kim said the county is committed to providing mobile testing and contact tracing for the schools but does not determine whether schools reopen or not.
“We are simply consulting, to allow it to occur, but our expectation is schools will continue to meet with labor, nurses and their physicians and parents, so it is being done in a way that is totally transparent,” he said.
“We’ve learned our lessons from Memorial Day, and Labor Day is much better than Memorial Day.”
Last week, the county reported 34 fatalities, down from 42 the week prior. Since Sunday, 23 fatalities have been reported.
Hospitalizations in the county dropped from 178 Monday to 170 Tuesday, with the number of patients in intensive care declining from 64 to 55.
The OCHCA reported that 805,192 COVID-19 tests have been conducted, including 7,004 reported Tuesday. There have been 47,197 documented recoveries.
Of the deaths reported Tuesday, two were skilled nursing facility residents and two were assisted living facility residents.
Since the pandemic began, 425 skilled-nursing facility residents and 79 assisted-living facility residents in Orange County have succumbed to the coronavirus.
Since the pandemic began, 353 of those infected who died were 85 years or older, 246 were 75 to 84, 235 were 65-74, 163 were 55-64, 99 were 45-54, 32 were 35-44, 17 were 25-34, four were 18-24 and only one was a child.
The county has 65% of its ventilators available and 36% of its intensive care unit beds. The change in three-day average hospitalized patients is -13.8%.
To move up from the second-most restrictive red tier to the orange tier in the state’s four-tier monitoring system, the county must have a daily new case rate per 100,000 of 1 to 3.9 and a positivity rate of 2 to 4.9%.
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