Orange County has reported another 22 COVID-19 fatalities and 282 new coronavirus cases, putting the county at risk of not making it up to the orange tier next week.
The county has recorded 52,904 cases and 1,204 deaths since the pandemic began, with 444 of the deaths among skilled nursing facility residents, 82 among assisted living facility residents. Of the death toll reported on Friday, half were from skilled nursing facilities.
Since Sunday, the county has reported 77 coronavirus deaths, spread out over the past few weeks, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency. The lag in reporting is common since the data comes from multiple sources, officials say. The last double-digit day of fatalities occurred Aug. 31 when 10 people died.
Last week, the county reported 34 fatalities, down from 42 the week prior.
Hospitalizations dipped from 168 to 157 on Friday, but the number of patients in intensive care jumped from 42 to 50.
Orange County officials were hopeful their trends were improving enough to lift the county into the orange tier by Tuesday when the state posts new rates for positivity and cases per 100,000 people. The county has been averaging below and slightly above the orange tier over the past week, so it’s unclear how that will average out on Tuesday.
“We’re cautiously optimistic for Tuesday,” said Supervisor Lisa Bartlett. “We have been trending in a good direction, but we have to see where we are… Now we’re having little blips with those spikes, but it depends on how it averages out.”
The tier systems reflects metrics used by the state to rate counties’ efforts to slow the spread of the virus using the number of new daily cases per 100,000 residents.
Bartlett and Orange County CEO Frank Kim said it is unclear what might be driving the spikes. The most persistent and common problem continues to be extended family gatherings, Kim said.
Bartlett is concerned that the return of students to campus at UC Irvine will affect the county’s caseload the way an outbreak at San Diego State University did.
“San Diego barely held on to the red tier,” Bartlett said of the tier just above the most restrictive purple tier.
“You’re getting students from other counties, other states and other countries,” Bartlett said. “Even with a robust testing program, we saw firsthand what happened at San Diego State. I would hate to replicate that here in Orange County.”
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. The county has to remain within that range for another week, then it can move up from the red to the orange tier.
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 and several other districts reopened on Tuesday.
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.
Dr. Matthew Zahn of the county’s communicable disease control division told reporters Thursday that if 5% of a school’s population of students or teachers get infected, the campus will be shut down for two weeks, according to the state’s guidelines.
Zahn said the county is reluctant to post information about outbreaks at schools because it tends to send the wrong message that schools without an outbreak are safer, and parents and students may let their guard down.
He also said that when there was a measles outbreak traced to Disneyland, the county attempted at first to post where the infected went, but then it became too cumbersome to do so.
School officials will respond within 24 hours when there is a COVID-19 infection reported, Zahn said.
With UCI students returning to campus for classes this week, he said the county was working closely with the university to help guard against outbreaks like the ones in San Diego and other campuses across the country.
“UC Irvine and other colleges are taking measures that are appropriate with social distancing and measures to identify people who are sick,” Zahn said.
With regard to dormitories, Zahn said, “A significant issue associated with (what happened in San Diego) was off-campus housing and transmission of the virus. We have been talking with UC Irvine and other colleges and universities not only about classroom sites and what’s appropriate but dorm facilities and off-campus housing.”
University officials are stressing to students the importance of sticking to guidelines to help curb the spread of the virus.
“We know UC Irvine is planning to do regular testing of staff and students,” Zahn said. “And on a national level, there seems to be evidence that is helpful, and that is encouraging … But we’re all learning how this works in all settings.”
“Move-In Week” began Tuesday at UCI and will continue through next Tuesday. Students are being tested and getting results within 48 to 72 hours.
The OCHCA reported that 828,059 COVID-19 tests have been conducted, including 8,748 reported Friday. There have been 47,660 documented recoveries.
Officials are not concerned about a lack of testing to help vault the county into the orange tier, Kim said. The county has promoted testing among retail and food industry workers and among educators, he said.
A week ago, the county had 157.7 per 100,000 residents testing on average and as of Wednesday that number was up to 214 per 100,000, he said.
“That’s a pretty big jump,” he said.
Since the pandemic began, 372 of those who died of COVID-19 were 85 years or older, 254 were 75 to 84, 245 were 65-74, 175 were 55-64, 103 were 45-54, 32 were 35-44, 18 were 25-34, four were 18-24 and one was a child.
The county has 65% of its ventilators available and 35% of its intensive care unit beds. The change in three-day average hospitalized patients is -3.5%.
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%.