If current trends continue, Orange County could graduate to the less-restrictive red tier of the state’s coronavirus reopening system by St. Patrick’s Day, the county’s chief health officer and director of the Orange County Health Care Agency told reporters Tuesday.
“I’m pretty optimistic that two weeks from now we’ll be able to enter the red tier,” said Dr. Clayton Chau, who is the county’s chief health officer and director of the OCHCA.
If the county can maintain the case rates and positivity rates it has now it could enter the red tier by March 17, Chau said. The county must then hold those rates for another two weeks to qualify for a less-restrictive tier that would allow for the reopening of more businesses.
Chau said the vaccines are making the difference in reductions across the country in infections, and he was further cheered by news from the Biden administration that there will be enough vaccines for all Americans by the end of May.
“That’s great news,” he said. “Now, we can truly talk about the green tier” when the state is free of any restrictions.
Chau was also optimistic that by the end of March vaccines will be available to everyone who is currently eligible.
“The reason all this tiering is happening now is because we have a very limited amount of vaccine and we want to target those most vulnerable,” Chau said, referring to the various phases of vaccine availability that started with health care workers and first responders and now includes seniors 65 and older, food industry workers and educators.
Chau implored residents to get vaccinated when they can no matter which particular vaccine is offered.
“All three vaccines offer 100% effectiveness” in preventing severe illness that leads to hospitalization, Chau said of Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.
Even though the Johnson & Johnson vaccine may not be as effective at preventing any infection as Moderna and Pfizer, it will still be attractive to many because it does not require a booster shot, Chau said.
The numbers governing the state’s tiered network for reopening the economy are updated every Tuesday, with purple being the most restrictive, red the next one up and then orange and the least-restrictive yellow. But those reports reflect numbers through Sunday, and as of Sunday, Orange County did not meet the criteria for the red tier.
The county’s test positivity rate improved to 3.9% from 5.4% last week, and the adjusted case rate per 100,000 on a seven-day average with a seven-day lag improved from 11.9 to 7.6.
The Health Equity Quartile Positivity Rate, which reflects the rates in hot spots in disadvantaged neighborhoods, improved from 7% to 5%.
That puts the positivity rates in orange and the case rate in purple.
The county’s most recent overall testing positivity rate was at 3.8% and the health-equity positivity rate was at 4.9%, which would put both in the orange tier, said Orange County CEO Frank Kim. The case rate per 100,000 residents, however, was at 7.6, just short of the red tier.
The state has an exception, however, that allows a county to move up to the next tier if two metrics are in an advanced tier and one is lagging behind. For instance, if the case rate per 100,000 remained in the purple tier, but the positivity rates were orange, the county could theoretically move up to the red tier if it can maintain those levels for two consecutive weeks, Kim said.
“You’ve got to make it and then hold it for two weeks and one day and then you can reopen,” Kim said.
There’s no guarantee of that, though, Kim said.
“The case rate plateaued,” Kim said. “It was flat the last two days… I thought we’d be closer to the red tier, but we’re not. We didn’t make any progress over the last day, but I still think we’ll make it by next Sunday, but I can’t assure anyone of that.”
To get to the red tier, the county has to have a case rate per 100,000 population of 4 to 7, a positivity rate of 5% to 8% and a Health Equity Quartile rate of 5.3% to 8%.
The red tier allows for many more businesses and organizations to reopen. For instance, retail stores could allow for half capacity instead of 25%, and museums, zoos and aquariums could reopen for indoor activities at 25% capacity, as could movie theaters, gyms and restaurants.
Public health professionals are “worried there could be a second surge” if residents drop their guard as news flows in about vaccines, including the newly authorized Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Kim said.
“They’re concerned people will stop listening to the health professionals and we’ll potentially have another surge and every time we have a surge it takes at least two months to turn it around properly. It’s painful.”
Orange County officials have not yet received word on when Johnson & Johnson vaccines will arrive here.
County officials will close down the Disneyland mass vaccine distribution site for a few days starting Thursday, so the tents there can be reconfigured to allow for drive-through access for the disabled, Kim said.
“You need heavy equipment to move those things,” and the work will take a few days, Kim said.
The Santa Ana College vaccine site will reopen Wednesday, more than a week after it was shut down due to a shortfall in vaccine supply stemming from weather-related delays in deliveries from back east.
The county reported 186 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, upping its cumulative total to 246,830. The county also logged 31 more fatalities, increasing the death toll to 3,952.
There were 425 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the county, up from 419 on Monday, but the level of ICU patients decreased from 119 on Monday to 116.
The death toll logged on Tuesday included two skilled nursing facility residents, increasing the cumulative total in that category to 956, and five assisted living facility residents, upping that total to 446.
The fatalities logged on Tuesday increased the death toll for January to 1,245, 884 for December and 119 in February. January was the deadliest month since the pandemic began.
The county had 31.2% of its ICU beds available and 64% of its ventilators.
Meanwhile, Knott’s Berry Farm announced a virtual “National Hiring Day” Monday scheduled for March 13 in anticipation of its plan to prepare for reopening. The Buena Park theme park is looking to hire about 1,700 people for a variety of jobs, including food and beverage, cooks, ride operators, lifeguards and janitorial.
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