Despite continuing good news on COVID-19 statistics, Orange County reached one unfortunate milestone Thursday when its coronavirus death toll surpassed the 4,000 mark.
The county logged 47 more fatalities, raising the death toll to 4,013.
Of the deaths reported on Thursday, six were skilled nursing facility residents and seven were assisted living facility residents, raising the cumulative in those groups to 963 and 453, respectively.
The fatalities logged on Thursday — death reports can lag for weeks — increased the death toll for January to 1,266; to 886 for December; and 157 in February. January was the deadliest month since the start of the pandemic.
The county reported 160 more COVID-19 infections, a relatively low number compared with the post-holiday surge, to bring its cumulative case total to 247,140.
Hospitalization rates continued to decline, with 379 patients being treated in county medical centers, down from 403 on Wednesday, with 97 in intensive care, a drop from 107 on Wednesday.
The county has 30.8% of its intensive care unit beds and 66% of its ventilators available.
The county reported 15,146 tests, raising the cumulative total to 3,079,965.
“Our daily numbers are positive, so I’m hoping that next week when the state runs its weekly tier listing that we’re in the red,” Orange County CEO Frank Kim said.
Dr. Clayton Chau, the county’s chief health officer and director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, expects the county to graduate up to the red tier by March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.
The state’s new program to focus more on inoculating Californians in COVID-19 hot spots in disadvantaged communities may help accelerate the county’s move into the red tier, Kim said.
The state has 1.6 million inoculated in its Health Equity Quartile category and is aiming to get that number to two million.
“We should hit two million in HQI in a couple of days,” said Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett. “With all that coming together, we’ll progress very quickly into the red tier.”
As of Thursday, the county is at seven cases per 100,000, which is right at the bottom of the most-restrictive purple tier.
“Between now and Sunday, I would expect that number to keep on a downward path, but nothing is assured,” Kim said.
The overall positivity rate was at 3.5 as of Thursday, and the Health Equity Quartile positivity rate at 4.5, “the lowest number we’ve had since we started measuring equity,” Kim said.
Testing demand has declined, which could indicate less infections, he said. But Kim encouraged anyone feeling under the weather to get a test.
There are other signs that the county’s infection rate is on the decline.
Outbreaks — defined as two or more confirmed cases within the past two weeks — have declined significantly in the county’s nursing homes, with just two skilled nursing facilities and three elderly assisted living facilities in that metric as of Wednesday.
Also, as of Wednesday, Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa, which is set to close on March 15, had just eight patients. The facility, which was reopened on Dec. 15, was being used for recuperating coronavirus patients who no longer need to be hospitalized.
The outbreak in the county’s jails remained at six infections, with three involving newly booked inmates. None of the inmates are hospitalized, and officials are awaiting results of 595 tests.
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 state has an exception 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,” he said.
That date would be March 17 if the numbers hold, Kim and Chau said.
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.
Orange County officials have not yet received word on when Johnson & Johnson vaccines will arrive.
County officials closed down the Disneyland mass vaccine distribution site for a few days starting Thursday, so the tents there can be reconfigured to allow for drive-thru access for the disabled, Kim said. The site is set to reopen on Monday, Kim said.
The Santa Ana College vaccine site reopened 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.