Gov. Gavin Newsom visited an AltaMed clinic in Santa Ana Thursday, praising efforts to inoculate underprivileged people in the hardest-hit neighborhoods during the COVID-19 pandemic as he announced that he would expand the population of Californians eligible for vaccines.

Anyone 50 or older will be able to get vaccinated starting April 1, and everyone 16 and older will be eligible on April 15. Newsom also said that family members who bring in a senior to clinics such as AltaMed should get the coronavirus vaccine as well.

“Also today, we are loosening requirements to provide AltaMed and others to use their discretion, regardless of your age or preexisting conditions, if someone comes in eligible under the existing rules, but with a family member, to accommodate the family member, no questions asked,” Newsom said.

The governor said the Biden administration has assured state officials of a more robust supply of vaccines than earlier expected, prompting an expansion of who is eligible for inoculations.

“We were given assurances publicly and privately around (Johnson & Johnson) that were more promising than we understood just a few weeks ago,” Newsom said. “Our ability to do more has always been constrained by supply.”

The governor said that as of April 1, he will join those eligible for vaccines.

“I hope this is coming as a positive mood for those waiting in line … by the way, that includes myself,” Newsom said. “I will be eligible next Thursday.”

Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento praised the governor for a focus on inoculating lower-income residents most afflicted by the pandemic.

“Orange County has always had the label of being an affluent, homogenous community,” Sarmiento said. “It really isn’t. It’s an evolving county … We have some of the highest indexes not only of COVID, but also folks who live under the poverty line.”

The mayor also praised state efforts to help students return to in-person instruction, aid to renters who have lost their jobs and grants to small businesses.

“Getting our kids back to school safely, all of those things are a formula for recovery,” Sarmiento added.

On Tuesday, however, Santa Ana Unified School District board members decided to continue distance-learning for the rest of the school year. The district provides “learning labs” for a few thousand students who don’t have a web connection at home, so they can do distance-learning with teachers, who are off-campus.

The Anaheim Union High School District is the only other public school district continuing distance learning for the rest of the year.

If current COVID-19 trends continue, Orange County could graduate from the red to the orange tier under the state’s blueprint for reopening the economy by March 31, officials said.

Moving up to the orange tier would allow for more business to reopen. Retail stores would not have to limit attendance, and churches, movie theaters, museums, zoos and aquariums could expand attendance to 50% of capacity. Restaurants could expand indoor dining to 50%, wineries could offer indoor service at 25%, and bars that don’t serve food could reopen outdoors for the first time.

Gyms and fitness centers could expand to 25% of capacity, and family entertainment centers could offer indoor attractions such as bowling.

The latest weekly update from the state, issued on Tuesdays, showed the county’s test positivity rate improved from 2.2% to 2.1%, and the adjusted case rate per 100,000 people on a seven-day average with a seven-day lag improved from 4 to 3.5.

The county’s Health Equity Quartile rate, which measures positivity in hotspots in disadvantaged communities, improved from 3.5% last week to 3.2%.

The county’s numbers continued to show improvements on Thursday.

The county reported just 97 new COVID-19 cases, upping the cumulative total to 249,939, and hospitalizations decreased from 172 Wednesday to 167, with the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care dropping by one to 35, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

The last time overall hospitalizations were this low was Oct. 26. It’s not clear when ICU numbers were this low, as the county’s website dates back to late May and there is no data lower than 36 patients.

The county also logged 19 more COVID-19 fatalities, upping the death toll to 4,665. Death reports are often staggered and some of the fatalities logged on Wednesday date back to January.

The OCHCA reported 12,557 COVID-19 tests Thursday, raising the cumulative total to 3,283,859.

Orange County is doing 277.5 tests per 100,000 people on a seven-day average with a seven-day lag. Its testing average mirrors the state average, Orange County CEO Frank Kim said.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said it’s possible the county could move up to the orange tier sooner if the state relaxes its standard by meeting its goal of 4 million people inoculated in its health equity category statewide.

Bartlett also told City News Service on Wednesday that the county’s allocation of vaccines will increase next week to 60,470.

Bartlett encouraged residents to continue with all of the health protocols such as wearing a face covering and social distancing as public health experts have sounded the alarms about a potential surge fueled by variants of the virus.

“We could be potentially getting a surge of COVID due to the variants, so that’s something we have to stay on top of,” Bartlett said.

Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the OCHCA and the county’s chief health officer, said the state has inoculated about 2.8 million people in the health equity category. The county estimates that 90% of its seniors have been inoculated, Chau said.

Chau told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that there have been 1.198 million shots distributed in Orange County, which means 430,200 people have been fully inoculated.

About 22,000 have received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, he said. About 335,000 have received at least the first of two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, Chau said. Studies show that those vaccines are 94% successful at preventing infection with a booster shot and about 85% effective without the booster shot, Chau said.

With a booster shot, the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines provide protection against infection for about 18 months, Chau said. It takes two weeks after receiving a shot for the recipient to be fully protected, he added.

County officials will offer more evening hours at the Santa Ana College vaccine distribution site to accommodate food industry workers who have less regular hours, Chau said.

Chau acknowledged that recent variants are more contagious, but said he was optimistic that the vaccines will pave a path out of the pandemic.

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes announced Wednesday that he will reopen visits at the county’s jails on Friday for the first time in a year. Barnes said the protocols he implemented to curb the spread of coronavirus in the jails have been successful.

There were no inmates infected with the virus as of Thursday, according to Lt. Dennis Breckner. Authorities were awaiting results of 455 tests. Inmates will be able to get one visit per month initially, the sheriff said.

Also, the sheriff can now offer vaccines to all inmates. Previously, the county worked to inoculate seniors who were 65 and older.

Barnes said he would continue to oppose the American Civil Liberties Union’s efforts to compel the release of more inmates to help curb the spread of COVID-19, noting he has released 1,700 low-level offenders since the pandemic started.

“I believe they represent a significant risk to the community if released,” he said.

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