Orange County will remain in the orange tier of the state’s COVID-19 reopening plan this week after the latest statistics show case counts ticking up but positivity rates declining.
The weekly update from the state, issued on Tuesdays, showed the county’s test positivity rate improved from 1.7% to 1.6%, while the adjusted case rate per 100,000 people on a seven-day average with a seven-day lag increased from 2.8 last Tuesday to 3.
The county’s Health Equity Quartile rate, which measures positivity in hotspots in disadvantaged communities, improved from 2.6% last week to 2.1%. So the positivity rates are in the least restrictive yellow tier, but the case counts are in the orange tier of the state’s four-tier system for reopening the economy.
Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients declined from 109 Monday to 107, but the number of intensive care unit patients increased from 16 to 23.
The county reported 131 more COVID-19 cases, upping the cumulative total to 251,441, and logged 12 more fatalities, increasing the death toll to 4,784.
The county has 35.4% of its ICU beds available and 72% of its ventilators.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday that California will end its color-coded system on June 15, when all restrictions on businesses, gatherings and recreational activity will be lifted except for the face-covering requirement. The date was chosen because it will be two months after vaccines will be made available to all Californians age 16 and older.
Andrew Noymer, a UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, said he was surprised state officials made an announcement this soon.
“It seems we will be in a good place in June, but it’s a bit far in advance,” Noymer said. “I liked what they were doing (with the tier system) and now they’re undoing it.”
But, Noymer added, “I do have reason to believe optimism is warranted. … If we can make it to summer without a Michigan-style reversal of fortune there’s good reason to believe we won’t have another wave until November.”
Given there could be a seasonal surge in the winter, like with the flu, “it makes sense to have a more relaxed summer to keep our powder dry for (restrictions) later,” Noymer said.
If COVID-19 surges again in the fall or winter, however, because of the vaccines, “It would be more like the flu in severity,” Noymer said. “I believe the vaccines we have currently will afford some protection against would-be variants. It’s not like if there is some variant that comes around that evades the vaccine that it means the vaccines are worthless.”
Orange County CEO Frank Kim said his staff attributed the increase in the county’s case-count average to a “small spike” of cases that were delayed in reporting from a lab.
“They told me it wasn’t a big deal,” Kim said.
The health-equity positivity rate is down due to officials focusing on vaccinating everyone 16 and older in the four ZIP codes hardest hit by the pandemic in the county, Kim said.
As for the state’s announcement on the tier system ending, Kim said, “I think it makes sense, but it’s a little bit early for us to pass judgment on.”
Kim would like to track the case counts over the next 30 days before deciding whether to continue with the system in place or not beyond June, but business owners also need time to prepare for a full reopening of the economy too, he said.
“I think it’s a little bit of a tricky balance,” Kim said. “But I think most people have an expectation that the summer is going to look good and vaccine quantities have grown.”
The county received 105,000 doses of vaccine this week. Officials are working hard to prepare for a surge of vaccine seekers when it is open to everyone by mid-April, Kim said.
“We’ll vaccinate as many people who come through the front door,” Kim said. “That’s why we opened the fairgrounds.”
The most recent super site for vaccine distribution at the OC Faigrounds in Costa Mesa was opened last week so officials could get it ready to handle an increase of vaccinations from 2,000 daily to 7,000 to 8,000 a day by mid-April, Kim said.
Due to the 12 deaths logged Tuesday, the county’s death toll for March increased to 123, far below the February number of 554. The death toll for January, the deadliest month by far during the pandemic, stands at 1,471, while December’s was 922.
The December and January death tolls reflect a holiday-fueled surge. The monthly totals continue to be adjusted as deaths are confirmed as being COVID-related.
The county’s move into the orange tier of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy last week allowed restrictions to be eased on a variety of business sectors. Retail stores now do not have to limit attendance at all, and churches, movie theaters, museums, zoos and aquariums were allowed to expand from 25% to 50% of capacity.
Restaurants were given permission to expand indoor dining to 50% and wineries to offer indoor service at 25%, while bars that don’t serve food got the green light to reopen outdoors. Gyms and fitness centers were cleared to expand to 25% of capacity, and family entertainment centers can offer indoor attractions such as bowling.
Under current rules, the county’s new case rate must dip below 2 per 100,000 residents to make it to the yellow tier.