Orange County Friday reported just 87 new COVID-19 cases, with hospitalization numbers remaining relatively stable.

The cases reported Friday boosted the cumulative number of infections in the county to 251,698 since the pandemic began, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

“My staff is basically telling me that when the case rates are this low, it could be difficult to continue to make the same level of progress week after week,” Orange County CEO Frank Kim told City News Service. “We’ve been flat on case rates for seven or eight days now so it’s hard to predict.”

The positivity rate in the health equity category, which measures the rate in underprivileged communities hardest hit by the pandemic, continues a downward trend, Kim said.

“The good news is our health equity test positivity rate continues to decline,” Kim said.

The overall positivity rate has remained flat at 1.6% over the past five days, but on Friday the health equity rate had dropped to 1.9%.

“That indicates we have closed the gap between the testing positivity in our most hard-hit communities,” Kim said. “Some of that could be attributed to the hard work staff is doing with mobile clinics.”

A graduation into the yellow tier next week is unlikely because the case rate must get below 2 per 100,000 population, Kim said.

The only real way to drive down the case rates will be vaccinating more residents, Kim said.

“We look at it and say, gosh, the only way to get (case rates) lower is we have to make progress on vaccinations,” he said.

County officials, however, are nervous about a decline in vaccine allocations next week due to contamination of Johnson & Johnson vaccines in a Baltimore plant. The decline in vaccine allocations is expected as the state is preparing to open up vaccine access to everyone 16 and older by mid-April.

“I’m a little bit worried about it because we’re expecting to see a bump in demand and we hoped that would coincide with an increase in doses,” Kim said.

The county logged 16 more fatalities on Friday, including some dating back to December, bringing the death toll to 4,826.

Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients inched up from 113 Thursday to 114, with the number of intensive care unit patients increasing from 28 to 32.

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 to 3.

The county’s Health Equity Quartile rate, which measures positivity in hotspots in disadvantaged communities, improved from 2.6% to 2.1%. The county’s positivity rates qualify for the least restrictive yellow tier of the state’s four-tier system for reopening the economy, but the case counts are still in the orange tier.

The county has administered 1.8 million COVID vaccine doses to residents, Kim said. The county is testing 301.5 per 100,000 residents on a seven-day average with a seven-day lag.

Another 12,911 tests were reported Friday, upping the cumulative total to 3,441,198.

Demand for tests at the county’s super sites in Anaheim and Costa Mesa have dwindled as residents now opt more for mail-order tests, Kim said Thursday.

“I do believe we’re going to change that model” of testing, he said, “by breaking it back down and getting away from the super site concept and having smaller testing kiosks in higher-traffic areas of the county.”

Due to the 16 deaths logged Friday, the county’s death toll for March increased to 144, far below the February number of 560. The death toll for January, the deadliest month by far during the pandemic, stands at 1,480, while December’s was 925. One of the deaths logged Friday occurred on Dec. 15.

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 received 105,000 doses of vaccine this week. Officials are working to prepare for a surge of vaccine seekers when eligibility expands to everyone aged 16 and older on April 15, Kim said.

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.

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