Orange County was poised Monday to graduate from the orange to the least-restrictive yellow tier in the state’s COVID-19 economic reopening plan by Wednesday.
“They look good,” Orange County CEO Frank Kim told City News Service of Monday’s COVID-19 metrics.
Kim said that “based on our calculations, which are unofficial because we have to wait for the state’s guidance tomorrow,” the county will be eligible to reopen in the yellow tier on Wednesday.
The county’s case rate per 100,000 residents was 1.5 as of Sunday, the day the state calculates its weekly averages. The state issues its weekly averages on Tuesdays.
The county has a .09% positivity rate overall, and in the lower socioeconomic communities hardest hit by the pandemic.
“Our numbers are looking really good,” Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said. “We seem to be improving day by day so it doesn’t appear the variants are a concern right now… But we still have not reached that 70% herd immunity in Orange County. We still have about 700,000 people to get up to that herd immunity.”
The county on Monday reported just 39 newly diagnosed COVID-19 infections, upping its cumulative caseload to 254,783.
Hospitalization numbers dropped from 82 patients on Sunday to 79 on Monday, with the number of intensive care unit patients dropping from 23 to 13.
Bartlett said she understood the state’s newly announced decision to wait until June 15 to align with federal guidance that no longer requires people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to wear face coverings, except on a bus or airplane or other crowded places. The June date is when state officials are expected to lift most virus-related restrictions if current positive trends continue.
“I think every state has to decide whatever’s appropriate for them,” Bartlett said. “In certain parts of the country, they’re having issues getting their people vaccinated whereas in other parts of the country like California, we’re doing much better statewide. But out of an abundance of caution, especially with all of the variants swirling around, that’s probably why we want to wait another month.”
Bartlett said as more social distancing restrictions are relaxed, it makes sense to see the impact on the rate of infections.
“The state is watching what is happening as counties are opening up more of their economy,” she said. “That may give an indication what could happen on June 15 when we open things up statewide and we’re out of the tier methodology.”
Bartlett noted that California is a tourist attraction, so there’s some concern about more visitors arriving with more contagious variants.
“We have to be very vigilant and watch this very carefully with a relaxation of mask mandates,” she said. “Hopefully things will continue on the current path they’re on.”
Bartlett said she knows many constituents who have said they want to continue wearing a mask for the time being, and she said it’s important to respect everyone’s preferences.
Now some residents are concerned that if they are seen wearing a face covering that others will assume they have COVID-19 even though they’re vaccinated, she said.
“It’s about individual choice and personal freedom,” Bartlett said. “And people should do what makes them feel more comfortable, and if they feel more comfortable wearing a mask, then they should do so.”
Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said it makes sense to keep the mask rules in place for now.
“I think we should continue following the California Department of Health,” Foley told City News Service. “We don’t have herd immunity yet. We still have work to do even though we’ve done a great job. We still have about 700,000 more people we need to vaccinate.
“When you’re out in crowds, you should still wear a mask. And if you’re in a crowded shopping center or a concert venue or sporting event or indoors or in the office setting around people you don’t know because you don’t know if the other person is vaccinated.”
Foley noted the CDC guidance provided many exemptions such as public transportation and plane travel.
Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do and Supervisor Don Wagner issued a statement calling on the state to immediately lift the mask rules for fully vaccinated residents.
“Orange County has been ahead of the curve throughout the pandemic,” Do said in a news release. “Early in the crisis, Orange County responded promptly and effectively. We were among the first to declare a local health emergency in the early days of COVID-19 on Feb. 26, 2020.
“In late March of 2020, I began to advise our residents to wear face coverings, exercise social distancing, and wash their hands often. Today, our vaccination rates are better than surrounding counties.”
Do added, “This is a testament to the people of Orange County. They have acted responsibly since the pandemic hit to protect themselves, their families, and the wider community. The board has similarly acted responsibly, directing health resources to some of our hardest-hit neighborhoods, especially in my district. That hard work has paid off. Now, the state must follow the science and recognize Orange County’s success by lifting the mask mandate for residents who have followed the government’s advice and got vaccinated.”
“The state has failed almost since the start of COVID to respond appropriately to the disease,” Wagner said in the news release. “It shut down schools to our children’s detriment, and almost all areas of life, rather than focus its efforts on our most at-risk citizens.
“Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors worked hard to ensure hundreds of millions of dollars went towards securing PPEs for hospitals and to help struggling small businesses survive. It is past time for the state to look to science and relieve unnecessary restrictions. Relief from the state-wide mask mandate gives people one more reason to get vaccinated.”
Foley said “The CDC guidance has a lot of caveats that my colleagues have ignored — the caveats that if we’re in crowd places or on public transportation or airplanes and the like you still need to wear a mask.”
Foley agrees that the fully vaccinated should have the liberty of not wearing a mask when around other vaccinated people.
“I’ve done that,” she said. “I’ve had a fun evening with family members and friends and we didn’t have to wear a mask because we’re all vaccinated. It felt great. But I’m going to continue to wear masks until we get herd immunity around people I don’t know.”
Foley said it was especially important because California “is an international community. We have to worry about the variants. The Orange County supervisors were the last to support wearing a mask and now they’re the first to say take it off.”
Foley also criticized Wagner and Do for criticizing the state.
“I don’t know why they did that at a time when we’re trying to build a relationship with the state,” Foley said. “We have numerous funding requests in to help us with our critical infrastructure. We’re doing a great job vaccinating people. We’re almost there. Just have some patience. What’s the motivation to always having to poke the bear?”
Andrew Noymer, a UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, said the divergence in federal and state announcements on masks has made things difficult to follow.
“I’m having trouble keeping track of it all and I’m keeping close attention to it, so I definitely think it’s a problem,” Noymer told City News Service.
The epidemiologist said he didn’t understand why the state wanted to wait another month to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.
“What changes on June 15? I don’t quite understand,” Noymer said. “Whether we start now or June 15 almost seems academic.”
Noymer has advocated giving Californians a mask break for the summer.
“I think what people have to understand just as a practical matter is that people aren’t going to mask for 36 months straight even if they’re vaccinated,” Noymer said.
“They’re just not going to do it. Giving people a few months of shore leave, so to speak, is justified because they’re going to be called back to their battle stations in the wintertime as I expect.”
Noymer said he expects another uptick in cases as temperatures drop in the fall and winter and more residents return to more indoor activities. Giving residents a break now will make it easier to get them to mask up again when infections go back on the rise, Noymer said.
“You say vaccines work, so why can’t we ditch the mask? I think that’s a fair point,” he said.
According to the weekly state data released every Tuesday, the average for the county’s daily case rate per 100,000 people improved from 2.4 last Tuesday to 1.8 last week. The overall test positivity rate improved from 1.3% to 1%, and the county’s Health Equity Quartile rate, which measures positivity in hot spots in disadvantaged communities, declined from 1.4% to 1.2%.
Graduating to the yellow tier would allow for greater attendance for many businesses such as movie theaters and gyms, while museums, zoos and aquariums can open up at 100% of capacity and for the first time bars and distilleries can open indoors.
The county reported 4,469 tests, boosting the cumulative to 3,808,408. The seven-day average of tests was 277.6 per 100,000.
Three fatalities logged this weekend increased the death toll to 5,031.
Only one fatality has been reported this month. The death toll for April is 38.
The death toll for March is 180, 580 for February, and 1,536 for January, the deadliest month of the pandemic, and 931 for December, the next deadliest.