Orange County was notified by the state Tuesday that it is eligible to move into the least-restrictive yellow tier in the state’s COVID-19 economic reopening plan Wednesday.

Initially, officials thought they had to wait 48 hours, but that rule has been dropped and they confirmed they could reopen in the yellow tier on Wednesday.

“I think it is definitely a welcome reprieve from COVID, and many of our businesses will be thrilled to have more capacity and, in general, our community worked so hard to get to this point, wearing the masks, social distancing, getting vaccinated, and it’s working,” Supervisor Katrina Foley told City News Service.

“The vaccines have dramatically reduced the spread of COVID in our community, and we are so close to herd immunity. We just need to keep encouraging people to get vaccinated,” she added.

Orange County CEO Frank Kim said the move “is a continuation of the trends that we’ve seen over the past two weeks.” After the county moved up to the orange tier in mid-March, officials saw the numbers had “plateaued” at about 3 cases per 100,000 residents, Kim said.

“We moved past the plateau,” Kim said. “It’s a testament to how effective vaccines are.”

Officials kept a close eye on the numbers after moving into the orange tier and wondered, “Will there be a bump in case rates? And we haven’t seen that.”

The county had a mobile vaccine site in Santa Ana last weekend for clients of CalOptima, the county’s insurance provider for lower-income residents, and about 800 inoculations were done, Kim said.

“We’re going to be there for the next three or four weeks in a row,” he added.

Officials have seen a decline in vaccine demand at public and private sites, Kim said.

Foley suspects it is an issue of access for many.

“It’s hard to go during the day when you’re working so I do have to keep reminding people no appointments are necessary at the Orange County Fairgrounds and it’s so easy to just drive up, walk up,” Foley said. “You can get it all done in 30 minutes.”

Foley said it is also important to emphasize that the vaccines have been vetted by scientists.

“If we can just make sure everybody understands that the vaccines are safe and effective and went through the appropriate trials,” Foley said. “And the scientists are confirming it’s highly effective at stopping the spread of COVID.”

Supervisor Don Wagner said the move into the yellow tier was “a long time coming and should have been done two weeks ago. We should also be getting rid of mask mandates and doing all kinds of stuff science justifies.”

Wagner agreed that the declining numbers are owed to the increasing vaccinations, and said the county has some of the best inoculation rates in the state.

“This is the reward and I would rather see it happen tomorrow than later,” Wagner said.

The case rate as of Monday, the most recent data reported, was at 1.4 per 100,000 people, Kim said. On Sunday, the case rate was 1.5 per 100,000. The positivity rates overall and in the lower socioeconomic communities was 0.9%, Kim said.

According to the weekly state data released every Tuesday, the average for the county’s daily case rate per 100,000 people dropped from 1.8 last week to 1.5. The overall test positivity rate improved from 1% to 0.9%, and the county’s Health Equity Quartile rate, which measures positivity in hot spots in disadvantaged communities, declined from 1.2% to 0.9%.

Graduating to the yellow tier allows for greater attendance for many businesses such as movie theaters and gyms, while museums, zoos and aquariums can open at full capacity and for the first time bars and distilleries can open indoors.

The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum will reopen Wednesday for the first time since the pandemic closed it last year. That move, however, was planned regardless of whether the county moved up to the yellow tier.

The county reported just 48 newly diagnosed COVID-19 infections Tuesday, upping its cumulative caseload to 254,831. For the second consecutive day, no additional fatalities were reported.

Hospitalization numbers due to the virus dropped from 79 on Monday to 78, with the number of intensive care unit patients inching up from 13 to 14.

The county reported 6,145 tests, boosting the cumulative to 3,814,553. The seven-day average of tests dipped from 277.6 per 100,000 last week to 263.7 per 100,000.

Three deaths logged last 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.

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