The coronavirus
The coronavirus is pictured in this electron microscope image. Courtesy NIH

Orange County has reported just 73 new COVID-19 cases and five more fatalities, most of which date back to February, as hospitalization rates inched downward.

The new cases Wednesday pushed the county’s total to 253,737 since the pandemic began, while the death toll rose to 4,944.

The number of COVID-19 patients in county hospitals decreased from 128 Tuesday to 125, while the number of intensive care unit patients dropped from 27 to 24.

Orange County’s weekly averages for COVID-19 metrics, which are released on Tuesdays, kept it in the orange tier of the state’s economic reopening system, although it meets two of three categories for the least-restrictive yellow tier, according to most recent figures.

The county’s weekly averages for adjusted daily case rate per 100,000 residents improved from 2.8 last Tuesday to 2.6.

The overall test positivity rate remained at 1.4%. The county’s Health Equity Quartile rate, which measures positivity in hotspots in disadvantaged communities, increased from 1.7% to 1.9%.

The county’s positivity rates qualify for the yellow tier, but the case counts are still in the orange tier.

A graduation into the yellow tier requires that the case rate must get below 2 per 100,000 people. A county must maintain metrics for a tier for two weeks before graduating to a less-restrictive level.

“One thing for concern is the number of people who are hospitalized now seem to be younger and that is across the state as well,” Dr. Clayton Chau, the county’s chief public health officer and director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, told the Board of Supervisors at their regular meeting Tuesday.

“That’s because we’ve done quite well in vaccinating our most vulnerable victims age 65 and older,” Chau said. As of April 18, the county had vaccinated 80% of its residents in that age group, he said.

Meanwhile, Supervisor Don Wagner rebutted a tweet suggesting that he subscribed to a debunked conspiracy theory at Tuesday’s board meeting that vaccines include some sort of ingredient used to track recipients. The out-of-context quote of Wagner asking Chau about the conspiracy theory suggested he believed in it when he was actually asking Chau to explain to the many residents who advanced the claim Tuesday that they are mistaken.

“It’s dishonest what they’re trying to say,” Wagner told City News Service. “It’s clear in context. We were going through all the things they were saying.”

The claim that vaccines can be used to track recipients is “not anything to take seriously. The county government is not trying to invade anyone’s privacy or to microchip people or any of that… In context, it is very clear we were taking Dr. Chau through the disinformation to give him a chance to debunk it and to assure the public there’s nothing nefarious going on,” Wagner said.

Many of the speakers Tuesday continued to assail the concept of a “vaccine passport,” which is not the same as the vaccine verification system the county is adopting.

“We’re trying to give our patients the proof they want that they’ve been vaccinated,” Wagner said.

Anyone who receives a vaccine at a county-run site can voluntarily opt in to a process that generates a QR code that will prove vaccination. If private businesses want to restrict access based on vaccinations they are free to do so, but the county has no intention of doing the same on public property, officials said.

“There is no tracking and tracing mechanism,” Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said. “There is no big government following them around. If they have a smart phone they’re already being tracked.

“There are marketing companies out there that if you have a smart phone and GPS they can track you. If you have a car with a black box in it the insurance companies and the auto manufacturers can figure out where the vehicle was if it is stolen.”

The QR code also will not contain anything other than the name of the recipient and verification of vaccine receipt, Chau said.

“There is no (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) information on it. It is just a matter of convenience,” Bartlett said.

Supervisor Katrina Foley and Board Chairman Andrew Do noted they received a letter from the Orange County Business Council supporting a vaccine verification program.

The county, meanwhile, has dispensed 2.57 million doses of vaccines with 978,000 people considered fully vaccinated, Chau said. About 1.9 million people have received their first dose, Chau said.

The county continues to test at about the state average, Chau said. The county’s average this week is 308.8 per 100,000 residents. The county received 9,555 tests on Wednesday, raising the total to 3,633,674.

Chau said the county is expecting to receive 22% fewer vaccines in the next two to three weeks. It is not certain why that is, but Chau said it probably has to do with the pause in distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was lifted on Friday, while officials studied blood-clotting issues to about 15 people out of 8 million recipients.

Chau also said he anticipates demand for vaccines at the county-run super Point of Distribution sites to drop off soon, prompting a pivot to more mobile clinics to target vaccine hesitancy among certain demographics.

“We will have to consider how do we consolidate or close the super PODs because the resources will probably outweigh the demand,” Chau said.

Bartlett said it appears the county needs to vaccinate 740,000 more residents, “which is a lot,” before the county can achieve herd immunity.

Chau admitted some anxiety about reaching herd immunity in time for a mid-June goal due to the declining allocation of vaccines.

The board voted Tuesday to spend $5 million of federal relief package money to help arts-related nonprofit organizations and $10 million for “meal gap” assistance to seniors and others experiencing “food insecurity” as a result of the pandemic.

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