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Coronavirus is not known to be spreading in Orange County and currently is a low risk, though the public should take precautions like washing hands regularly and avoiding touching their eyes, local health officials said in an update Tuesday.


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Yet the virus spread is triggering some tense discussions among public officials across the county.

On Tuesday, amid the update on coronavirus, Orange County supervisors engaged in a debate over whether to limit food service at Orange County’s only walk-in homeless shelter, where about about 400 people sleep each night.

One supervisor, Andrew Do, proposed stopping food service for any people not spending the night at the shelter, something that apparently was not proposed or recommended by health officials. That prompted pushback from two of his colleagues – Doug Chaffee and Lisa Bartlett – who wondered where people would eat and whether other health measures like hand sanitizer may be a more effective alternative to cutting off food service.

Worldwide, more than 100,000 people are known to have been infected by the virus since it was discovered late last year, and 4,000 people have died from it, OC health officials said Tuesday.

In Orange County, five people are known to have been infected, largely due to travel and not through any known spread within the local community, said Dr. Nichole Quick, Orange County’s top health officer, in an update Tuesday at the county Board of Supervisors meeting. All five people were isolated from the rest of the public, officials said.

Right now, to Orange County residents, flu is a much greater risk than [coronavirus], hands down,” Quick said Tuesday. The flu killed 564 people in OC in 2018, the most recent available year, while as of Tuesday coronavirus was not known to have killed anyone in Orange County.

There is no evidence of the virus spreading within Orange County communities, Quick said. Health officials refer to that as “community spread” or “community transmission.”

Still, health officials emphasized much is unknown about the new coronavirus, which has been spreading largely undetected in the United States due to weeks-long delays with federal officials getting testing kits to state and local health officials (https://fortune.com/2020/03/03/coronavirus-us-test/). Officials estimate its fatality rate at between 1 percent and 4 percent of people infected, likely closer to 1 percent once the fuller scale of infections is know through further testing.

OC officials emphasized the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the county could go up as more tests are conducted. National recommendations for the general public include washing hands frequently for 20 seconds each time, not touching one’s eyes, and calling medical professionals on the phone – instead of going in person – about suspected coronavirus infections if someone is exhibiting symptoms. (A list of symptoms is here. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/symptoms.html)

Most coronavirus deaths have been among adults older than 60, and health officials say the virus particularly affects people with serious long-term health issues like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease.

And on, U.S. health officials issued a series of new recommendations for people at higher risk from coronavirus, including seniors and people with serious chronic medical conditions (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/high-risk-complications.html).

The new guidelines (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/high-risk-complications.html) from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call on high-risk people to stock up on food and medicine, avoid crowds and close contact with other people – particularly people who are sick – and stay home as much as possible, in addition to washing hands regularly.

Locally, OC health officials have set up a website with info on coronavirus (http://www.ochealthinfo.com/novelcoronavirus), and plan to hold a telephone town hall this Thursday from 6 to 7 p.m. (Details here.) Many of their recommendations put out by county officials come from the CDC.

OC health officials also set up a hotline for members of the public to call in with questions about coronavirus: (800) 564-8448. It’s separate from their hotline for doctors and other medical providers.

During Tuesday’s update, Do triggered a debate with his colleagues over whether to shut down food service to non-residents at the Courtyard, the county’s only walk-in homeless shelter. Meals currently are served three times a day to the Courtyard’s 400 or so residents, as well as homeless people who come there but are not sleeping at the over-capacity shelter.

“Anybody can walk in and be served there,” Do said Tuesday, pointing to what he said was a health risk to homeless people.

“My directive would be for us to stop the food service to nonresidents at the Courtyard,” Do added.

That prompted pushback from two of his colleagues, Bartlett and Chaffee.

Bartlett said she was “hesitant” to cut off food service because it would be displacing those that want to come in for a meal.” She suggested making anti-bacterial hand-wipes available as a potentially more effective alternative.

I think were inviting more trouble than were solving by doing that,” Chaffee said of Do’s proposal. “I can’t see turning away hungry people. Where do they go?”

Ultimately, the decision on food service was postponed until a future meeting, which could be a special meeting later this week if supervisors opt to schedule one.

Given the limited number of coronavirus testing kits available until recently, local officials in OC have prioritized tests for seniors and people with compromised immune systems, said Quick, the county health officer. As private labs ramp up their capacity nationally, OC officials plan to have medical providers send their test samples to the private labs, to continue to prioritize seniors and people with compromised immune systems for Orange County’s lab testing.

Health officials said children are at lower risk from coronavirus, and that any decision to close schools as a precaution will be made on a case by case basis in consultation with school districts.

Several universities elsewhere in California – including UC Irvine, UCLA and Stanford – have cancelled in-person classes for the remaining couple of weeks of their current semesters. As of Tuesday, Cal State Fullerton and Chapman University were both still holding in-person classes.

Limiting large gatherings of people has been recommended by U.S. health officials in areas with higher numbers of coronavirus infections, as a precautionary measure to prevent further spread of the virus.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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