After weeks of pushing back on public requests, Orange County officials started releasing city-level counts Friday afternoon showing how many residents have tested positive for coronavirus.
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Officials cautioned that the risk of the virus is similar countywide, and that people should continue practicing social distancing everywhere. People could have been infected anywhere, including outside their city of residence, and the number of actual cases is likely much higher as testing remains limited, they said. And many people with mild and moderate symptoms are not able to get tested.
As of Friday, the cities with the most confirmed cases among its residents were Irvine (33), Newport Beach (32), Anaheim (28), Huntington Beach (26), and Santa Ana (13). Factors in the differences can include each city’s population size and varying levels of access to health care and tests.
OC health officials cautioned the raw numbers largely reflect who has had access to testing – including elderly people with a higher risk of death – and that the raw numbers can paint a misleading picture for several other reasons.
“The city case data is reflective of where the individual who tests positive resides…It doesn’t necessarily reflect where the person contracted [coronavirus],” said David Souleles, Orange County’s director of public health, in an interview Friday with Voice of OC.
“The risk to the community is countywide, and whether your city is listed or is included in the other category, the risk is [believed] to be the same,” he added at a Friday afternoon news conference.
Residents of smaller cities were upset the county chose not to include the case numbers for places with 25,000 or less residents. During Friday’s press conference, a local reporter from Laguna Beach questioned the threshold as arbitrary and said it was limiting information the public wants to know.
In defending their decision, county officials cited the importance of protecting personal privacy. But it was not clear how they considered total numbers of cases in a small city to put privacy at risk. The smallest city in Orange County, Villa Park, has about 6,000 residents.
Officials said they planned to update the city-level numbers with their daily 2 p.m. online updates of case counts, available at this website.
The counts were released as OC announced its second and third deaths from coronavirus.
“We expect more cases, and unfortunately more deaths, in the coming days and weeks,” said Dr. Nichole Quick, the county health officer for Orange County, at Friday’s news conference.
“Please follow the governor’s order. Stay home and social distance when leaving for essential activities, or to work in an essential business. We need to work together to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect those most vulnerable in our community.”
OC’s first death from coronavirus, announced Wednesday, was a man in his 70s. County officials declined Friday to provide any information about the second and third deaths.
OC officials on Friday announced a new toll-free hotline for all coronavirus-related calls, including health referrals, public assistance, senior resources, scam reporting, and offers of donations. The number is (833) 426-6411.
Hospitals Are Preparing for a Wave of Cases
County emergency officials are expecting a large and growing increase in coronavirus cases in the coming weeks and have been working to estimate the number of expected cases to help guide the scale of new hospital beds that are needed.
“The state is looking to place some additional 50,000 to 60,000 beds” across California to have a network of surge beds “to handle the potential wave of cases in the coming weeks,” Souleles noted in the interview Friday.
“The goal is to get this statewide network of surge that can be used across county lines…to deal with the regional response.”
Hospitals and first responders in OC – and across the nation – are continuing to face huge shortages of protective gear like N95 masks, as well as life-saving equipment like ventilators.
“We’re gonna need huge amounts of [personal protective equipment] in the coming weeks, as is every jurisdiction in the country,” Souleles said. Orange County has distributed over 1 million pieces of protective equipment so far, and more is needed, he said.
How much protective equipment is needed in OC? “We’re talking magnitudes of hundreds of thousands and millions of products,” Souleles said. County officials have been working to distribute masks and other items from a national stockpile that flowed through the state, he added, as well as receiving equipment donations from businesses and other private organizations.
Overflow Hospitals Being Pursued at Fairgrounds and Fairview
Local hospitals are preparing for a large growth in COVID cases that officials believe could overwhelm them, amid shortages of crucial N95 masks, disinfectant wipes, ventilators, and other equipment.
To prepare for the projected wave of cases, state and county officials are in the early stages of preparing emergency hospitals at two large state-owned properties in Costa Mesa: the OC Fairgrounds and Fairview Developmental Center.
The fairgrounds is being actively considered for a field hospital, similar to one being set up at the Riverside County Fairgrounds by the California National Guard.
The Fairview Developmental Center, which closed in December, already has medical facilities on-site and is being pursued as another overflow care facility.
Orange County, like many communities across the nation, is in the midst of a wartime-like effort to stop the spread of coronavirus and get enough equipment and medical staff in place to treat people with life-threatening symptoms.
Of the last pandemics on this scale was the 1918 flu, which killed more Americans than all wars of the 20th century combined, including World War I and World War II. The social distancing measures currently in place in California will dramatically reduce the number of deaths from coronavirus, health experts say.
Both of the OC sites being pursued for overflow hospitals – the fairgrounds and Fairview – have history with wartime efforts. They sit on the former Santa Ana Army Air Base, where more than 125,000 American pilots were trained during World War II. The base also was one of the two main settings in the war novel Catch-22.
How Many People Have Been Hospitalized in OC?
As of Friday, Orange County is not providing the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19, despite other counties doing so.
San Diego County, which is close in overall population size to OC, reported 69 hospitalizations as of Friday, including 31 people who have received intensive care, and three deaths.
San Diego County is posting its COVID hospitalization numbers publicly online, with age breakdowns, in a way that protects privacy by not having any individually identifiable information.
Voice of OC has been requesting total hospitalization data from Orange County for the last several days. Orange County’s attorneys, according to officials close to the county, seem to have been advising officials in ways that are more restrictive that other counties about total numbers of cases.
County Counsel Leon Page didn’t respond to a text message Friday asking why OC wasn’t releasing total hospitalizations.
Emergency Money is on its Way to OC
Large sums of money appeared to be are on their way to OC as part of the $2 trillion federal stimulus package finalized Friday. The package includes $150 billion for state and local governments, which is divided proportionately by population. Orange County is about 1 percent of the national population.
OC officials seem generally pleased with the scale of money heading to Orange County, and viewed it as helpful with upcoming costs like medical equipment and homeless shelters. The total amount, if OC gets its proportional share, likely is more than $1 billion.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.