Orange County’s Health Care Agency (HCA) reported on late Friday the first case of locally acquired COVID-19, also referred to as Coronavirus.

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According to a press release sent out by the county Emergency Operations Center at 5:30 p.m. Friday, a woman in her 50s appears to have acquired the infection locally and is currently hospitalized in isolation and reported in stable condition.

The release notes that HCA’s Public Health Services staff “are following-up with people who may have been exposed and an investigation is underway to determine how the individual contracted the virus.”

Staffers at the Emergency Operations Center, which closes each day at 5 p.m., confirmed that once the case was confirmed, EOC staff automatically sent out the press release.

The county website updating information on the virus also includes the new statistic verifying a locally-acquired case.

County public information officers did not return calls late Friday seeking official comment on the new case.

Details about three additional cases in Orange County were also confirmed Friday at an early afternoon press conference and highlighted by the EOC press release.

Officials note those cases involve three men. A man in his 70s who is isolated at home, got the virus through travel-related exposure. Another man in his 30s who is isolated at home, had contact to a known case. And a man in his 60s, who is hospitalized in isolation also had travel-related exposure.

According to Orange County’s Health Care Agency website on the issue, there are now 13 cases of people with Coronavirus in Orange County.

For comparison, out of the 3.2 million total people in OC, that’s about 1 out of every 250,000 people, far fewer than the thousands of OC residents who have gotten the flu so far this season.

As preventative measures, health officials urged people to continue washing their hands frequently, not touch their eyes, and stay at least six feet away from others as much as possible. At the same time, they emphasized the importance of remaining calm so supplies and infrastructure can be available for those who need it. 

At an earlier press conference Friday, Orange County Health Care Agency officials noted that about 80-85 percent of people get “mild” cases of the virus and recover, such as in the case of the first person diagnosed earlier this year. Yet Orange County’s Deputy Health Care Director David Souleles also said at the press conference that people with compromised immune systems and the elderly are at higher risk of severe symptoms from the virus, adding that “with Covid-19, we’re still learning” and officials are currently without a vaccine.

“As public and private labs increase testing capability and surveillance, we expect to see more cases of COVID-19,” said Dr. Nichole Quick, County Health Officer in a statement included with the late Friday release. “We realize the mitigation strategies that have rolled out this week by schools, businesses, and all levels of government are concerning for community members. We empathize and want to thank OC residents for their flexibility and willingness to make adjustments to their daily lives to help protect and promote the health and wellbeing of their neighbors.”

The limitations of testing ability for Orange County health officials came up Friday afternoon during an abrupt press conference where officials confirmed that there are only 1,124 test kits for Coronavirus at the County Health Care Agency.

County officials had been reluctant to disclose how many test kits were available — something that Facebook commenters on a county town hall Thursday night took note of.

By Friday, County Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel and Vice Chair Andrew Do – both who are running for higher office in November, led an afternoon public briefing with Steel noting the importance of providing transparency to the public on the number of test kits.

Do announced to the media there were nine people who had tested positive for coronavirus in Orange County, noting that officials were responding to residents’ demands for more basic information.

Regarding the controversy over testing kits, Orange County Health Care Agency head Richard Sanchez at the Friday press conference referred to the 1,124 number of testing kits, saying he felt that “we feel we have sufficient numbers.”

An Orange County health update on COVID-19 held March 13, 2020. Credit: NORBERTO SANTANA Jr., Voice of OC

Currently, Sanchez said the only people tested by the public agency had to have traveled to affected source countries, have had close contact with someone who contracted Coronavirus or have a severe respiratory disorder.

Sanchez noted that 134 people have been tested to date. He also noted that the person who contracted the first case of Coronavirus in Orange County has “fully recovered.”

He noted that county officials are unsure of how much testing kits are in the private sector, but he  identified labs like Quest Diagnostics and Labcorp as companies that can do testing when private doctors send patients to them.

Sanchez confirmed the county health care agency had no test kits in January and was sending tests directly to the CDC at that time.

It took the county until Feb. 27 to directly acquire testing kits, Sanchez said.

Supervisor Steel, calling the coronavirus scare “the biggest crisis since the (1994) bankruptcy,” noted that supervisors will return to having weekly public meetings, with the next meeting scheduled for Tuesday.

Do also told reporters that board members would form a special committee to work with labor groups “to break down the silos between departments” to respond to the crisis.

However, by mid-afternoon, frustrated labor groups were firing off a formal letter to Orange County CEO Frank Kim blasting the lack of planning.

“The County has a broad duty to provide a safe workplace, yet as of today has provided minimal direction or identified mitigation recommendations to protect front-line workers. Now, with school closures expanding hourly, employee anxiety about how the county will handle scheduling and work assignments going forward is rapidly escalating,” wrote Orange County Employees Association General Manager Charles Barfield. “We know many employers, public and private, have instituted worker-friendly policies in response to the pandemic and we expect the County to demonstrate similar leadership. Yet we are being flooded with calls and emails from members reporting that in every department and agency, communication to rank and file workers has been non-existent.”

County labor leaders, who represent nearly 20,000 workers, are asking for increased cleaning at the county, limiting public counter interactions and flexible working arrangements and paid leave where necessary to adjust.

Meanwhile, scores of local schools across Orange County on Friday started announcing closures.

After emergency school district meetings Friday, Huntington Beach Union High School DistrictOcean View School District, Irvine Unified School District and Garden Grove Unified School District schools will close starting Monday.

Numerous other school districts are expected to announce potential closures soon after all 27 school superintendents met with Orange County Department of Education Superintendent Al Mijares on Friday to form a plan to help curb the spread of the virus.

Sheriff Don Barnes on Friday also announced that visitations at the local jail were being suspended in order to protect the health of visitors.

A department press release notes the temporary suspension will be in effect from Saturday, March 14, through Monday, March 16.

That day, officials will reassess whether to extend the suspension.

While Barnes said the Sheriff’s Department jail facilities do not offer contact visits, visiting days do draw large numbers of the public who come in close proximity to each other in the lobby.

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer also sent out a press release warning business owners and “scam artists” that they would be criminally prosecuted if they engaged in price gouging for goods.

Spitzer noted that during a declared state of emergency, it is illegal for a businesses to increase prices for essential goods or services by more than 10 percent, unless they can show their own costs have increased.

He reminded that Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in California on March 4, 2020, and the Orange County Board of Supervisors declared a local emergency on February 26, 2020.

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