Orange County officials today are expected to start posting an estimate of how many residents have recovered from coronavirus infections.
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For weeks, Supervisors’ Chairwoman Michelle Steel has been publicly pushing local health care agency officials to post recovery data, arguing such information would help provide a sense of hope and more context next to data on deaths and known infections.
“It is imperative that Orange County residents have a clear picture about the number of recoveries and recovery rates from COVID-19,” Steel told Voice of OC in a statement last week.
“As of May 20th, Orange County has 4,742 cumulative cases of COVID-19 to date. We know for a fact that not all these cases are still active and should not be leaving the public in the dark about the number of recoveries. Numerous other local governments across the state and country have released recovery rate data. By not showing recovery rates, we bring unnecessary stress to our residents about the status of COVID-19 in Orange County.”
Other counties have been reporting their recovery numbers for weeks.
For example, as of Wednesday, Riverside County reported 6,184 of its residents had tested positive for COVID-19, with 3,884 of those residents known to have recovered.
When asked by Voice of OC about it last month, Orange County Health Care Agency officials indicated they had no plans to collect the data and publish it, saying they had limited resources and recovery totals had little value.
That changed over the last few weeks, with officials ultimately announcing they would publish an estimate starting on Tuesday.
“We will get ready and we’ll post it next Tuesday,” said Dr. Clayton Chau, the county Health Care Agency director, at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting. He committed to the date when Steel pressed again to get the data out quickly.
“Other counties are doing it,” Steel said of the recovery data at last week’s meeting. Riverside County has been reporting its recoveries for more than a month.
Showing how many people have recovered will help people feel “much better in Orange County,” Steel added.
Among OC’s thousands of confirmed infections, Steel said, “at least more than half of them are already recovered. So people have to look at that [recovery] number. So I really need that number by [the] end of this week.”
That’s when Chau offered to post the data starting Tuesday, which Steel said would be “perfect.”
The number won’t be an exact number, but rather an estimate based on statistics, Chau said.
“Over the last week, staff have worked very hard looking at literature across the international literature as well as national literature, and have spoken to several counties in California who have posted the number of people who recovered,” Chau said.
“And I want to let you know that the method that they use to calculate just varies widely. We can do it, to the best estimate using [statistical] calculation. But I want to let you know that the number really has no meaning to it,” he added, saying it will “overwhelmingly underestimate the number of folks who recover.”
“I totally understand that,” Steel said, adding that the county will make it clear that it’s not a precise number.
One of her colleagues says he sees less value in the recovery data.
“You can be a data nut, but I don’t know what that is yet or how valuable it is,” Supervisor Doug Chaffee said in an interview Wednesday.
“I’m glad to know people are recovering. One of the things that I don’t think anybody has any accuracy on is, if you recovered and you relapse,” Chaffee added.
“What are the lingering effects, too. You’ve recovered but how well have you recovered. I’m more concerned about the number of people that remain in the hospital.”
Supervisor Don Wagner said the recovery data will, in fact, be helpful.
“It puts the problem in context. Right now we have ever increasing numbers of hospitalizations. But the overwhelming majority of people with [coronavirus] symptoms require no hospitalization, and of those who require hospitalization the vast majority recover,” Wagner told Voice of OC.
“The recover numbers will help people understand that the disease, while serious, is by no means a death sentence or even a long term threat to health. Most people recover and go about their lives. That fact should not be lost in onslaught of data.”
OC’s recovery numbers will be estimated by subtracting deaths from the total number of infections as of 28 days earlier, according to a memo from the county’s top public health official, Dr. Clayton Chau.
For weeks, other counties, states and nations have been reporting how many of their residents are believed to have recovered from COVID-19 infections.
Tracking recoveries is crucial to understanding the disease itself, including crucial questions of how long immunity lasts, according to medical experts.
“The more data that we get, the better we’re able to understand the disease. It’s a new disease. It works in different ways. it has different systems, different outcomes, and the most data we get on that the better,” Dr. Paul Yost, a doctor and chairman of CalOptima the public agency that is the largest health insurer in Orange County, previously told Voice of OC.
Disease researchers say they’re still trying to find out how much immunity – and for how long – people have after they’ve recovered from COVID-19.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.