Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett is looking to push state health officials to allow indoor shopping malls to reopen as the coronavirus continues to rip through the Latino community in Anaheim and Santa Ana – where many of those mall workers live.

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“A lot of these indoor malls have a wide expanse of space,” Bartlett said at Tuesday’s county supervisors’ Covid update at their regular public meeting. “I’ve been to some of the outdoor malls lately and, because the indoor malls are closed, the outdoor malls are jammed with people.” 

She said the outdoor malls are so packed, that people can’t follow the CDC recommended six-foot physical distance from other people to help curb the spread of the virus. Reopening indoor malls would thin crowds at outdoor ones and the indoor malls would be able to do crowd control,” Bartlett argues.  

“It also helps to offset the outdoor malls,” she said. “Outdoor malls — they can’t control the people coming in at all.” 

“I think we really have to start looking at opening up the indoor mall sector, I think we can do it safely,” she said. “You can’t classify indoor malls as other indoor confined spaces, like movie theaters,

Bartlett asked County interim health officer Dr. Clayton Chau to press state officials for indoor mall openings and he agreed to work on the issue.  

Yet UC Irvine infectious disease expert, Dr. Saahir Khan, who also treats virus patients at the UCI Medical Center in Orange, sees the move as premature.  

“In terms of opening [indoor] shopping malls, I think it’s premature, given that we haven’t yet seen a sustained decrease in spread of the virus. So I think we made the mistake of reopening too quickly before and we shouldn’t make that mistake again,” Khan said in a phone interview. 

Khan and his colleague, UCI epidemiologist Andrew Noymer, have repeatedly told Voice of OC business sector reopenings should be done in two to three-week intervals so health officials can measure the impact on public health.

Orange County Supervisor Doug Chaffee asked Chau about the Latino Health Equity Initiative — which aims to help curb the spread in the county’s two biggest virus hotspots: Anaheim and Santa Ana. 

“We have pilot programs ongoing in Anaheim and Santa Ana, how’s that going,” Chaffee asked. 

He was the only Supervisor to ask about the program. 

“It’s going very well,” Chau responded. “The Latino Health Equity Initiative started and we are testing at least four days a week now in those areas, at least 300 tests a day.” 

But the positivity rate in the working class, Latino neighborhoods is much higher than the 11.1 percent countywide. 

“Our positivity rate in those areas is about 18 percent,” Chau said. 

Meanwhile, the virus has now killed 581 people out of 34,833 confirmed cases, according to the county Health Care Agency. 

The total number includes 15 new deaths reported Tuesday, which can span a time frame of up to eight days. 

There’s 640 people now hospitalized, including 203 in intensive care units. Nearly 400,000 people have been tested throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people. 

Chau noted that hospitalizations have remained high over the past few weeks and hospital staff are being worn out. 

“What we are experiencing now is staff fatigue,” Chau said. “Some of them have been infected and so the availability of nurses to make sure the hospital functions is something of a concern for us … we have got people who can’t go to work because they’re exposed or they tested positive, or fatigued.” 

“We have three large hospitals in our county [that] are requesting support from the state and for more staffing – and specifically nursing staffing, not so much physicians. So we know that’s something we are watching very closely. So bed availability, ventilator availability is good, but it doesn’t mean that those beds are available if you do not have the nursing staff to support it,” Chau said.

No Supervisor asked questions about the hospital staffing situation. 

Over the past few weeks, numerous experts, including Khan, have told Voice of OC they fear the sustained burden on hospitals will lead to getting outside staff to help as questions over capacity began to surface.  

Khan said the UCI Medical Center sees many virus patients from the neighborhoods the Latino Health Initiative is targeting. 

“We do see a lot of patients who are either not able to access health care resources or are from minority disadvantaged populations, or live in multi family households, or are essential workers. That represents a large portion of the patients we see hospitalized with COVID-19.” 

The Public Policy Institute of California released a poll of 1,561 people across the state Monday showing that 61 percent of Latinos polled are “very worried” they or someone in their family will get the virus. Another 25 percent are “somewhat worried.” 

In Orange County, 33 percent of residents — regardless of race or ethnicity — are “very worried” about the virus, while 41 percent are “somewhat worried.” 

Anaheim and Santa Ana, while making up about 21 percent of OC’s population, have nearly 36 percent of all the confirmed cases. A few weeks ago, the two cities had about 41 percent of cases. 

Because of the trends in the two cities, the Health Care Agency partnered with Latino Health Access, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit community organization, to help get the outbreaks under control through education, testing, contact tracing and helping isolate confirmed cases through county resources at motels and hotels. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom committed state money to boost the stock of motel and hotel rooms for isolation last Friday. 

Latinos are hit particularly hard by the virus because many have essential jobs, which don’t have the option of working from home, coupled with overcrowded housing and lack of health care. 

“Over half of the cashiers in the state are represented by the Latino demographic,” Newsom said at a news conference last Friday. “[The virus is] not exclusive to one segment of our society. It crosses all segments of our society, but it is disproportionate.”

Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio. 

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