Orange County public health officials are having a tough time stopping coronavirus outbreaks because of a lag in testing results turnaround, coupled with not enough contact tracers in the county.
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“As we open the economy and people are back out into the community and they do various things … hang out with their friends, if they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do,” OC interim health officer Dr. Clayton Chau told Supervisors at their Tuesday meeting.
“When we investigate the case, it’s kind of hard to identify where you exactly got infected,” Chau said. “So, we don’t know. As this is getting bigger in the community, it’s harder to define where it is.”
Cases have been consistently rising in Orange County, increasing threefold since the beginning of June.
Chau said there’s not enough contact tracers, people who trace who a person has come into contact with after they tested positive for the virus.
“Nobody has enough staff. And the state knows that as well.”
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett questioned whether the rise in recent cases was connected to protests against police brutality.
“If you look at it over a period of time and when we look at it from Memorial Day weekend and the riots that were out on the streets here … our positive [daily] counts were like 2, 4, 9 — then it spikes up all of a sudden,” Bartlett said. “Then it drops off again.”
The protests were largely peaceful. Although some cities like Anaheim, Garden Grove and Santa Ana instituted curfews when the protests were happening, there was no widespread rioting or looting.
Chau said there were a few different factors contributing to the spike.
“So, if you remember all those events happened within a week or two, Memorial Day, the beach, the protests and then we opened up the economy,” Chau said.
Bartlett said once the protests were over, the numbers dropped.
“That’s not the only factor, it’s multifactorial,” Chau responded. “You can’t really pinpoint what was that the activity that caused you to be infected.”
Bartlett again pressed Chau.
“I think that’s really important to note is that the reopening in and of itself didn’t cause our numbers to go up, it’s the mass gatherings and others,” she said.
Chau responded, “If you look at the last three weeks, the number of people who are positive increased significantly.”
UC Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer said the virus was more likely to spread at restaurants than the protests.
“There was far more exposure in restaurants, much of which was indoors, than there was in protests, all of which were outdoors and many of which were only on the weekends,” Noymer said in a Tuesday phone interview.
But, Noymer said, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the case spikes came from.
“I’m not giving you an iron clad guarantee that nobody got something at the protests,” Noymer said. “I’m saying that we can’t pinpoint it.”
Meanwhile, the virus has now killed 433 people in Orange County out of 26,120 cases, according to the OC Health Care Agency.
Despite a slight dip over the weekend, hospitalizations reached an all-time high on Tuesday with 712 people in hospital beds, including 237 in intensive care units.
OC has seen 11,426 new cases over the last 14 days, according to state data.
County data shows cases increased by 4,318 during that time frame.
Chau has repeatedly said Health Care Agency staff plugs the numbers into the day the test specimen was collected, instead of counting it the day the county receives the results from the test batches.
Nearly 325,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people.
Dr. Daniel Chow, an assistant professor at UCI, said the hospitalization rate isn’t looking good.
“The rate of hospitalization is already exceeding how fast they can discharge,” Chow said in a Tuesday phone interview. “So, you want to make sure that you slow it down beforehand.”
Chow, who’s also co-director for UCI’s Center for Artificial Intelligence in Diagnostic Medicine, said hospitalizations need to be slowed down.
“When we talk about flattening the curve, I want to be very, very clear that the number of people who’ll go to the hospital will probably be the same, we just don’t want all the people to come to the hospital at the same time.”
Chow also took issue with the debate over the coronavirus death rate.
“Just think about what that means, excess deaths. These are people who were not anticipated to die during this time period, these are deaths in what is excess to what is anticipated. That is to me nonsensical to say we have an acceptable death rate. Excess deaths should not be acceptable,” Chow said.
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data: