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As Orange County continues to see a spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, county Supervisors seem often at odds with each other over what the numbers actually mean. 


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While the County of Orange has a CEO run day-to-day operations, county supervisors have enormous influence over policies such as health care through budgetary powers and in many cases, direct influence on the CEO, who ultimately serves at the pleasure of the county board of supervisors. 

Since the pandemic began, there seems to have been a consistent questioning from County Supervisors Michelle Steel and Don Wager – amidst largely silence from their colleagues – about closures and the mandatory use of masks as well as official estimates about the Coronavirus. 

At last Tuesday’s meeting, Wagner questioned whether the county’s positivity rate may be skewed. 

“The positivity rate, that is a metric the state looks at, right? And we heard from Supervisor [Doug] Chaffe with respect to testing, there is some frustration out there in the community, that now test centers are looking for symptomatic people at this time,” Wagner asked interim health officer Dr. Clayton Chau. 

“The effort is to encourage people to get tested, whether or not they are symptomatic or asymptomatic. Especially essential workers and health care workers,” Chau replied. 

Wagner then questioned whether the testing regimen might be skewing the numbers the way it’s designed. 

“That has a dramatic effect, does it not, on the positivity rate — if you test more symptomatic people, you’re going to find the disease more often, than if you did a random test of the populace,” Wagner said. 

Chau responded, “That’s a difficult question to answer.” 

He said the rate could go up if only symptomatic people are tested, along with frontline workers, then testing positivity rates will go up. 

Wagner’s line of questioning and statements – similar to past questioning of mandatory mask order – this week drew the ire of Supervisor Andrew Do. 

“There will be a sound bite that the [testing committee] was wrong, that we went looking for symptomatic people, I kind of heard that statement earlier,” Do said. “And that statement was made up here, at least that’s what it sounded like to me.”

“I want to just emphasize the point, the testing program that we announced today at the Anaheim Convention Center tests both symptomatic and asymptomatic people. Within the asymptomatic people we will prioritize who we test first,” Do said. 

Asymptomatic people will be prioritized based on what type of work they do, their age, health conditions and other factors at the convention center test site, he said.

Do also indirectly seemed to criticize Wagner for asking Chau what the psychological effects on kids are from school shutdowns and if the state’s school guidelines “strike a reasonable balance with the kids.” 

“So please, this dance that we do over and over. At very minimum, to me, it’s very confusing to the public and if anything, it leads to the wrong kind of dialogue. And it somehow implies that you have control over this process,” Do said. “At some point concede something, because it makes sense from a logic perspective.”

Chau reminded Supervisors the positivity rate isn’t the only metric state health officials are measuring in OC, as part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s economic reopening plans. The plans were scaled back earlier this month when Newsom essentially shut down bars, gyms and churches by halting their indoor operations. 

“For our county, currently we’re on the monitoring list for the positivity rate and the case rate,” Chau said. 

The state’s threshold for counties to land on a watch list  is an 8 percent positivity rate and OC had a 13.7 rate as of Sunday. The state also wants counties to have less than 25 cases per 100,000 residents, and OC averaged just over 230 cases per 100,000 people. 

UC Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer said the positivity rate doesn’t matter when compared to hospitalizations, which stood at 665 Sundy, including 214 people in intensive care units as of Sunday — the lowest in two weeks. 

“The thing is the test positive numbers do go up when the testing goes up,” Noymer said in a Tuesday phone interview. “But the percent of tests turning back positive has been remarkably consistent and the hospitalizations numbers have been high and that’s really what your readers need to focus on.” 

Meanwhile, OC has been on the state’s watchlist for its increasing cases over the past few weeks and on July 14, the county was placed in the “red zone” by the White House virus task force for its positivity rates. 

Do also said there’s been a delay in getting test results back to people because the labs have been flooded with test specimens. 

The delays make it more difficult to contact trace, which is trying to figure out who’s come into recent contact with a virus-positive person in order to contain the spread and isolate people who were exposed. 

“So therefore we create our own bottleneck, is that a fair statement to stay?” Do said. 

“That is very fair,” Chau said, “We predicted that this bottleneck will happen and you’re seeing it happen right now statewide.” 

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

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