Orange County might come off the state’s coronavirus watchlist Saturday, but questions are emerging about the data driving the decision because of conflicting numbers between the state and the county.
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Counties are put on the watchlist for worsening virus trends, like more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period, a testing positivity greater than 8 percent during a seven-day period, or increasing hospitalization rates.
According to county and state data, OC meets the thresholds for hospitals and testing positivity rates, but there’s a discrepancy between the number of cases per 100,000 people.
County data shows nearly 97 new cases per 100,000 people, while state data shows almost 183 new cases, as of Friday.
At a Friday news conference, Gov. Gavin Newsom said state officials will clear up the issue by working with local health officials.
“We handle it the way we’ve always handled it. We work with local health officials, we reconcile any of the discrepancies. We’ve done that consistently since the beginning of this pandemic. We did that for example very recently … in San Diego County,” Newsom said, responding to Voice of OC’s question.
“We’re continuing to work very collaboratively with local health officers in Orange County. And we look forward to making an announcement updating that monitoring list,” Newsom said.
OC has been on the watchlist since late June, which severely limited what types of businesses could remain open.
All bars were closed and many other businesses were effectively closed because state health officials barred their indoor operations: hair and nail salons, gyms, malls, movie theaters and restaurants. Although some businesses — like salons and restaurants — have been able to move their operations outside.
State health officials will largely dictate which businesses can reopen if OC comes off the watchlist.
Newsom said official announcements about the watchlist will be made at next Monday’s news conference.
“I look forward to announcing in our next press conference updating where San Francisco County is and we’re very hopeful to see the progress they’re making in Orange County and hopefully Orange County will be added to that list,” the Governor said.
Meanwhile, state officials are expected to release new reopening guidelines next week.
Orange County health officer Dr. Clayton Chau said he doesn’t know what those new guidelines are.
“I expect that we will get the call and start the discussion on this,” Chau said at a Thursday news conference.
Although OC’s overall testing positivity rate is 5.5 percent, Chau said neighborhoods in Anaheim and Santa Ana — the two hardest hit cities in OC — have rates as high as 19 percent.
“The testing site for Anaheim and Santa Ana is mobile, meaning we go to different schools,” Chau said. “We ranged from 17 percent to upper 19 percent. But we do have certain areas that have lower positivity rates than others.”
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 882 people out of 45,308 confirmed cases, according
For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, according to state health data. According to those same statistics, the flu kills about 543 people annually.
Hospitalizations continue to see a slow decline as of Friday, with 397 people hospitalized because of the virus, including 117 in intensive care units.
Over 581,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people.
Questions have also emerged over what testing will look like for students as elementary schools begin to reopen. In Orange County, just over 9,000 students across 34 campuses have been approved to return to school, with more approvals expected in the coming week.
But Los Alamitos Unified School District, the only public school district approved to start reopening, has no listed plans on how students will be tested if they have symptoms. That single district makes up over one third of the returning students, and has posted its reopening plan online.
In that plan, if students or staff come into contact with a confirmed COVID patient or display symptoms, they will be sent home, but testing is only strongly recommended and the report makes no mention of the district providing options.
In a flowchart near the bottom of the return guidelines, the district says that individuals will have to handle getting tested with their own doctors, and may still be required to self-quarantine for up to two weeks with a negative test.
The district is set to remain in district learning through Sept. 8, and will then move into a partial return through October.
If OC does make it off the watchlist, and stays off for at least two weeks, then all schools can reopen. The local school district boards will have to make those decisions.
“The moment we step into day 16 of being off the monitoring list, technically all schools will be able to be open for in-person education,” Chau said.
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.