Scores of Orange County elementary schools are trying to reopen their classrooms through waivers that have been sent to state officials that would allow reopenings as the county’s virus trends have relaxed this month. 

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“For those schools that have their applications approved by the state, they could open immediately,” said county health officer Dr. Clayton Chau at a Thursday news conference. 

He also said more applications are being reviewed and being sent to state health officials, who make the decision.  

“We are working very hard in processing those applications,” Chau said. “I know I’m going to be submitting those applications today for the third batch.” 

While most of the classroom reopening applications are from private schools, Los Alamitos Unified School District applied for six of its schools to reopen classrooms, Chau said. 

The schools waivers come just as OC looks like it could be removed from the state’s virus watchlist because of decreasing positivity rates and hospitalizations.

Chau said he expects the county to come off the watchlist by Saturday. If that happens and the county stays off the list for at least two weeks, then all schools — preschool through high school — can reopen their classrooms. Those decisions would have to be made by the local school districts. 

The elementary school reopenings also come as Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to announce updated statewide reopening guidelines next week

“I wish I could tell you I know what the state guidelines the Governor’s going to issue next week,” Chau said. “I expect that we will get the call and start the discussion on this.” 

At a Wednesday news conference, Newsom said his administration has been working with local health officers, like Chau, to come up with the new guidelines. 

“We want to make sure we’re flexible to their needs as well. We deeply desire to reopen this economy fully and we deeply recognize the stress that businesses are under,” Newsom said. 

Orange County has been on the watchlist since late June, which caused scores of businesses to close.Scores of businesses are closed because their indoor operations were halted by state health officials: gyms, barbers, nail salons, hair salons, movie theaters, malls and non-essential office buildings. All bars have been ordered closed. 

Public health experts and epidemiologists have called for phased-in reopenings, meaning open one type of business sector for two to three weeks to monitor for virus outbreaks. 

If OC gets taken off the state watchlist, state health officials will make the decisions about which businesses can reopen. 

Newsom said they’re going to do a phased reopening approach, following the advice of epidemiologists and public health experts. 

“So a deeper emphasis on how to do it, the modifications and the expectations that are needed from all of us to do it in a way that is sustainable — not just episodic, where we’re going back into a stay at home frame as we approach the fall and the prospects of a second wave,” Newsom said in response to a Voice of OC question. 

On Thursday, OC officials also announced a $250,000 public awareness campaign promoting the usage of masks  — five months after the pandemic began. According to officials, $132,000 has been spent. 

Local skateboarding and surfing celebrities will be part of the campaign, doing pro bono work advocating for masks. 

Chad and JT — two South County comedians who went viral for trying to hand out masks in Huntington Beach last month — will also be part of the campaign for a $32,500 fee, according to county officials. 

The county is also spending about $12,000 on media buys with KFI Radio, which according to HCA officials is also doing significant promotion on their part. The largest expenditure of the program is $63,000 on masks as part of the outreach efforts. 

Meanwhile, the virus has killed 856 people out of 44,936 confirmed cases since the pandemic began in March, according to the county Health Care Agency.

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.  

As of Thursday, there are 400 people hospitalized from the virus, including 118 in intensive care units. 

Nearly 572,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people. 

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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