Orange County elementary school classroom reopenings are in limbo after the state Department of Public Health put a hold on any reopening waiver applications because of coronavirus data reporting problems.
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Earlier this week, a wave of OC elementary schools applied for waivers that would allow them to reopen classrooms. The waiver process became available Monday, after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s July order requiring schools to do online learning if their respective counties are on the state watchlist, like OC, for virus case and hospitalization trends.
But the state’s reporting system glitched and there’s a backlog of up to 300,000 test results that haven’t been reported to counties yet, said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services.
“That failure led to inaccurate case numbers and case positivity rates,” Ghaly said at a Friday news conference.
Ghaly also said any modifications to public health orders — from schools opening classrooms to business reopenings — are put on hold until the data gets sorted out, which could take up to 48 hours. From there, he said, counties will have to process the results and publicly post the data.
School waivers won’t be granted if OC has more than 200 confirmed cases per 200,000 residents in a 14-day period. Ghaly said that number could be affected by the incoming backlog of test results.
But, there’s also a discrepancy between state data and Orange County Health Care Agency virus data.
The OC office of Emergency Medical Service believes the backlog has created artificially low case numbers, according to its daily situation report.
“We do not know the extent of it but believe that recent data are artificially low. This makes it difficult to know critical data points such as disease transmission rate, positivity rate, etc,” reads the Friday report.
Interim Orange County health officer, Dr. Clayton Chau, said the county Health Care Agency expects the overall case numbers to increase once the data glitch is fixed.
“So we’re expecting a large number of results, positive and negative, to be entering the system once the state fixes it. So we’re expecting the number to go up based on the current number that you see,” Chau said at a Friday news conference.
At the earlier state news conference, Ghaly said state health officials will work with county health officials to iron out virus data and the school waivers.
“Give us a chance to work with the counties and update” the virus numbers,” Ghaly said. “Then if counties can proceed with the waiver process, they will be allowed to.”
“We look forward to really resuming that once the county data monitoring list is unfrozen, so our local communities, like Orange County can make decisions based on guidelines like on that waiver,” Ghaly said.
The reopening waivers only apply to elementary schools and younger. The California Department of Public Health guidelines call for masks and physical distancing for reopened classrooms and mandate masks for students in third grade and higher.
According to Chau, if schools reopen and the county sees a resurgence past the state limits, schools would not be forced to close.
“We don’t necessarily have to close the school down, we just have to work very closely with the school and the state,” Chau said at a news conference on Friday.
Meanwhile, the virus has now killed 704 people out of 38,754 confirmed cases as of Friday, 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 over the course of a full year.
There’s also 511 hospitalized from COVID-19 symptoms, including 177 in intensive care units.
Nearly 453,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people.
It remains unclear if the Health Care Agency will report school outbreaks.
“I would have to have a conversation with the school and look at whether or not we post names of schools should there be an outbreak,” Chau said. “The County Health Officer would have to weigh in on whether that information is beneficial to the community or not.”
A list of elementary schools who applied for the waiver and which schools were approved will be posted on the county’s website. Schools will also be required to post copies of their waiver application and return plans on their own websites.
Orange County has been at the forefront of the national conversation on reopening schools after the county board of education released a set of controversial guidelines calling for a return without masks or social distancing.
That decision set off a widespread debate among parents, teachers and administrators over what a fall return should look like.
The board also announced plans to file a lawsuit against Gov. Newsom at their meeting on July 28 over the school closures, with the law firm of Tyler & Bursch taking the case pro bono.
Both the firm and the board have declined to answer who would have to pay the state’s legal fees should they lose the case, and it has not yet been filed in court.
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 email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.