Orange County schools could be allowed to reopen mid September if the county can stay off the state’s coronavirus watchlist until then, while local school officials have the final word on those decisions. 

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“I’m very optimistically confident that it will go well, our day 15 will be Sunday, Sept. 6. So right before labor day weekend … so it means Orange County — all schools can reopen for in-person education,” interim county health officer Dr. Clayton Chau said at Tuesday’s public Supervisors meeting. 

If OC does hit the 15-day mark, it doesn’t mean other still-shuttered businesses will be able to reopen. When the county was put on the watchlist late June, state health officials ordered all bars to close. 

State officials also effectively closed a slew of businesses when they halted indoor operations at beauty parlors, barbers, malls, restaurants, bowling alleys, movie theaters and other entertainment venues. 

Although some of the businesses, like restaurants, have been able to adapt to outdoor operations. 

“I think it’s important to clarify what that means,” Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said during Tuesday’s meeting. “Really it’s just the schools that have the ability to open up. It doesn’t mean we can get indoor malls, personal services, indoor restaurants to open up at that time.” 

State officials are expected to roll out new reopening guidelines Wednesday.

At a Tuesday news conference, Secretary of the state Health and Human Services Department, Dr. Mark Ghaly, said the incoming guidelines won’t affect the way schools reopenings are being handled.

There’s also a waiver elementary schools can apply for to reopen classrooms while counties are on the watchlist, or the ones — like OC — that are waiting to hit the 15-day mark of being off the list. 

Chau said 45 elementary schools, including six public schools in the Los Alamitos Unified School District, have been granted reopening waivers by state health officials. 

Supervisor Don Wagner questioned why schools could reopen after the 15-day mark, while businesses have to remain closed until state health officials make a determination. 

“Why just the schools, if it’s okay to reopen the schools … why can’t we get some of these other sectors reopened?” Wagner asked Chau. 

Chau said local health officials have been speaking with the state about reopening strategies. 

“So we don’t repeat the same mistake we made in May where we reopened a bunch of businesses and caused a lot of transmission,” Chau said. “We’re much more careful of reopening in phases.” 

He said it’s to avoid the “yoyo that happened” with the Memorial Day weekend reopenings, followed by the wave of business closures at the beginning of July.

Local health officials attributed many of the virus outbreaks in June to restaurants and bars. Following the outbreaks, OC’s hospitals saw over 700 people hospitalized for the virus at one point in July. 

Ghaly said it’s risky to reopen businesses too quickly. 

“Sometimes moving sooner rather than getting a clear indication doesn’t allow you to think through how some of those changes have impacted you,” he said. 

OC’s two biggest cities, Anaheim and Santa Ana, are the two hardest-hit cities during the pandemic.

Although the two cities make up roughly 20 percent of OC’s population, they have over 36 percent of the confirmed cases. 

“But we do have zip codes in our county that have positivity rates as high as 17 percent, 21 percent. So I’ve had conversations with school districts to talk about what does that mean,” Chau said. 

The countywide positivity rate is 5.3 percent of tests conducted over a week. 

Anaheim and Santa Ana also account for nearly 48 percent of the virus deaths. 

Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 912 people out of 46,642 confirmed cases. 

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 OC residents annually.  

As of Tuesday, 385 people were hospitalized for the virus, including 113 in intensive care units. 

Ghaly said the medical community has been able to quickly treat more virus patients and discharge them from hospitals because of the experience gained not just in California, but in other parts of the country and world. 

“We’ve learned quite a bit and as I’ve talked to my clinical colleagues across the state … we learned quite a bit on how to use respiratory support,” he said. “A lot of hospitals have increased the use of home oxygen therapy.”

Over 605,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people. 

As OC made its way off the watchlist, some residents suspected the county Health Care Agency of artificially lowering the number of newly infected people per 100,000 residents in a 14-day time period — one of the key metrics for staying off the watchlist.

As of Tuesday, the agency reported there’s been just over 83 newly infected people per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks. 

While some residents claim the county isn’t using proper metrics to get that number, the OC Health Care Agency officials disputed the assertion and stood by their numbers

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

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