Orange County’s coronavirus trends continue to go in the right direction as county public health officials are hopeful the county could soon be able to move off of the state watchlist, which limits business reopenings. 

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If OC does come off the watch list, state health officials will determine which types of businesses can reopen — unlike the wave of reopenings that happened late May and early June, which led to a case spike and over 700 hospitalizations at one point last month. Counties are put on the watchlist for worsening virus trends. 

County interim health officer Dr. Clayton Chau said local health officers will speak with state officials about what can reopen next if OC does come off the watchlist. 

“Currently the guidance from the state is that the state will make that decision in conversation with local health officers,” Chau said at a news conference last Thursday. 

Although state officials made an elementary school waiver that may potentially allow classrooms to reopen, Chau said, “for any other business sector, the decision will be made by the state.” 

In the first reopening wave, the state allowed scores of businesses to reopen — bars, restaurants, malls, movie theaters and gyms.

Most of those industries have been effectively closed since early July because state health officials ordered business to take place outside, but many restaurants were able to switch to outdoor dining. Some hair and nail salons have been able to move their practice outside, too

Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state Department of Human and Health Services, said state officials are currently examining what those reopenings could look like. 

“We are working through that internally, looking at the data closely, ensuring our timing is right … working with those county leaders in both public health and local elections to make sure we put together a system that is simple,” Ghaly said at a Tuesday state virus news conference.  

Orange County’s neighbor, San Diego County, came off the watchlist Tuesday. 

Ghaly said San Diego was able to get skilled nursing facility outbreaks under control and likely boosted their contact tracing efforts, which helps isolate people who have been exposed and may carry the virus. 

Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 815 OC residents out of 44,212 confirmed cases. 

UC Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer said OC will see 1,000 virus deaths by early next month. 

Noymer used to calculate the death rates to project when the county would hit 1,000 deaths, but has since stopped because it’s become a certainty, he said. 

“In fact, today is the first day I’m going to Tweet the waiting time until the 2,000th death, which would be approximately 70 days,” Noymer said in a Tuesday phone interview. “That number, I guarantee you, will fluctuate.” 

“The person who will become the 1,000th death is already sick, is my point. It’s baked into the cake, we will have 1,000 deaths in Orange County, we may not have 2,000. The point of these projections is to sort of be a warning if we no longer act. But the 1,000th death will occur, sadly,” he said.  

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. 

Ghaly said things could get dicey heading into the flu season and state health officials are talking with hospitals to make sure medical staff can respond to both COVID and the flu in the coming months. 

“In the 2017-2018 flu season, we estimated, based on extrapolating the Center for Disease Control data, that roughly 5.6 million Californians may have been infected by the flu and this led to over 100,000 hospitlizations and over 7,500 deaths in California. So flu is not to be taken lightly. And together, flu and COVID, make a doubly risky situation,” Ghaly said. 

As of Tuesday, the 409 were hospitalized because of the virus, including 124 in intensive care units. 

Just over 560,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people. 

Chau said a phased reopening strategy is the best approach, if OC does come off the watchlist. 

“I think that is the right approach — is to open sector by sector,” Chau said at last Thursday’s news conference. 

Dr. Saahir Khan, who treats virus patients at the UCI Medical Center in Orange, said it could be the right time to start thinking about reopening businesses. 

“So cases are decreasing and hospitalizations are decreasing as well. So it’s reasonable to discuss reopening, but we need to move gradually and give any change that we make at least two weeks to see if cases increase,” Khan said in a Tuesday phone interview. 

“It’s best to start with lower risk situations where there’s not a large group of people indoors together. So that means opening at decreased capacity,” Khan said. 

Noymer said it’s tough to decide what businesses should reopen. 

“I’m still in favor of opening things up slowly, but the thing is we’ve learned how easy it is to get burned,” Noymer said, referring to the reopenings in late May and early June, with case spikes that followed. 

“Nobody wants to go back to four weeks ago when the ICU’s were full. It’s just a complicated situation. We definitely turned the corner in terms of severe cases in Orange County. Look at the ICU numbers, they’re down 100 beds from a few weeks ago,” he said. 

Khan said if elementary schools are granted the waiver by state health officials and allowed to reopen, all business reopenings should be put on hold. 

“I think opening up schools is a significant enough change that that shouldn’t be done at the same time as other reopenings. We should see the effect of the school reopening first.” 

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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