State health officials stand by their decision to remove Orange County from the coronavirus watchlist, despite up to a week delay on virus tests turnaround that could affect some key metrics. 

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Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, expressed confidence in the data review process that removed OC from the watchlist. 

“So you know, within a great deal of contact with the counties, including Orange County, these conversations have given us a degree of confidence that the way we’re reporting and working with counties is appropriate,” Ghaly said at Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Wednesday news conference. 

Counties across the state were placed on the watchlist for worsening virus trends, like more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period, testing positivity rates greater than 8 percent over a seven-day period, or increasing hospitalization rates. 

Yet, earlier in the news conference, Newsom said the state testing sites have an average of a five-to-seven day turnaround time. 

According to a state list of testing sites, OC has five state testing sites spread throughout Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Fullerton, La Habra and San Clemente. 

The county was removed from the watchlist Sunday because its number of newly infected people fell short of 100 per 100,000 residents over a two week period. To account for a delay in testing turnaround times, the state calls for a three-day lag to calculate that rate. 

For example, Wednesday’s number of newly infected people per 100,000 residents would stretch two weeks back beginning Aug. 22. 

But the average delay for testing turnaround times at state sites is five to seven days, which could impact the rate of newly infected people. 

“I want to be careful in the response. Let me ask Dr. Ghaly to come back up and he can talk more learnedly about what that delay may or may not have done as it relates to that monitoring list — that watchlist — and where particularly Orange County has been in that space,” Newsom said in response to Voice of OC’s question. 

“Indeed, Orange County, all of the counties across the state, have experienced delays,” Ghaly said. “Sometimes you’ll get the test back in 24 hours or less.” 

State health officials, along with county Health Care Agency officials, are tallying the rates according to when the tests were administered. 

“We have been working over the past many weeks to not just improve our ability to understand the data that is coming to us, but really assign the tests to the dates it was collected — understanding when it’s reported,” Ghaly said. “And building our models around all of our calculations, whether it’s test positivity, case rates per 100,000, around that detail.” 

“In our current approach we feel confident that we’re doing it in a tried and true way. And that counties that are on the monitoring list are there because we reviewed their data and those who come off are there for the same reason of review,” Ghaly said. 

Newsom announced a new statewide virus testing laboratory will be set up to dramatically cut costs and increase the turnaround time. 

Residents have questioned whether the county Health Care Agency is using different metrics to artificially lower the rates so OC can get off the watchlist. 

But agency officials dispute those assertions and stand by their numbers. 

Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 918 people out of 47,090 confirmed cases in the county, according to the OC 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 OC residents annually.  

As of Wednesday, 399 people were hospitalized for the virus, including 113 in intensive care units. 

Just over 611,000 tests have been conducted throughout the county, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people. 

The San Jose Mercury News published a story Wednesday, which found Santa Clara County’s case rates are similar to Orange County. Yet Santa Clara remains on the watchlist. 

“… Orange County came off the state’s coronavirus watchlist while most Bay Area counties — which were among the state’s first to issue restrictive stay-at-home orders — have not,” stated the article. “… It’s not clear why Orange County has gotten off the watchlist while other places with similar COVID-19 metrics, such as Santa Clara County, remain on it.” 

Shortly after OC was put on the watchlist in late June, state health officials shut down bars and halted indoor operations at movie theaters, malls, restaurants, beauty parlors and various entertainment centers. They also shut down non-essential office buildings. 

Any new business reopenings will be determined by state officials and state officials are expected to announce updated reopening guidelines Friday. 

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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