Orange County is expected to be able to reopen indoor operations at restaurants, movie theaters, gyms, churches and museums Tuesday, although there’s remaining questions surrounding the coronavirus metrics state public health officials are watching.
Most retailers, including indoor malls, are already open under limited capacity. Offices will still be closed, even if OC moves to the next reopening phase.
The new state guidelines, issued last Friday, call for less than an eight percent positivity rate and less than a daily average of seven new sick people per 100,000 residents before counties can reopen more businesses.
For example, using last Monday’s data, over seven new people were contracting the virus daily for the week of Aug. 12 to 18, which is what the state is watching.
Yet on Friday, that rate dropped to 6.9 people per 100,000 residents because 76 tests were removed from the data.
County Health Care Agency research manager, Dr. Curtis Condon said that’s because duplicates and out-of-county cases have been removed.
“Data cleaning. Case numbers may be reduced due to transfers of out of county residents and deduplication of cases,” Condon said in an email.
Numerous residents have emailed and called Voice of OC about their concerns over the actual case rate and suspect the Health Care Agency of purposely delaying test result reporting in order to artificially lower their case rates.
And there have been delays in test reporting.
For example, last Monday, 32 percent of the 287 new cases reported were tests from July — well outside any timeframe state health officials are measuring the county’s virus progress.
That means 93 of Monday’s new cases aren’t calculated in any case rate or positivity rate.
Meanwhile, the county continues to see deaths from spikes stemming from sweeping business reopenings from Memorial Day weekend, when bars and restaurants opened.
Not long after the reopenings, OC saw a spike in new daily cases. By the end of June, 800 cases were being reported daily and it stayed in that ballpark until about mid-July.
Hospitalizations also soared past 700 people in July.
Numerous public health experts — including county Health Care Agency officials — have attributed the sudden case spikes to the Memorial Day weekend bar and restaurants reopenings.
Although hospitalizations have fallen since, deaths continued to climb — by Wednesday over 1,000 people have died from the virus.
“The progression of disease is such that deaths occur often weeks after infection so that creates a natural delay due to course of disease,” said county Health Care Agency Chief of Operations Marc Meulman in an email.
There’s also a delay in up to two weeks of death reporting.
“Deaths are not reportable to the Health Department in the same way as infections so the process of identifying and confirming deaths can take additional time after the date of death,” Meulman said.
“Confirming deaths happens a variety of ways, including becoming aware of the death through the course of case investigations or waiting for the death registration process to happen and then a review of death records to identify deaths with COVID as a cause of death and then reconciling the deaths with confirmed cases and reporting them publicly,” he wrote.
Last weekend, there was an apparent miscommunication between state and county public health officials about when schools could reopen.
Under the old guidelines, all of OC schools could begin reopening by Sept. 8, after the county was off the old watchlist for two weeks.
“I confirmed with the State that has not changed for OC except for the update in the new blueprint usually occurs on Monday and the State posts on Tuesday, so the school reopening would be Tuesday, September 8, right after Labor Day weekend,” county health officer Dr. Clayton Chau Tweeted Friday, through the Health Care Agency’s account.
Chau then clarified, through a Saturday Tweet, that county health officials were waiting for an official response from the state.
Then he walked back the statement Monday night.
“County Health Officer received confirmation from @CAPublicHealth that #OC is on track to enter into Red Tier on Sept. 8. Providing we meet Red Tier metrics at that time, there will be a 14-day wait for all K-12 schools to be eligible for reopening, which could happen on Sept. 22,” Chau Tweeted.
The California Department of Public Health confirmed the reopening date.
“Schools can reopen for in-person instruction once their county has been in the Substantial (red) tier for at least two weeks. Schools must follow these guidelines when they reopen or if they have to close again,” state public health officials said in a Tuesday email.
Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel, at a Thursday news conference, said the state should’ve allowed OC schools to reopen classrooms sooner because the county was off the old virus watchlist already.
“I hope the state moves faster to accommodate schools, students and families and not change those dates again. Everyone wants our children back in school,” Steel said.
Although the county’s overall rates are improving, positivity rates are as high as 20 percent in working class neighborhoods of Anaheim and Santa Ana.
The two cities make up just over 20 percent of OC’s population, but have roughly 37 percent of cases and nearly half of all the deaths.
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 1,051 people out of 49,509 confirmed cases as of Saturday, 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 OC residents annually.
As of Saturday, 274 people were hospitalized, including 83 in intensive care units.
Nearly 691,000 tests have been conducted throughout the county, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio
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