Orange County might be able to resume indoor operations at gyms, churches, museums and restaurants next week if the virus trends continue to hold.
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Secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, Dr. Mark Ghaly said OC could move into Tier Two as early as next Tuesday, when state public health officials reassess Orange County’s virus situation.
“So yes there is opportunity as soon as next week to move from purple (Tier One) to red (Tier Two). Any in the county in the red … will stay for at least three weeks,” Ghaly said, responding to Voice of OC’s questions.
Indoor malls, barbers and hair salons were allowed to reopen Monday under Tier One.
Most retailers can continue operating, as long as they limit how many people are inside at one time, depending on the business specified in the guidelines.
OC currently sits on Tier One — essentially the old coronavirus statewide watchlist — because of virus trends from mid-August, despite state data currently showing OC ready to move to the next tier.
“In the case of Orange and some other counties, they met purple (Tier One) in the first week and [Tier Two] in the second, so they were ultimately assigned purple,” Ghaly said.
According to state data as of Tuesday, OC has an average of 5.6 newly infected people daily out of 100,000 residents. The county also sits at a 5 percent positivity rate.
Both metrics are lower than the Tier One thresholds of more than seven daily cases per 100,000 residents and an 8 percent positivity rate.
State public health officials examined data beginning in mid-August to determine that OC doesn’t meet the threshold for Tier Two.
“The first sort of assignment really looks back about two weeks prior to our announcement. So we look back at the data the week of Aug, 11 to the 17 and the week of the 18th as well. And looking at both of those weeks and determining how each county would be assigned,” Ghaly said.
Over the 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.
If OC does move into Tier Two next Tuesday, schools will have to wait another two weeks — until Sept. 22 — to reopen their classrooms.
Meanwhile, there’s an elementary school waiver that allows for schools to reopen classrooms.
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 988 OC residents out of 48,825 confirmed cases, 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 Tuesday, 307 people were hospitalized with the virus, including 93 in intensive care units.
Just over 657,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people.
The current guidelines measure the daily average number of newly infected people over a seven-day period, using a seven day lag. Testing positivity is also measured over a seven-day period.
For example, calculations to measure where OC sits on Tuesday would stretch seven days back beginning Aug. 24.
Numerous Orange County and Bay Area residents reached out to Voice of OC to express concerns that case rates in their respective counties are off because some tests may fall outside the time frame state public health officials are examining, which would artificially lower key metrics used by the state to assign tiers.
There’s also been some lingering questions about the actual case rates of not just Orange County, but in some other counties as well.
The various residents have tracked test results that fall outside the window because of a delay in testing turnaround time. The state uses the date a person was swabbed as part of their calculations.
Public health officials said the issue is being addressed.
“The state has been working on ways to reduce turnaround time (TAT) with the lab capacity list which encourages labs to work with each other,” officials said in an email.
“Although case rates are often calculated using the date they were reported to the health department, the episode date is the earliest possible date a person is known to have had an infection,” state public health officials said.
Officials didn’t comment on the potential impacts for testing turnaround delays.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio