As reopenings across Orange County continue, it remains unlikely residents will be able to track virus outbreaks at specific locations, continuing a trend since the pandemic began in March by the county health care agency to keep outbreaks secret.
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During this week’s press update, Orange County health officer Dr. Clayton Chau said he understood arguments for more disclosure but would have to talk with county lawyers before disclosing any outbreaks.
“I need to have a conversation with county Counsel as well and we would do whatever we can to be as transparent as we can,” Chau said at a Thursday news conference.
He also said they’ll do whatever is “allowable in law and allowable regulations in disclosing outbreaks.”
Last week, county Health Care Agency officials said there was an outbreak at a college.
“One college had 3 or more cases within a 2 week period of time,” said county Health Care Agency Medical Director Dr. David Nunez.
Agency officials are still mulling over whether to name the college.
“An internal discussion is in process and we have not reached a determination at this time,” said agency spokesman Ed Mertz in an email last Friday.
The agency has yet to name the college.
Meanwhile, The Daily Titan, the student newspaper at California State University, Fullerton, reported Wednesday that university officials confirmed a virus outbreak on the campus.
The student paper reported at least four known cases were discovered about a month into the new semester.
In comparison, Los Angeles County’s Public Health Department lists all the outbreaks, which is just over 380 outbreaks.
Chau on Thursday said county public health officials will rely on colleges and universities to self-report their outbreaks.
State health officials define an outbreak of three or more confirmed cases in one location over a two-week period.
If county public health officials do disclose the outbreaks, Chau said it would have to affect the community before officials release the information.
“Only if it affects the community at large. If an outbreak does not affect the community at large, we will not be able to do so.”
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 1,115 OC residents, including four new deaths reported Thursday, 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.
Hospitalizations still hover around 200, following a huge spike in July that saw over 700 people hospitalized at one point following case spikes in June.
Numerous public health experts interviewed by the Voice of OC attributed the spike to the sudden businesses reopenings that happened beginning Memorial Day weekend, which saw restaurants reopen, followed by bars not long after.
As of Thursday, 198 people were hospitalized, including 64 in intensive care units.
Over 765,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people.
Even with some elementary and high schools set to reopen as soon as next week, questions remain about how positive virus tests in schools will be reported.
Chau has confirmed that the county will be posting which schools are shut down due to COVID, but has not commented on whether schools that remain open with limited cases will be listed as well.
In Los Angeles Unified School District, which manages 600,000 students, district officials have confirmed students will only be able to return to the classroom with a negative test. Those that refuse will be forced to stay online.
They’ve also announced a new website that will allow parents to see which schools and even which classrooms have confirmed cases.
Now, essential workers across the state will get easier access to health care and wage replacement if they test positive for the virus after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed two bills into law Thursday.
One of the laws also requires employers to report outbreaks to local public health departments.
“Protecting workers is critical to slowing the spread of this virus,” Newsom said in a statement from his press office. “These two laws will help California workers stay safe at work and get the support they need if they are exposed to COVID-19.”
At Thursday’s news conference, Chau said disclosing school outbreaks would be similar to how they would report other outbreaks, if they decide to start releasing that information.
“The information would only be public if it affects the public. If the information doesn’t affect the transmission of disease in the public, then the public doesn’t need to know,” Chau said.
Although, Chau said, the school districts will have to report outbreaks to parents.
“The school district is responsible for informing parents in the schools should there be a student or staff testing positive.”
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.