Orange County continues to make progress on lowering the coronavirus spread around the county, although it’s having a particularly tough time lowering the testing positivity rates in working class neighborhoods.
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Although the overall positivity rate would allow OC to advance to the next tier — the Orange Tier — and let more people inside businesses and open up a few more sectors, a state health equity measure is holding OC back from moving into the new tier.
It’s a metric that continues to be met with opposition from some OC Supervisors and officials.
“This county is going to file another bankruptcy. Because, you know, small businesses are not coming back … [It’s] very, very frustrating that those orders [are] without any base. It’s just randomly throwing a number at us that we’re about to meet, and then there’s another criteria coming in like health equity,” Chairwoman Michelle Steel said.
She asked how OC “can really tell the governor to stop all this nonsense?”
“You know what, there’s just no way you can open up when you start tying our hands all the way through without any evidence that’s going to be helpful or get rid of COVID completely,” Steel said.
Meanwhile, the overall countywide positivity rate is 3.2 percent, while the average rates in OC’s poorest, often minority neighborhoods is 5.6 percent — down slightly from a couple weeks ago.
It’s even higher in certain zip codes.
In an area surrounding Disneyland, the positivity rate is 8.1 percent.
Yesterday, state officials announced large theme parks like Disneyland won’t reopen until counties reach the Yellow Tier — the least restrictive tier.
“So health equity is really the problem right now,” Steel said.
Disneyland likely won’t be able to open until next Summer because that’s when OC is expected to hit the Yellow Tier, according to county health officer Dr. Clayton Chau.
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett wants some type of state credits on the metrics for the county’s virus hospitalizations staying relatively low.
“I think what we’re concerned about is the fact that our COVID numbers are low in the county and the idea of setting all these tiers was to have a restriction in place so we don’t overwhelm our hospital system,” Bartlett said at the Tuesday meeting. “Our hospital system is not being overwhelmed. And we’ve got to address that issue with the state.”
At a Tuesday news conference, Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, said no credits will be given on having hospital capacity because the goal of the tiers is to keep virus counts low so hospitals don’t get flooded, like they were across the during the summer case spikes.
Bartlett said increased case counts don’t mean new hospitalizations.
“There’s no correlation between the case counts increasing and overwhelming our hospital system because we still have the capacity in our hospital system,” Bartlett said. “We’re stuck in tiers. Counties are literally stuck in the different tiers and they got hospital systems that have plenty of surge capacity.”
Ghaly disputed that at the news conference.
“We know that if the case numbers themselves are going up, we can predict that in three to four weeks we’re going to see an increase in hospitalizations as well.”
When cases began spiking in June, OC’s hospitals were pushed to the brink in July with over 700 people hospitalized, while cases continued to climb.
And by the end of July, OC saw its highest two-week death count with 140 people dead from the virus.
By then, the virus killed 566 people out of 34,646 confirmed cases.
As of Wednesday, the virus has killed 1,423 county residents out of 57,635 confirmed cases, including 11 new deaths, according to the county Health Care Agency.
The actual dates of those new deaths can stretch back weeks, due to reporting requirements and lag times.
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 have been holding around the same number for weeks, with 174 people hospitalized, including 66 in intensive care units as of Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the County has teamed up with a host of Asian American and Pacific Islander community groups to essentially mirror the efforts by the Santa Ana-based nonprofit Latino Health Access to lower positivity rates in working class, often minority neighborhoods.
During the summer case spikes, the county partnered with Latino Health Access and brought rates down in those neighborhoods. At one point, some neighborhoods had positivity rates reaching 20 percent.
“This pandemic really pushed the issue of chronic health and equity in all communities, particularly our community here in Orange County,” Chau said at a Friday news conference, announcing the kick off of the API partnership.
“For us to go out and really pay attention to the true iniquity that exists in our county is phenomenal,” he said.
Latinos, while making up roughly 35 percent of OC’s population, nearly half of the total Covid confirmed cases, according to county Health Care Agency data.
Latinos also make up nearly half — 44 percent — of virus deaths.
Asian Americans, which comprise 21 percent of the county population, make up over 8 percent of the COVID-19 cases and 18 percent of the deaths.
Although the case burden on OC’s Asian American population as a whole isn’t as severe as it is for Latinos, there are pockets of the community that are hit hard.
At the Friday news conference, Vattana Peong, executive director of the Cambodian Family Community Center, said the Cambodian community’s testing positivity rate has been as high as 18 percent.
America Bracho, CEO of Latino Health Access, said the efforts to bring down positivity rates are working.
“We are seeing progress. We started at a very, very high level and right now things are lower. We continue to have specific neighborhoods where, based on our data from our own testing sites, things are still high,” Bracho said in a Monday phone interview.
She said once the county breaks down data into census blocks — like how the state uses the health equity metric — it will be easier to pinpoint where targeted resources should go.
Until then, Bracho said the group has been able to target smaller areas to help bring positivity rates down.
“We are now testing at the Mexican consulate (in Santa Ana), a couple times a month … and we are testing at small schools. On Saturday we did testing in a building complex where we know we have people that are infected. So we are being super, super targeted. We are now also testing school staff and we are into churches.”
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 protected] Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio