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Orange County public health officials said they’re going to keep addressing chronic health conditions in the county’s poorest neighborhoods, beyond just bringing coronavirus positivity rates down.
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“The community has my commitment and of course [Orange County] CEO [Frank] Kim’s and the Board [of Supervisors’] commitment that we will really address the issue of health equity moving forward beyond the pandemic,” county health officer Dr. Clayton Chau said at a Thursday news conference.
The pandemic has put a renewed focus on inequality across Orange County as health disparities have come to the forefront of public health discussions.
“The pandemic truly brings and pushes the issue of health equity to the forefront and these issues existed way before the pandemic,” Chau said. “Not only in Orange County, but all over our state and country.”
Chau, also director of the Health Care Agency, said he’s creating a new director position at the agency specifically to address the health equity issue.
“This position is responsible for cultivating the work … that supports health equity outcomes for Orange County,” Chau said. “We will be engaging private funding to support equity initiatives to advance public health across Orange County.”
It’s still unclear when the position will be filled and what the budget behind the initiative will be, but Chau said the new director will work with community groups to help tackle obesity, heart disease and other chronic health conditions plaguing poor neighborhoods.
The new health equity position comes after the agency has teamed a host of community groups to bring down virus positivity rates in the county’s most underserved neighborhoods, which are oftentimes working class, minority communities.
The first partnership came in June when the Health Care Agency teamed up with Latino Health Access to bring testing, education and quarantine resources — like motel vouchers — to the hardest hit neighborhoods of Santa Ana and Anaheim.
At one point, testing rates in some of those neighborhoods were as high as 20%.
Now the rates in most of those zip codes are in the single digits, according to county Health Care Agency data.
The two cities, which make up over 21% of OC’s population, have roughly 43% of deaths and 36% of confirmed cases.
Latinos are hit the hardest with 48% of all cases in OC, while making up 35% of the population. Latinos also have over 45% of the deaths.
More recently, the county Health Care Agency partnered with a host of Asian American and Pacific Islander groups to mirror the efforts of Latino Health Access, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit.
Chau said those partnerships will continue past the pandemic.
“I’m really happy that we have an interest in the private side to participate … to really address this chronic health condition that’s putting our community at risk,” Chau said. “I strongly believe this is not the single work of the public or the private side, but this is the work of the entire community.”
Over the past week, Orange County’s coronavirus counts picked up in a couple areas as the overall countywide testing positivity has remained the same.
The positivity rate in the poorest neighborhoods — known as the state’s health equity metric — bumped from 5.6 to 6% over the past week.
And average daily new cases per 100,000 residents increased to 5.1, up from 4.6 a week ago.
“So we have seen this last week or so we have seen fluctuations of a number of cases as well as the positivity rate,” Chau said. “Hopefully, we are not looking at a second wave.”
Because of the case bumps, the county will stay in the Red Tier on the state’s four-tiered virus reopening guidelines for at least a couple weeks until it can bring down the metrics.
Malls, beauty salons, movie theaters, restaurants, places of worship and retailers can operate indoor activities, but have to limit the number of people inside.
A move to the Orange Tier means OC could allow more people inside the already open businesses and reopen family entertainment centers and bars for outdoor operation only.
It would also allow Angel Stadium to reopen since its outdoors, but at 20 percent of the stadium’s capacity.
Chau said it’s possible OC could move back into the most restrictive tier, the Purple Tier, especially since surrounding counties are seeing increasing cases.
“There’s always that risk,” Chau said. “Riverside went back to Purple Tier and San Diego is at the high end of the Red Tier.”
Meanwhile, the virus has killed 1,468 county residents out of 59,442 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. Of that number, cancer killed over 4,600 people, heart disease killed over 2,800, over 1,400 died from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes killed over 1,300 people.
According to those same statistics, the flu kills about 543 OC residents annually.
Hospitalizations increased for the second day in a row.
As of Thursday, 181 people were hospitalized, including 59 in intensive care units.
The majority of Supervisors, including Chairwoman Michelle Steel, have railed against the state’s health equity metric over the past few weeks and some wanted local control over the issue.
But the last time OC had local control on masks and business shutdowns early in the pandemic, public health orders were issued and walked back.
At Thursday’s news conference, a Kaiser Health News reporter asked Steel if she supports the health equity metric.
“As county supervisors, we are very much concerned about the health equity plan that we have to do, but at the same time we are working on it,” Steel responded. “We used to have infection rates of almost up to 19 percent.”
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
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