Outdoor football, baseball, basketball, soccer and rugby can resume in Orange County today, following a decline in coronavirus hospitalizations and infection rates.  

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that counties with less than an average of 14 new cases per 100,000 residents can let people play organized football, soccer, rugby, water polo, baseball and a host of other outdoor sports. 

As of Friday, OC is averaging roughly 12 cases per 100,000 on a week-long average.

Newsom’s reinstatement of outdoor sports comes after calls from parents, athletes and numerous groups to revise public health guidelines so people can play games again. 

It also comes as a recall petition against Newsom is gaining momentum and might soon be on a ballot. 

The state guidelines call for regular testing in certain sports.

“Weekly testing will be required for football, rugby and water polo participants age 13 and over in counties with a case rate between 7 and 14 per 100,000. Weekly testing, either antigen or PCR, is required for all participants and coaches in these sports, with results made available within 24 hours of competition,” reads the guidelines. 

A late Thursday news release from county officials noted the potential risks playing sports.

“Youth and adult sports include varied activities that have different levels of risk for transmission of COVID-19 depending on the physical contact between players. Outdoor activities that allow for consistent wearing of face coverings and physical distancing are lower risk than indoor activities that involve close contact between participants and high exertion that increases spread of exhaled particles,” reads the news release. 

UCI epidemiologist and director of the university’s Infectious Disease Science Initiative, Sanghyuk Shin disagreed with the approach, saying it’s too early to resume activities like sports because not enough people have been vaccinated yet while virus variants are emerging in Southern California. 

“I absolutely disagree with where that’s headed. I think as the trends go down, like I said the rate is still much higher than what we would like. Kind of loosening up and allowing more activities, like sports, I think it’s much premature to do that,” Shin said in a Friday phone interview. 

Shin said public health measures need to be kept in order to avoid another potential spike because the variants may be more infectious, although more research needs to be done.

“The numbers that we look at are just numbers, but each number represents a person and represents families that are affected. To let our guard down now is the absolutely wrong time to do it. I think if we are diligent about what works in terms of reducing transmission, providing financial support to people so they can stay home, those types of activities have been shown to work. So right now we need to double up on those activities that work,” he said. 

Meanwhile, infectious disease and public health experts say vaccines are a critical component in battling the new coronavirus variants that have recently been found throughout the Golden State. 

The new variants might be able to infect even more people than the original strain, but the vaccines look to be effective against the mutant strains, so far.

“It’s a new virus — they’re doing what viruses do, which is evolve and mutate. So the mutants out there look like they’re increasing the infectiousness of this,” said Bernadette Boden-Albala, founding dean of UC Irvine’s public health program. 

Boden-Albala, an infectious disease expert who sits on the county’s vaccine task force, said government officials need to focus on getting vaccines out faster than the virus mutates, which could lead to a vaccine-resistant strain similar to the variant found in South Africa.

“The problem is the mutations are growing faster, the spread is growing faster than the vaccine uptick,” Boden-Albala said in a Thursday phone interview. 

Her colleague, UCI epidemiologist and public health expert Andrew Noymer echoed the same concerns at a virtual town hall Wednesday hosted by state Senators Dave Min and Josh Newman.

“These variants arise when someone gets infected — the virus mutates and then they transmit a different form of the virus,” Noymer said. “The best way we can ensure that some new variant … is to vaccinate ourselves against the current virus. Get vaccinated, there will be less churn of the virus in the population and the rate of emergence of these new variants will slow down.” 

Orange County’s vaccination efforts — along with counties across the state — have been plagued by a slow trickle of vaccines from federal officials and a fractured distribution system that varies between counties. 

Now the supply pipeline is beginning to speed up. 

Newsom said county’s will soon have a three-week forecast on how many doses they’ll be getting. 

“So next week county’s will be getting their three-week window,” Newsom said at a Friday news conference. 

Officials expect the supplies forecasts will help counties plan distribution more effectively.

Shin said he’s noticed the increasing vaccine supplies. 

“Overall, I think the trends are really looking good in terms of the vaccination scaling up at a very high rate now,” Shin said in a Friday phone interview. 

Meanwhile, OC’s virus hospitalizations continued to drop.

As of Friday, 453 people were hospitalized, including 137 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.

The coronavirus has proven to be seven times deadlier than the flu over the past year. 

The virus has now killed 3,892 people — more than seven times the flu does on a yearly average. 

For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including  543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.

It’s also killed more than heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes do on a yearly average, respectively. 

According to the state death statistics, cancer kills over 4,600 people, heart disease kills over 2,800, more than 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people.

Orange County has already surpassed its yearly average 20,000 deaths, with 23,883 people dead as of December, according to the latest available state data.

As Blue Shield is expected to take over vaccine distribution for California, Boden-Albala said she’s concerned potential delays and distribution hiccups could slow down vaccinations and lead to another virus spike as mutant strains are popping up. 

“We got a lack of vaccine distribution,” Boden-Albala said. “Now we got this overhaul of the vaccine distribution system that was starting to work and we got mutants that are spreading the virus faster. So we are really in a race against time.”

Shin said he’s worried that relaxing some public health measures could lead to another spike. 

“I think the risk of another wave coming is very real. In fact, I would say it’s highly likely. It’s impossible to say exactly when it’s going to happen and how severe it would be.”

For more details on the COVID-19 vaccine in Orange County view our Voice of OC information page: http://bit.ly/occovidvaccine.

Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Infections | Hospitalizations & Deaths | City-by-City Data

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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