Indoor dining, movie theaters and gyms are reopening Sunday after Orange County’s virus metrics have improved enough that state officials will bump the county up a tier on the statewide reopening system. 

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The reopenings also follow last week’s abrupt changes to the four-tiered reopening system, which essentially eased the path for counties to reopen once 400,000 additional vaccines were administered to people in the 400 hardest hit zip codes across the state. 

That goal was hit by Friday. 

“With this equity metric met, and because vaccines slow the spread of disease and serious illness, the previously announced update to the Blueprint for a Safer Economy to account for progress with vaccine administration goes into effect,” reads a Friday news release from the state Department of Public Health.

OC is moving from the most restrictive level, the Purple Tier, to the Red Tier. 

That means Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm could reopen next month at limited capacity for California residents only. 

Angel Stadium and other outdoor sports venues could also reopen next month. 

“What that means practically is California is making good strides on the commitment to deliver more doses to our hardest hit communities across the state,” said secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, Dr. Mark Ghaly, at a Friday news briefing. 

The abrupt changes to theme park guidance follows a series of sudden updates — from reopening metrics to school reopenings — as Gov. Gavin Newsom is likely to face a recall election

All of OC’s neighboring counties are expected to hit the Red Tier by next Tuesday also.

The pandemic has also put a renewed focus on systemic health issues working class neighborhoods throughout Orange County face and how critical the local health clinics and community organizations are in addressing various disparities. 

The clinics and community organizations rallied together in the early stages of the pandemic to start outreach campaigns to educate residents about the virus, bring testing and isolation resources. 

Now, the clinics are instrumental in vaccinating residents in the hardest hit communities. 

“From day one it was absolutely essential. It’s just that our systems are currently put in place that don’t really cater to populations that are underserved and marginalized. So for all our public health efforts, I think those are the communities that are overlooked,” said Sanghyuk Shin, an epidemiologist and public health expert at UC Irvine. 

Shin said he fears residents in OC’s most vulnerable communities will be again hit by new infections as the reopenings are happening at an accelerated pace. 

I feel that in the past year that when the virus picks up — just constantly being too late to put in measures and opening up too soon — it’s a pattern we see over and over again and I think that’s what significantly contributes to the number of deaths and the illnesses we’ve seen,” Shin said in a Friday phone interview. 

He said infections hit the working class neighborhoods hard because most of the residents don’t have the option to work from home, coupled with living in overcrowded housing. 

“If you look at the occupations where the virus is being transmitted, it’s people who really don’t have the opportunity — the luxury of working from home — are heavily impacted. Of course, when things open up and when there’s more dining indoors or outdoors and other businesses, it’s these workers who are all the more exposed,” Shin said. 

Meanwhile, OC’s coronavirus hospitalizations have been dropping to levels not seen since before the winter weave, which saw over 2,000 people hospitalized. 

As of Friday, 245 people were hospitalized, including 74 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency. 

Yet, deaths continue increasing.

The virus has now killed 4,408 people, including 29 new deaths reported today. 

That’s roughly eight times more people dead than the flu kills on a yearly average. 

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. 

The virus is also in the ballpark of average annual cancer deaths.

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.

Shin said he’s worried the reopenings could fuel another wave, which is impossible to predict how bad it could be. 

“I think at this point it makes more sense to be cautious about opening up and I think the message we give about opening up could potentially lead to a slower decline in the number of cases, as well as potentially higher numbers as the next wave hits. That’s primarily what I’m worried about,” Shin said. 

He also said the reopenings hinge on how many deaths and hospitalizations officials are comfortable with.

“it’s how many cases and hospitalizations and deaths we are willing to accept. In my view, I think we should do everything we can to minimize that at this point until the vaccinations have really reached as many people as we can.” 

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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