Orange County could begin reopening more businesses sooner if officials can bolster coronavirus vaccinations to California’s hardest hit communities, following abrupt changes to the state’s reopening guidelines. 

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After more vaccinations are done in the Golden State’s hardest hit communities, state public health officials will adjust metrics on the four-tiered reopening system to allow for more reopenings that otherwise would have likely taken longer to happen. 

At a Thursday news conference in Stockton, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the changes will get more vulnerable low-income people to get vaccinated, while allowing local economies to recover faster.

“Why is that important? Let me give you some facts and stats … just consider low income households earning less than $40,000 a year have been impacted two times than those households whose incomes are north of $120,000,” Newsom said.

He also said there’s similar disparities with vaccines.

“At the same time, insult to injury, households over 120,000 have twice the access to vaccines … that is what we have to reconcile. We have to own up to that,” Newsom said.

The changes also come as Orange County surpassed 4,000 virus deaths Thursday — more than seven times the number of people killed by the flu on a yearly average and nearly as much as the region’s most deadly disease, cancer. 

There’s similar vaccine disparities playing out across the county. 

People 65 and older living South County neighborhoods — like Irvine, Aliso Viejo, Laguna Niguel and Laguna Beach — have been vaccinated at much higher rates than many areas in North and Central County, according to a vaccine distribution map from the OC Health Care Agency. 

For example, nearly 20% of seniors in a portion of West Anaheim received the vaccine, compared to 42% in parts of Irvine.

State officials said an additional 400,000 vaccines need to be administered to residents in California’s hardest hit communities — hitting a 2 million dose benchmark — before any adjustments to the reopening metrics are made. 

OC has only made it out of the most restrictive Purple Tier once since the four tiers were introduced six months ago. 

The county has consistently struggled to lower new cases per 100,000 people, which has held OC back from entering the Red Tier — the second most restrictive tier. 

In order to move to the Red Tier, counties need to have less than seven new cases per 100,000 residents. 

Orange County sits on the cusp, at 7.6 new cases per 100,000 residents.

But that metric is expected to be loosened to 10 cases per 100,000 people after counties across the Golden State vaccinate more people in the most impacted communities.

A move to the Red Tier means indoor dining, movie theaters and gyms can reopen. It also allows for more people to be inside already opened businesses. 

Officials are also expected to earmark 40% of vaccines for the state’s hardest hit, often poor communities where many residents work essential jobs and live in overcrowded housing. 

More adjustments to the reopening metrics are expected to be made after more residents in those communities are vaccinated. 

“When we hit four million doses in the communities of interest, we will shift both the Orange and the Yellow Tier thresholds, somewhat, in the future. In the long run, we will work to increase vaccines and get to a time where restrictions across California can be more limited,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, at a Thursday morning media briefing. 

Newsom said the pandemic has disproportionately impacted Latino communities throughout the Golden State.

“55% of those who have tested positive in this state … happen to be Latino. 46% of the deaths happen to be Latino,” he said. “That’s why we’re here to address that.” 

The Governor also said officials need to recognize the failures to address the pandemic disparities. 

“We need to recognize that we have to reconcile the fact that everything we’ve done … [is] not going to get us to where we want to go,” Newsom said. 

Statewide, Latinos received 17% of vaccines, while making up roughly 39% of the state’s population, according to the state’s vaccine tracker and demographics from the U.S. Census Bureau

In comparison, white people received 32% of the vaccines, make up roughly 36% of residents, have 20% of cases and 31% of deaths, according to statewide virus data

The California Pan Ethnic Health Network, a Sacramento-based health advocacy group, said the move shows that state officials have been listening to local health clinics, community organizations and leaders from the hardest hit neighborhoods. 

“These are the same communities who are most likely to work in essential sectors, live in overcrowded housing, lack transportation and face barriers to health care,” reads a statement from the group’s Twitter account.

The statewide trends mirror numbers in Orange County. 

Latinos have received roughly 13% of vaccines, make up roughly 35% of OC’s residents, have nearly 45% of cases and almost 38% of deaths, according to vaccine and case data from the county Health Care Agency. 

White people received 47% of the vaccines, make up over 38% of the county’s residents, have roughly 25% of cases and 37% of deaths

The disparities have been slowly closing, largely due to various community health clinics targeting the most vulnerable neighborhoods, which are often Latino. A few weeks ago, the Latino community had only 11% of the vaccines administered. 

Meanwhile, hospitalizations continued decreasing. 

As of Thursday, 379 people were hospitalized, including 97 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.  

But OC hit a grim benchmark today.

The virus has now killed 4,013 people, including 47 new deaths reported Thursday.

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.

Andie Martinez-Patterson, government affairs VP for the California Primary Care Association, said the bulk of the work to close pandemic disparities is being done by local health clinics and community based organizations. 

She said more money needs to be directed to the groups so they don’t go broke. 

“We should be doubling down on giving community based organizations and local communities money on the ground,” Martinez-Patterson said in a Wednesday phone interview. “Give them resources to be out culturizing , talking about vaccines for the next six, seven months.” 

Newsom said $53 million will be distributed to 337 community organizations across the state so they can “go out into farmworker communities, have trusted messengers, to have folks vaccinated.” 

“We gotta meet people not only in the fields … but also meet people in their homes,” Newsom said. “So this is a door-knocking campaign.” 

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 Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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