Orange County’s COVID-19 positivity rate appears to be dropping for the first time in over a month as the Omicron surge continues to fuel concerns over keeping classrooms open. 

Still, roughly one in four tests are still coming back positive for COVID.

According to state public health data, the county sits at a 24.4% positivity rate as of Tuesday – down roughly 3 percentage points compared to last week.

UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, Andrew Noymer, said it’s too early to tell if OC’s fourth surge is subsiding yet.

“I’m always nervous at looking at data on the first day after a long weekend, so I’ll have more faith on it tomorrow,” Noymer said in a Tuesday phone interview, adding that nearly 1,200 people were still hospitalized for the virus.

“The other thing is that test positivity is still high,” Noymer said.

Meanwhile, COVID dashboards at public schools are showing cases soaring with some local districts reporting over a thousand cases at the end of last week.

[Read: Parents Across Orange County Keep Tense Watch as School COVID Dashboards Soar]

At the same time, there are parents and teachers questioning the accuracy of those dashboards saying the numbers on school’s public websites don’t often match up with the emptiness of the classrooms.

Even a Saddleback Valley Unified School District official questioned the veracity of other school districts reporting, after the district temporarily got rid of their dashboard last week unable to keep up with volume of cases amid a staff shortage.

Like Saddleback, districts across the country are facing staff shortages during the surge.

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Orange County deputy Health Officer, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, said schools aren’t hotbeds of virus transmission. 

“When we look back at the data from previous surges, what we do know is that transmission typically happens outside of the classroom.”

Orange County Deputy Health Officer, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong

Noymer objected to that idea.

“It is preposterous to say transmission doesn’t happen in the schools,” Noymer said. “There is transmission in schools, there’s just no doubt about it.” 

Chinsio-Kwong also said it’s up to school districts to report virus cases to the community. 

“Maintaining a dashboard on a website is up to each individual employer, school or college,” Chinsio-Kwong said. “It is not required.” 

She also urged people to not look for COVID testing at hospitals because they’re filling up. 

“Please do not go to the hospital emergency room to obtain screening or testing,” Chinsio-Kwong said. 

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As of Tuesday, 1,197 people were hospitalized for the virus, including 199 in intensive care units, according to state data.

OC Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau said during a Tuesday news conference that the Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) has about 15 hospitalizations currently.

“That’s the highest number ever in this pandemic and we currently have 14 children sitting in the ICU.”

OC Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau

While some parents and teachers are calling for mandatory weekly testing for students, the state sent out at-home testing for the districts to hand out. 

Santa Ana Unified School District hosts weekly test sites for the community. The schedule for their test sites has been posted on their website.

Noymer said testing is foundational for classroom learning. 

“Testing’s definitely an important piece of the puzzle here,” Noymer said. “Testing needs to be available and free.”

Still some parents and teachers have told the Voice of OC they’re scared of catching the virus or their children getting sick.

Some want to see districts take stronger precautions amid the surge like mandatory testing and others want schools to bring back online learning temporarily until the numbers go down.

Other parents however are protesting against the precautions already in place like masks and an expected vaccine mandate for students to attend school in person following full approval of the COVID shot for kids.

[Read: Classroom or Online Learning? Orange County Debates How to Teach Students During Omicron Spike]

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On Tuesday, a rally against the expected student vaccine mandate from the state was held outside the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified District office.

According to the district’s dashboard, there are around 1,200 students and staff who have the virus out of over 26,000 students and staff as of Tuesday morning.

The district is expected to resume a delayed school board meeting on Wednesday, after board president Carrie Buck adjourned abruptly last week because some residents refused to wear a mask in the meeting chambers.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the board is expected to consider a resolution calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to reconsider the expected vaccine mandate.

Other districts in the county like Ocean View and Capistrano Unified School Districts have already passed similar resolutions as parents have been showing up to board meetings speaking out in opposition to mask and vaccine mandates.

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Capistrano Unified School District Board of Trustees will also meet on Wednesday and are expected to discuss and vote on a resolution supporting local decision making when it comes to COVID-19 safety protocols at their 7 p.m. meeting.

The district’s dashboard is showing 1,650 COVID cases out of 45,645 students and staff on district campuses on Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, the dashboard of Orange County’s Catholic private schools showed Tuesday that there were 685 staff and students with COVID out of the 19,634 staff and students going in person at the schools listed on the dashboard.

UC Irvine public health expert and epidemiologist, Sanghyuk Shin, said the state government failed to help keep rates low by only taking the classroom only approach to learning without bolstering existing pandemic protocols like air purifiers or offering temporary online schooling during surges – especially in districts that have been hit hardest by the virus.

“I think our job as a society was to keep levels low in the community. Unfortunately, as we know, that hasn’t really happened. That was and continues to be a failure in the government and our leadership in not putting in sufficient public health measures to keep rates low in the community.”

UC Irvine public health expert and epidemiologist, Sanghyuk Shin, in a phone interview last week

Shin, also director of UCI’s infectious disease science initiative, said numerous polls show people in hard hit communities support online learning and other pandemic precautions, like masks and vaccines. 

“Poll after poll shows that communities of color, people who are working class, those are the communities that are most supportive of things like remote instruction and things like more public health measures,” Shin said. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislators have repeatedly said online learning isn’t going to be an option. 

A study published last year from the consulting firm Mckinsey & Company stated that the pandemic’s impact on learning was significant and left students on average five months behind on mathematics and four months behind on reading.

Noymer said the school debate is complex. 

“Whether or not schools should close down is an interesting policy question that doesn’t have an easy answer. (It’s) a different decision than the one we faced in March 2020 (because the vaccine is widely available).

UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, Andrew Noymer

But, he said, appropriate testing and other pandemic protocols like increased ventilation could keep schools safe.

“We can’t keep closing schools at the drop of the hat every time there’s an uptick in COVID because there’s going to be upticks in COVID for the next – indefinitely,” he said. “I’d like to see testing as part of an open school regime.” 

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

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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