SANTA ANA (CNS) — Orange County falls within the state's new "purple tier" of counties for COVID-19, the worst level, but it's on the verge of being upgraded to the next tier of red, Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said as state officials unveiled the new rating program Friday.
"We are very close based on the last two weeks of data to almost be moving into red," said Bartlett, who is also president of the California State Association of Counties.
County CEO Frank Kim explained the state has said counties such as Orange that were off the state's watch list will get credit for the days they were off the list. That means that if the county's good trends continue as expected until Sept. 8, then the county will have to wait another two weeks before all schools can reopen. So, in-classroom learning could resume by Sept. 23.
"We've got to hold there another week and then fingers crossed," Kim said.
The county is still able to apply for K-6th grades waivers. Most of the waiver applications are coming from secular and private schools, Kim said.
The new system focuses more on case and positivity rates because of breakthroughs in testing and the ability to get results more quickly, which allows public health professionals to more efficiently quarantine and address hot spots and surges. Before, state officials focused on hospitalization and intensive-care unit beds because they wanted to be prepared for any surges that could hasten more deaths.
"It actually encourages more testing and contact tracing," Bartlett said of the new system.
The system is also more fair to higher-population counties, because the overall case counts were being held against them and now officials are focusing more on present-day case counts, Bartlett said. The state also includes a "seven-day lag" as a failsafe to account for slower laboratories.
But the new system also focuses on a third criteria beyond case and positivity rates, and that is still vague, Bartlett said.
"When they define the third criteria more, that should bring more clarity to the counties on how they can operate within the guidelines, and which business sectors can open and to what capacity," Bartlett said.
Hair salons and indoor malls at 25 percent capacity can reopen on Monday statewide, Bartlett said. If Orange County's trends continue and it makes it into the red tier, then indoor dining, for example, could be added at 25 percent capacity after next week, Bartlett said.
On Friday, Orange County reported nine more people had succumbed to COVID-19, raising the death toll to 956. The county also reported 323 new diagnoses of coronavirus, raising the cumulative to 47,782 since the pandemic began.
Of Friday's reported fatalities, three were skilled nursing facility residents and two lived in assisted living.
Of the total death toll, 365 have been skilled nursing facility residents and 61 lived in assisted living facilities.
Since Sunday, the county has reported 61 COVID-19 fatalities. Last week, 87 deaths were recorded, and the week prior saw 89 fatalities reported.
The nine deaths were spread out over the past couple of weeks or so. It's not uncommon for there to be a lag in reporting of coronavirus deaths as officials receive the notifications from a variety of sources. The deadliest day for the county since the pandemic began was Aug. 3, when 17 people died.
Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the Orange County Health Care Agency and the county's chief health officer, said at Thursday's news conference that fatalities have been going down.
"The trend is still trending down, so I'm hopeful" it will continue, Chau said.
The main concern for public health professionals is the potential for a "twindemic" as flu season soon begins, Chau said.
Usually "people don't think about flu shots until fall," he told reporters. "You might be surprised, but flu distribution has already started."
And officials "anticipate it will become more widely available in the coming weeks," he said.
"We're urging the community to get vaccinated to avoid the possibility of a twindemic," he said.
Residents 65 and older or anyone with a compromised immune system are urged to get a flu shot in mid- to late September, Chau said.
Officials are also concerned about another outbreak emerging from Labor Day weekend.
"I'm not the only one," Chau said. "Most all health officers for other counties up and down the state worry about that. We truly encourage people to have a party through Skype and Facetime and really just stay home if you don't really need to be out."
Bartlett told City News Service that Labor Day get-togethers are "concerning, especially counties heavily impacted by tourism."
The county's data on hospitalizations and other key metrics have been moving in the right direction, with the rate of county residents testing positive for COVID-19 at 5.2 percent, below the state's desired threshold of 8 percent.
Hospitalizations dropped from 372 on Thursday to 351 on Friday, with the number of intensive care unit patients dipping from to 112 to 98.
The county's case rate per 100,000 residents over 14 days ticked up from 82.1 to 82.4, which is well above the California Department of Public Health threshold of 25 per 100,000 residents.
The county has 30 percent of intensive care unit beds available, which is better than the state's 20 percent threshold. And the county's hospitals have 61 percent of their ventilators available, well above the state standard of 25 percent.
The change in three-day average of hospitalized patients stands at - 2.7 percent, much lower than the 10 percent state standard.
The OCHCA reported that 624,004 COVID-19 tests have been conducted, including 7,093 reported on Friday. There have been 40,277 documented recoveries.
A new "super site" for COVID-19 testing like the one at Anaheim Convention Center opened Wednesday at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. There is no out-of-pocket cost for a test, as insurance will cover some and the county will pay for those uninsured.
Officials will prioritize testing for people with symptoms, people have come into contact with an infected person, healthcare workers, first responders, anyone who lives or works in high-density housing and workers in essential businesses such as grocery stores and teachers.
Results will be available in one to two days. Anyone wishing to schedule a test should make a reservation through occovid.19.ochealthinfo.com/supersite.