SANTA ANA, Calif. (CNS) — If the state still had its blueprint for reopening the economy system in place, Orange County would have had to move up from the least restrictive yellow tier to the orange tier, the chief health officer and director of the county's Health Care Agency told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
According to state data released every Tuesday, the county's average daily new case rate per 100,000 residents jumped up from 1.5 last week to 2.6, while the overall test positivity rate ticked up from 1.2% to 1.8%.
The county's Health Equity Quartile rate, which measures positivity in hot spots in disadvantaged communities, climbed from 1.4% to 1.9%.
The county was averaging 70 to 80 hospitalizations prior to the Fourth of July, Dr. Clayton Chau said. Now the county has 119 hospitalized, with 25 in intensive care, he added.
"The majority — over 95% — are individuals who are unvaccinated," Chau said.
He said that although Orange County has "one of the highest rates in the country" of inoculated seniors, "we still have about 11% of seniors not vaccinated."
The county, which is now reporting coronavirus data weekly instead of daily as it did until last month, has also logged nine new COVID-19 fatalities since last week, raising the overall death toll to 5,133.
One of the fatalities occurred July 1, making it the lone death this month so far.
Five of the fatalities occurred last month, raising June's death toll to 14. Two of the fatalities were in January, the deadliest month during the pandemic, raising the death toll then to 1,562. One of the fatalities was in December, the second deadliest month, raising the death toll that month to 967.
The death toll for May is 22, 42 for April, 198 for March, and 610 for February.
Chau said about 73% of Orange County residents eligible to receive a vaccine have gotten at least one dose. Of those, 64% are fully vaccinated, he said.
"We are behind San Diego, but certainly ahead of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino" counties, Chau said.
Orange County CEO Frank Kim told City News Service after the meeting: "Obviously, we're not happy to see case rates rise, but we did expect to see a bump in cases once the restrictions were reduced and, particularly, since we had a holiday weekend."
Kim said health officials could not forecast what the size of the bump would be, "but when I look at surrounding counties, our numbers are a tad lower, but we're certainly in the pack." Kim said he was "hoping for us to see stabilization in testing positivity and new case rates."
As has been typical for months at board meetings, opponents of vaccines and face coverings besieged the county supervisors to adopt laws they cannot or to take actions prohibited by the state while peddling various conspiracy theories. At one point, several spoke out against a hotspot web access service and the donation of laptop computers to help provide internet access through the county's library system to low-income residents because they claimed the organization involved in the program had links to billionaire George Soros.
Former Orange County Supervisor Chris Norby joined others imploring Chau, as the county health officer, to remove a state mandate for face coverings for the coming school year regardless of vaccine status. The state will not require social distancing, however, Chau said.
Norby acknowledged that county officials can do little to overcome state mandates, but urged the supervisors to do "everything you can" to avoid the mask mandate in schools this fall.
"Masks have deprived our students and teachers of the most basic level of communication — the smile," Norby said. "It breaks my heart to think (my son) may be required to go to school again this coming year wearing a mask six hours a day."
Norby argued that transmission of the virus is low among children and that teachers and staff have had ample opportunity to get vaccinated.
"Public policy should be based on science, not superstition, and based on fact, not phobias," Norby said. "Don't sacrifice a whole generation's education to fear and bureaucratic inertia. Do what you can to ban the mask mandate in our schools and let our students breathe again."
Supervisor Katrina Foley noted during the meeting that many in attendance, who, for the first time since the pandemic began can sit inside the board room and not wait outside before making a public comment, were not wearing a mask, including many who publicly avowed their opposition to vaccines.
"All those without masks are making a mockery of the self- attestation" that they were vaccinated, as the unvaccinated are required to wear a face covering in the board room, Foley said.
Even Supervisor Don Wagner, who has been critical of state mandates during the pandemic, ripped the activists for declaring board members will have to answer to God.
"I don't speak for any of my colleagues, but I'm sure all of them feel that after months of the public coming here and saying, `You're going to stand before God someday and I don't know how you can sleep at night,' I assure you that if they're like me, they sleep very well at night because none of the conspiracy nonsense about us getting kickbacks or getting kickbacks from George Soros are true," Wagner said. "I will have some explaining to do someday, but the handling of this item and the handling of COVID-19 is not going to be one of them."
Wagner asked for the wifi and laptop donation to the libraries be postponed so officials could research the claims of links to partisan political groups, but the board voted 3-2 to accept the Chromebooks and acquire the hot- spot access. Wagner and Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett cast the dissenting votes.
Orange County Superior Court officials issued a statement after the board meeting announcing a new administrative order requiring face coverings for everyone entering the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach. The change was ordered by Presiding Judge Erick Larsh in the wake of two coronavirus cases traced back to the Newport Beach courthouse. Before, the policy was that if visitors were vaccinated, the mask was optional.
COVID-19 hospitalizations in Orange County have more than doubled in the past two weeks, raising concerns among some health officials.
"I'm worried about the trend," said Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention.
The county has 1.8 million of its 3.3 million population fully vaccinated, so there are enough unvaccinated residents to potentially eventually threaten overwhelming the hospital system, Noymer said.
"I'm not saying it will become overrun," he said. "It's not a prediction... (but) 40% is enough with these new variants, which are more transmissible, to generate enough cases to overrun the hospital system," he said, referring to the unvaccinated population.
As of July 1, the county had 70 hospitalized with 13 in the ICU, and on June 29 the county had 56 hospitalized with 10 in the ICU.
The county has logged 1,050 infections since last week, raising the cumulative caseload to 257,826.
Noymer implored residents to get vaccinated.
"Breakthrough infections remain rare and significantly milder clinically, including sometimes being asymptomatic," Noymer said. "And breakthrough infections really shouldn't be a major talking point at this point. It's not an epidemiologically significant factor. The current variants do not evade the vaccines."
Noymer told City News Service that he wishes Orange County would do a breakout graph on its website showing how many of the new cases involve unvaccinated residents, as is being done in Contra Costa County.
"It's this yawning divide between the vaccinated and unvaccinated in new cases," he said.