As Orange County Reopens, Schools and Testing Remain Focus

Officials say they have plans in place as UC Irvine and K-12 schools begin to get students back into the classroom.

UC Regents

Orange County has reported six more people have succumbed to COVID-19, raising the death toll to 1,182, with 84 new diagnoses of coronavirus, hiking the cumulative to 52,622.

Since Sunday, the county reported 55 coronavirus fatalities. Two of the deaths reported Thursday were skilled nursing facility residents and two lived in assisted living facilities.

The deaths were spread out over the past few weeks, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency. The lag in reporting is common since the data come from multiple sources, officials say. The last double-digit day of fatalities occurred Aug. 27 when a dozen people died.

Since the pandemic began, 433 of the fatalities were skilled nursing facility residents and 83 lived in assisted living facilities.

Four of the fatalities since the pandemic began were transients, up from one, which was reported Tuesday.

Orange County officials say COVID-19 numbers are improving enough to move it up a level, to the orange tier, within a week if trends continue. The overall positivity rate went from 3.9% to 3.1%, and the daily case count per 100,000 people dropped from 4.7 to 3.6. The county has to remain within that range for another week, then it can move up from the red to the orange tier.

Moving up to the orange tier means retail businesses could operate at full capacity, instead of 50% in the current red tier. Shopping malls also could operate at full capacity, but with closed common areas and reduced food courts just as in the red tier.

The orange tier boosts capacity for churches, restaurants, movies, museums, zoos and aquariums from 25% capacity to half capacity. Gyms and fitness centers could boost capacity from 10% to 25% and reopen pools.

The orange tier also allows family entertainment centers like bowling alleys and wall-climbing to open indoors to 25% capacity.

Orange County's schools are already eligible to reopen for indoor, personal instruction, but not all of them will reopen right away. Schools in Fountain Valley reopened on Tuesday.

It is up to school districts to decide and many are offering “hybrid models” of some in-person instruction and some online-only instruction, Orange County CEO Frank Kim said. Some school districts will allow parents to continue with distance learning only.

If there is a breakout at any of the schools, they would have to close for two weeks and have no more COVID-19 cases before reopening, said Dr. Clayton Chau, the county's Health Care Agency director and chief health officer.

Dr. Matthew Zahn of the county's communicable disease control division told reporters Thursday that if 5% of a school's population of students or teachers get infected, it will be shut down for two weeks, according to the state's guidelines.

Zahn said the county is reluctant to post information about outbreaks at schools because it tends to send the wrong message that schools without an outbreak are safer, and parents and students may let their guard down.

He also said that when there was a measles outbreak traced to Disneyland, the county attempted at first to post where the infected went, but then it became too cumbersome to do so.

School officials will respond within 24 hours when there is a COVID-19 infection reported, Zahn said.

With UC Irvine students returning to campus for classes this week, he said the county was working closely with the university to help guard against outbreaks like the ones in San Diego and other campuses across the country.

“UC Irvine and other colleges are taking measures that are appropriate with social distancing and measures to identify people who are sick,” Zahn said.

UC Irvine and other colleges are taking measures that are appropriate with social distancing and measures to identify people who are sick

Dr. Matthew Zahn, Medical Director Communicable Disease Control Division Orange County Health Care Agency

With regard to dormitories, Zahn said, “A significant issue associated with (what happened in San Diego) was off-campus housing and transmission of the virus. We have been talking with UC Irvine and other colleges and universities not only about classroom sites and what's appropriate but dorm facilities and off-campus housing.”

University officials are stressing to students the importance of sticking to guidelines to help curb the spread of the virus.

“We know UC Irvine is planning to do regular testing of staff and students,” Zahn said. “And on a national level, there seems to be evidence that is helpful, and that is encouraging ... But we're all learning how this works in all settings.”

UCI students began “Move-In Week” on Tuesday and will continue through next Tuesday. Students are being tested and getting results within 48 to 72 hours.

Last week, the county reported 34 fatalities, down from 42 the week prior.

Hospitalizations in the county dipped from 175 on Wednesday to 168, with the number of patients in intensive care declining from 51 to 42.

The OCHCA reported that 819,311 COVID-19 tests have been conducted, including 8,403 reported Thursday. There have been 47,513 documented recoveries.

Officials are not concerned about a lack of testing to help vault the county into the orange tier, Kim said. The county has promoted testing among retail and food industry workers and among educators, he said.

A week ago, the county had 157.7 per 100,000 residents testing on average and as of Wednesday that number was up to 214 per 100,000, he said.

“That's a pretty big jump,” he said.

Since the pandemic began, 362 of those infected who died were 85 years or older, 252 were 75 to 84, 241 were 65-74, 170 were 55-64, 103 were 45-54, 32 were 35-44, 17 were 25-34, four were 18-24 and one was a child.

The county has 66% of its ventilators available and 32% of its intensive care unit beds. The change in three-day average hospitalized patients is -6.7%.

To move up from the second-most restrictive red tier to the orange tier in the state's four-tier monitoring system, the county must have a daily new case rate per 100,000 of 1 to 3.9 and a positivity rate of 2% to 4.9%.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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