SANTA ANA (CNS) - One day after officially entering a less-restrictive tier of the state's COVID-19 reopening blueprint -- allowing thousands of fans to attend the Angels home opener in Anaheim -- Orange County's downward trend in coronavirus numbers continued.
Orange County on Thursday reported just 81 new COVID-19 cases, and hospitalization numbers continued to decline.
The cumulative case count from the throughout the pandemic now stands at 250,764. The county reported 11 more fatalities, increasing the death toll to 4,755. Some of the deaths logged Thursday occurred in January.
The county's death toll in March stood at 109 as of Thursday, significantly below the February number of 547. The death toll for January, the deadliest by far during the pandemic, increased to 1,465, while December's was 922. The December and January death tolls reflect a holiday-fueled surge. The monthly totals continue to be adjusted as deaths are confirmed as being COVID-related.
The county's seven-day average daily rate of new COVID-19 infections inched up slightly to 3 per 100,000 residents, but the testing-positivity rate dipped to 1.6%. The health equity positivity rate -- a measure of the testing rate in low-income, hard-hit communities -- was 2.2%, according to Orange County CEO Frank Kim.
“Our hospitalization numbers are looking good,'' Kim said.
The county's COVID hospitalization total declined from 141 on Wednesday to 131 on Thursday with the number of intensive care unit patients dropping from 26 to 22.
Orange County officially moved into the orange tier of the state's re-opening system on Wednesday, the same day officials opened their newest large-scale vaccination POD -- of “point of dispensing'' -- site at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.
“This site will add tremendously to our capacity ... to move the county safely ahead to reopen our economy,'' Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do said of Wednesday's opening.
“We have been working really hard to ensure greater access for all residents in Orange County,'' Do said. “(But) access is really key in the low-equity neighborhoods. ... I want everyone to know you will never be asked to give your residency status in order to get vaccinated. We are all in it together. We need to get vaccinated not just for ourselves, but for our loved ones, our neighbors and our community so we can reopen the economy and put this pandemic behind us as soon as possible.''
Supervisor Katrina Foley, who represents the district that includes the fairgrounds, said plans are in the works to offer more flexible hours at the site “because some people cannot afford to take time off from work to go to a POD from 8 to 5.''
Dr. Clayton Chau, the county's chief health officer and director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, said it is critical to vaccinate as many residents as possible to outpace highly infectious COVID variants, which have prompted upticks in cases some states and countries.
He said officials are dispensing vaccines to anyone who wants one in the ZIP codes identified by the state as priorities because they are underprivileged communities hardest hit by the pandemic.
“Several countries have gone back to soft lockdowns and we know it's because they haven't been able to vaccinate quickly,'' Chau said, adding that England has not had to do so because officials there are vaccinating residents as quickly as possible.
In some countries, officials held back inoculations to make sure there was enough vaccine for booster shots, but England prioritized getting first shots done as much as possible before getting the booster shots, Chau said.
“That seems to have worked and I have made the same recommendation to the state, so we'll wait and see,'' Chau said.
The state on Thursday expanded vaccine eligibility to everyone aged 50 and up. It will expand on April 15 to everyone aged 16 and up.
Chau emphasized the importance of continued adherence to social distancing and face coverings, and reminded travelers that the state “strongly recommends'' quarantining for 10 days after returning from an out-of-state trip.
The county has inoculated about 1.1 million residents, and about 500,000 have received both doses and are fully inoculated, Chau said.
The county's move into the orange tier of the state's Blueprint for a Safer Economy allowed the county to ease restrictions on a variety of business sectors.
Retail stores now do not have to limit capacity at all, and churches, movie theaters, museums, zoos and aquariums can expand from 25% to 50% of capacity.
Restaurants can expand indoor dining to 50%, wineries can offer indoor service at 25%, and bars that don't serve food can reopen outdoors.
Gyms and fitness centers can expand to 25% of capacity, and family entertainment centers can offer indoor attractions such as bowling.
Chau said it is unclear when the county might be able to make it up the yellow tier. The state mandates remaining in the orange tier for at least three weeks, although it lifted that restriction to help the county move more quickly from red to orange.
Chau predicted the state will soon reach its goal of 4 million inoculations of lower-income residents, which will trigger a loosening of the standards for each color of the tiered network for reopening up the economy. As of Thursday, the state has inoculated 3.6 million in the lower-income category.
Under current rules, the county's new case rate must dip below 1 per 100,000 residents to make it to the yellow tier, but the county has qualified for the yellow tier in positivity rates for the last week, Kim said. Once the state reaches 4 million vaccinations in low-income communities, the benchmark for advancing to yellow will increase to 2 per 100,000 residents.
The county received an additional 44,000 doses of vaccines this week, Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said. That brings the county's total to 115,000 this week. Federal allocation to pharmacies has also risen, Kim said.
The OCHCA also reported 13,159 COVID-19 tests Thursday, raising the cumulative total to 3,355,755. The county has 35.1% of its ICU bed space available, and 72% of its ventilators.
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