Local News

Orange County COVID-19 Update

Orange County recorded 48,190 cumulative cases of COVID-19 and 975 total deaths as of August 29. Locally, Fullerton has confirmed 2,177 cases, including 173 children, with 77 adult cases occurring in skilled nursing facilities within the City. Fullerton, with a total population of 142,824, has had 40 people die of the disease so far. Ten of those deaths occurred in skilled nursing facilities.

For comparison, the city of Orange, with a population of 141,691 has recorded 2,177 cases and 45 deaths, both figures comparable to those of Fullerton. By contrast, Irvine, with a population of 280,202, has had 1,447 cases of the disease and only 12 deaths.

On August 20, officials announced the first known child to have died in Orange County, a juvenile described as having a significant underlying medical condition.

There are currently around 350 people hospitalized, with around 100 in Intensive Care Units (ICU). Seventy percent of ICU beds within the County are occupied, while only 29% of ventilators are currently in use. Ventilators are used for the most serious cases, although medical professionals have been able to decrease the patient need for them since the pandemic began.

County officials announced a second “Super Site” for testing at the OC Fairgrounds, in addition to the current one located at the Anaheim Convention Center. The site is expected to test up to 500 people the first week of operation, and up to 1,000 per week thereafter. The sites will be open Monday through Friday, but appointments are necessary. OC residents are encouraged to call (800) 446-8888 for more information. Although tests are free, they are meant for those who don’t otherwise have the opportunity to get one through their healthcare provider.

The two “Supersite” testing centers in Orange County are the Anaheim Convention Center and the OC Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

The final week in August brought two significant developments related to the ongoing pandemic. First, Dr. Clayton Chau, Orange County’s Health Care Agency Director since June, was unexpectedly selected by the Board of Supervisors to also become the County’s Health Care Officer (HCO). Although Dr. Chau had been acting in that additional capacity since the sudden departure of the former HCO, Dr. Nichole Quick, in May, officials had recently spoken during a press conference about the high number of well-qualified candidates applying to fill the vacant position. A permanent HCO was expected to be hired once another high-level post had been filled, that of Deputy Health Care Director. Dr. Chau said that the selection, made in a closed-door session of a recent BOS meeting, took him by surprise, but he said he was “grateful” and accepted the job.

Both the Fullerton Observer and the Voice of OC questioned Board of Supervisors Chair Michelle Steel about the appropriateness of having Dr. Chau fill both roles given that the HCA Director answers to the BOS while the Health Care Officer, although hired by the BOS, derives authority from the state of California. Neither Steel nor Chau himself saw any potential for conflict of interest in filling both roles, despite the fact that the former HCO, Dr. Quick, resigned in May following her refusal to back down on requiring the wearing of face masks in the County (the State had not yet required them). Dr. Chau, then just starting as HCA Director, was asked to fill the HCO role as well, and, at first, held the line on face masks, arguing before the BOS that the order was necessary. However, he capitulated just days later, downgrading the order to a strong recommendation. Answering questions on August 27 about the changed opinion, he implied that it was he himself who had helped to convince the California Dept. of Public Health that a statewide order was necessary. One was put in place just a week later, rendering his about-face rescinding of the County mask order obsolete.

Dr. Clayton Chau speaks at a recent virtual press conference. He now fills the dual roles of OC Health Care Agency Director and County Health Care Officer.

The naming of Dr. Chau to the Health Care Officer might be seen as a way for the Board of Supervisors to consolidate power over both posts, removing a potentially dissident voice not subject to their authority. During the same August 27 press conference, Voice of OC publisher Norberto Santana directly suggested that Dr. Chau would be the least qualified HCO in the State, given his lack of some credentials held by HCOs in other counties, but Chau countered that he had taught public health at UCLA for a decade.

Santana also questioned the wisdom of choosing Dr. Chau for the post, given his lead role in what is now universally seen as a premature re-opening of businesses in OC early in the summer that had to be quickly closed down again after an increased in COVID-19 illnesses and deaths. When asked by the Fullerton Observer for a ballpark number of how many people had become ill and how many had died as a result of the June re-opening, Dr. Chau responded that he didn’t have the number at hand, but did not dispute that increases in transmissions and deaths had occurred because of the State and County actions, although he later stressed that the entire state had participated in the re-opening, not just OC.

BOS Chair Michelle Steel, a candidate for U.S. Congress in November, defended the naming of Chau as HCO, stating that he had been doing a great job meeting with State officials and city managers already, and that bringing another person in to fill the role in the middle of the pandemic might be difficult. She did indicate that after the pandemic things might be different, implying that someone else might then be brought in as Health Care Officer for the County. Fourth District Supervisor Doug Chaffee (Fullerton) declined to respond to the Observer inquiries about Chau’s appointment.

Supervisor Michelle Steel, who is running for Congress, speaks at a virtual press conference. She said that there was no “conflict of interest” in having Dr. Chau serve as both Health Care Agency Director and Health Care Officer for Orange County.

The second important development concerning the fight against COVID-19 came from Gov. Gavin Newsom on August 28 in the form of a new set of parameters for re-opening businesses in California counties. OC, just six days off the State’s monitoring list had added a number to that effect on its COVID-19 dashboard site, anticipating the close of a 14-day period on Sunday, September 6, during which countywide testing positivity rates must remain below 8% to begin relaxing some restrictions on businesses and schools.

In a stated effort to avoid another premature opening of business, Gov. Newsom introduced a new, more nuanced framework for a more responsible and careful approach to allowing gyms, restaurants, salons, church gatherings, and other activities to eventually resume. The four-tiered system is intended to carefully transition counties from one color coded category to the next, ranging from “minimal” to “widespread…based on its rate of new cases and positivity,” according to the State’s website explaining the new system.

Most counties, including Orange, are currently categorized as Widespread (Purple), including virtually all of Southern California, except for San Diego County, currently in the next less stringent category of Substantial (Red). In order to move to the Moderate (Orange), and, ultimately, to the Minimal (Yellow) categories, counties “must remain in a tier for at least 3 weeks before moving forward.” Counties must remain stable for at least two consecutive weeks. If the counties’ metrics begin to falter, it will be moved back to a more restrictive category. Counties are reviewed each Tuesday to determine their status.

OC’s current status in the Purple Widespread tier is based on having no more than 7 new daily cases per 100,000 residents and a test positivity rate no higher than 8%. It only allows the opening of barber shops and beauty salons to open indoors with modifications, and shopping malls and all non-stand-alone grocery retail to 25% capacity for indoor operations.

California’s Department of Public Health, whose director recently resigned in the wake of a State reporting testing error, released a public service announcement urging residents to maintain social distancing and to wear face coverings, and not to stray beyond their immediate households for Labor Day Weekend celebrations. On August 27 Dr. Clayton Chau emphasized the same concerns about the holiday, which is generally an occasion for crowded beaches and end of summer parties. The Sunday of that weekend aligns with the end of a two-week period following Orange County’s removal from the Governor’s watch list. Dr. Chau said that Health Care Officers throughout the State shared his concern for elevated transmissions occurring as a result of Labor Day celebrations and urged people to say home and limit parties to online gatherings.

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