Local News

Dramatic Increase in COVID-19 Forces Return of Restrictive Health Measures

Rising Cases of COVID-19

Orange County’s rates of coronavirus transmission are spiking once again, with metrics in most categories steadily rising in recent weeks. Daily reports of new COVID-19 cases are now routinely exceeding 1,000 in OC. Currently, 479 people are hospitalized in the County; 115 of them in Intensive Care Units. Seventy percent of OC’s ICU beds are occupied, while 64% of ventilators are available. In mid-July, as many as 722 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 and 245 were in ICU beds. But new cases are rising sharply, threatening to equal or exceed hospitalization levels seen last summer.

Nationally, cases of coronavirus infection have reached record levels, with fears of an even worse wave following ill-advised Thanksgiving gatherings and travel, as the country, under the lame duck Trump Administration, still lacks a unified strategy for combatting transmissions. Travel to and from states with lax or no rules in place for social distancing, wearing of face coverings and other preventative personal measures, or strategic closures of businesses and public facilities to limit social interaction, are of great concern to public health officials who have urged OC residents to stay home during the holidays.

Fullerton has recorded 3,508 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 112 fatalities from the disease. For comparison, the city of Orange, with a similar population size, has a slightly lower number of total cases, at 3,465, but a much lower death rate of 72. Case Rates per 100,000 residents and Test Positivity Rates have increased in all four of Fullerton’s ZIP codes, sometimes dramatically.

Source: Orange County Health Care Agency.

Return to Most Restrictive Tier

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has moved Orange County from the Red Tier, or second most restrictive, to the Purple, or most restrictive tier, of the State’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy.

The four-tiered color-coded Blueprint is a rubric developed by the CDPH to measure the progress of each of the State’s 58 counties in order to determine how widely each county may reopen or must restrict or close various businesses, public venues, activities, and schools in order to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Governor Gavin Newsom held a news conference Nov. 16 to announce that, effective the following day, the State was “pulling an emergency brake” on the Blueprint due to a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases. Twenty-eight counties, including Orange, were immediately moved back to the Purple, or “Widespread,” Tier, placing nearly 95% of California residents under the most restrictive pandemic conditions as determined by the State’s metric. Only a few counties remain in the Red and Orange Tiers. None has managed to stay in the Yellow, or “Minimal” Tier.

Limited Stay-at-Home Order in Effect

Effective Saturday, Nov. 21, a statewide limited Stay-at-Home Order took effect, similar to the one instituted earlier this year in the first months of the pandemic, except that it will only apply to the hours between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. The order only applies to the now 45 Purple Tier counties, including Orange and every other county in Southern California. According to a press release from Gov. Newsom’s office, The order “is designed to reduce opportunities for disease transmission. Activities conducted between 10pm and 5am are often non-essential and more likely related to social activities and gatherings that have a higher likelihood of leading to reduced inhibition and reduced likelihood for adherence to safety measures such as wearing a face covering and maintaining physical distance.”

Like the earlier Stay-at-Home Order, the current one is intended to “flatten the curve” by moderating the rate of transmission among the populace so that local hospitals do not become overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients all at once. State health officials are concerned about a rate of increase in COVID-19 cases greater than that seen in July of this year, and want to ensure that hospital facilities, particularly Intensive Care Unit beds, are not overwhelmed by a new wave of patients. COVID-19 cases spiked over the summer, in part, it is believed, because residents ignored calls for social distancing and the wearing of face coverings and they gathered in large numbers for Memorial Day and 4th of July celebrations. This helped the virus spread to larger numbers of people, many of whom required hospitalizations, and some of whom died weeks later.

The change in tier status will immediately require the closure of facilities previously allowed to be open in limited capacities under the less restrictive Red, or “Substantial” Tier. Houses of worship, bars and restaurants, gyms, movie theaters, and other indoor venues previously operating with limited indoor occupancies have now ceased indoor activities entirely, and may only maintain outdoor services with modifications for social distancing. Bars that do not serve food must close entirely. Hair salons and barbershops may still operate indoors with modifications, but retail stores must reduce capacity from 50% down to 25%, which will see a return of limited numbers of customers being allowed to enter stores at the same time. Amusement parks remain closed.

Reacting to the alarming rise in numbers of reported COVID-19 cases, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to stop all in-person dining in restaurants, wineries, and breweries, including outdoors, for three weeks beginning Nov. 25. The Orange County Board of Supervisors has yet to impose any such restrictions.

Fullerton Restrictions and Restaurant Funding

Locally, the city of Fullerton is offering grants of up to $1,500 to restaurants “to enhance the outdoor dining experience during the colder weather,” according to City Manager Ken Domer. The grants are funded through the congressional CARES Act through funds made available by Orange County’s  Board of Supervisors. Business owners should contact Kellee Fritzal at (714) 738-6837 for more information.

No changes in the city facility closures are expected as a result of the County slip from Red to Purple Tier. “City facilities will continue to operate as they have through the health crisis by conducting online and appointment meetings for Planning and Building services, and still offer controlled in-person utility payments and Business Registration,” Domer said.  “Residents should make sure to check our website for services that are offered online or in person.”

After months of allowing members of the public to attend and speak during meetings, Fullerton City Council will only permit invited family members and guests of the Council members themselves to the Dec. 1 meeting. “In person Public Comments will not be allowed but e-comments and emailed comments are highly encouraged,” according to a report by City Manager Ken Domer. The only item on the agenda is the reorganization of the City Council itself, wherein new members are sworn in and a Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem are chosen. The report does not indicate whether or not the City Council will allow members of the public to attend the Dec. 15 meeting or any thereafter. They may possibly revert to meeting virtually, as they did several times earlier this year. It is not clear how residents who do not use computers will be able to participate, since the library is closed and there are no provisions for comments made by telephone.

Domer considers the City to have done a “tremendous job” of facilitating public comments through the City’s website, but the reading of those comments during the meetings has not been consistent with Mayor Jennifer Fitzgerald sometimes choosing to have the comments read in their entirety and other times quickly summarized by the City Clerk. On occasion, Mayor Fitzgerald has only asked for the number of comments in favor of or against a given agenda item, with no reading of the actual comments themselves.

City commissions and committees continue to meet virtually. Although the meetings are often effectively inclusive of the public, residents have complained at times of being unable to participate in some meetings, which utilize an online virtual meeting platform, or to have comments effectively considered.

Schools already in operation are not required to close, but schools that have not reopened for in-person instruction may not do so at this time. Colleges and Universities must move all but studio and lab classes to online instruction. Both the Fullerton School District and Fullerton Joint Union High School District remain open under modified learning conditions.

Source: OC Health Care Agency Data Maps

New Saliva Based Home Test Kit

Orange County’s Healthcare Agency announced on Nov. 17 a new at-home test kit for OC residents. Developed with Ambry Genetics, the kits are saliva based, and do not require a swab to be inserted into a nostril for a sample, as most PCR tests have been conducted. OC HCA Director Dr. Clayton Chau gave his assurances that the saliva-based test is FDA approved and is as accurate as the more familiar nasal swab tests. The kits can be mailed to residents and come with prepaid FedEx return packaging. Tests sent in by 1:30 p.m. will be received by noon the following day. Results are promised within 24 hours. Ambry will retain records of tests for future epidemiological reference.

The new at-home test kits were funded by the CARES Act, which requires all federal monies to be spent by the end of the 2020 calendar year. But County officials say there is a “great likelihood” that more funding will ultimately be made available for them because of the recent dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases.

11,000 of the new kits were first dedicated to the hardest hit areas in Anaheim and Santa Ana and then to the whole County the following week. OC officials say that 500,000 kits will be available to OC residents by the end of December.  Kits can be picked up at one of the 9 participating community clinics throughout the County, including Family Health Matters at 901 W. Orangethorpe Ave. in Fullerton, Korean Community Services at 451 W. Lincoln, Suite 100 in Anaheim, or ordered by visiting https://oc.care.ambrygen.com/#/dtc/landing.

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