Spring has sprung optimism that waning COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations assisted by a sprouting mass-vaccination campaign have brought the pandemic’s end closer than ever.
But Orange County residents are still spreading the coronavirus, and public health officials warn against throwing caution to the wind.
This week, the county’s coronavirus case rate inched up to 3 cases per day per 100,000 residents after bottoming out at 2.8 cases per 100,000 last week, according to a state Department of Public Health update Tuesday, April 6.
The slight increase ended 11-straight weeks of improvement in the metric since the winter surge peaked in early January.
Dr. Clayton Chau, OC Health Care Agency director and county health officer, said Tuesday that though the metric rose, it doesn’t signal a meaningful jump in cases because when rates are this low, small batches of new cases nudge rounded decimals.
“Our positivity rate continues to drop and health equity (metric) continues to drop,” Chau said. “I’m very comfortable with that.”
And the current rate is minuscule compared to records set during the winter wave, when Orange County, like most others in the state, floundered deep in the strictest purple tier.
An immense recovery followed: Orange County sprinted through the red tier last month and reached the better-off orange tier Wednesday, March 31, which boosted capacity limits at some businesses and public places and completely lifted them at others.
“Of course, the risk of the surge is always there,” Chau said, urging the public to continue wearing a masks, practice social distancing and for people with COVID-19 symptoms to get tested.
“Just because we moved into orange tier doesn’t mean that we can all relax,” he said.
The shares of COVID-19 tests returning positive countywide and among hard-hit neighborhoods – two figures that also decide a county’s placement in the state’s four-tier framework – both fell this week within ranges for the least-restrictive yellow tier.
Countywide testing positivity edged lower to 1.6% from 1.7% last week, while testing positivity in parts of Orange County where health care resources are limited – called the health equity metric – dipped to 2.1% from 2.6% last week.
However, all three of a county’s metrics must fall within the next tier’s ranges for two consecutive weeks to advance. Counties also have to remain in a tier for at least three weeks before moving on to a more relaxed tier.
State officials on Tuesday announced that because California surpassed another goal of administering 4 million vaccine doses in 400 ZIP codes that have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, the case rate thresholds to enter both the orange and yellow tiers have shifted to make both more lenient tiers easier for counties to enter.
That also means Orange County and others are less likely to slip back into tougher tiers if their case rates worsen before June 15, when state leaders plan to scrap the color-coded blueprint.
For now, counties need a coronavirus case rate between 2 and 6 to qualify to the orange tier, and a rate below 2 to make the yellow tier. With the slight bump in new cases this week, Orange County will remain under orange tier rules.
On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to phase out California’s four-tier “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” in mid-June, if promising case, hospitalization and vaccination trends hold. State public health officials introduced the tracking system in August to monitor COVID-19 metrics and set pandemic guidelines by county.
Newsom added the state’s mask mandate would remain and encouraged residents to keep up coronavirus-curbing habits and get vaccinated. All Californians age 16 and older will be eligible for shots next Thursday, April 15.