OC Sees Improving COVID-19 Trends as State Unveils New Rating System

August 28, 2020 Updated: August 29, 2020

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CNS)—Orange County falls within California’s new “purple tier” of counties for COVID-19, the worst level, but it’s on the verge of being upgraded to the next tier of red, Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said Aug. 28 after state officials unveiled a new rating program.

Still up in the air is how the new focus on case and positivity rates will affect the county’s expectation to open up all schools to in-classroom learning after Labor Day.

“We are very close, based on the last two weeks of data, to almost be moving into red,” said Bartlett, who is also president of the California State Association of Counties.

County officials are asking the state for more clarification on when schools might be allowed to reopen. The county is still able to apply for elementary school waivers.

“We thought we knew the formula for schools reopening,” Bartlett told City News Service. “But now with the tiered structure we don’t have enough clarity relative to schools, so we are requesting additional information from the state.”

The new system focuses more on case and positivity rates because of breakthroughs in testing and the ability to get results more quickly, which allows public health professionals to more efficiently quarantine and address hot spots and surges. Before, state officials focused on hospitalization and intensive-care unit beds because they wanted to be prepared for any surges that could hasten more deaths.

“It actually encourages more testing and contact tracing,” Bartlett said of the new system.

The system is also more fair to higher-population counties, because the overall case counts were being held against them and now officials are focusing more on present-day case counts, Bartlett said.

The state also includes a “seven-day lag” as a fail-safe to account for slower laboratories.

The new system also focuses on a third criteria beyond case and positivity rates, and that is still vague, Bartlett said.

“When they define the third criteria more, that should bring more clarity to the counties on how they can operate within the guidelines, and which business sectors can open and to what capacity,” Bartlett said.

Hair salons can reopen on Aug. 31 statewide, Bartlett said. If Orange County’s trends continue and it makes it into the red tier, then indoor dining, for example, could be added at 25 percent capacity after next week, Bartlett said.

Orange County reported on Aug. 28 that nine more people had succumbed to COVID-19, raising the death toll to 956. The county also reported 323 new diagnoses of the disease, raising the total to 47,782 since the pandemic began.

Newsom Unveils Color-Coded System for Reopenings

Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a four-tier, color-coded system on Aug. 28 that will use daily COVID-19 case numbers and positivity rates to guide counties’ ability to reopen businesses, a process he said will take a slow and more stringent approach to economic reopening.

“COVID-19 will be with us for a long time and we need to adapt,” Newsom said.

“We must deal with this reality and this fundamental truth until there is a vaccine, until we have the kind of therapeutics that could substantially mitigate the spread and the impact of COVID-19 … we will simply need to adapt our behaviors until that time.”

The adjustment allows barbershops and hair salons—which are currently restricted to outdoor operations—to reopen indoors with safety precautions starting Aug. 31, but local health officials would have to sign off on that change first.

The four-tier system replaces the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list, which was being used to gauge individual counties’ success in controlling the spread of COVID-19.

Counties on the monitoring list—including Los Angeles and Riverside—were heavily restricted in terms of allowable business operations, while counties not on the list—including Orange and San Diego—were given more leeway to reopen economic sectors and even schools.

Newsom called the new system a “more dynamic list that we hope is not only more dynamic but much more simple to understand.”

The monitoring list relied on six criteria—new case rates, positivity rates, testing capacity, hospitalization numbers, and availability of intensive care unit beds and ventilators.

The new system, however, relies on two metrics: the daily rate of new cases per 100,000 residents, and the seven-day average rate of positive tests. Based on those numbers, counties are filtered into one of four tiers:

—counties with more than seven new cases per 100,000 residents and a positivity rate of more than 8 percent are in the purple (“widespread”) category;

—counties with four to seven new cases per 100,000 and a positivity rate between 5 percent and 8 percent are in the red (“substantial”) category;

—counties with one to 3.9 new cases per 100,000 and a positivity rate from 2 percent to 4.9 percent are in the orange (“moderate”) category;

—and counties with less than one new case per 100,000 and a positivity rate less than 2 percent are in the yellow (“minimal”) category.

Of California’s 58 counties, 38 are now listed in the purple, or “widespread,” category, which Newsom equated to being on the previous monitoring list.

Although Orange County recently fell off the monitoring list, it was placed in the purple category because the new system only allows counties to move between tiers every 21 days, and counties must meet statistical criteria for at least 14 days before moving into a new category.

For Orange County, the change means a likely delay in the possible reopening of school campuses for in-person instruction.

Los Angeles and Riverside counties both fall into the purple category. San Diego County is in the less-restrictive red category.

As counties move down the list of risk categories, restrictions on business operations are slowly eased.

In conjunction with the switch, the state revised its website, covid19.ca.gov, on which people can enter their county and choose an economic sector. The website will then tell the user what category the county is in, and provide information about what businesses are open and what types of restrictions they must adhere to.