Orange County Might Not Reach Least Restrictive Tier Until Next Summer

October 21, 2020 Updated: October 22, 2020

It could be next summer before Orange County reaches the least restrictive tier in California’s COVID-19 monitoring system, and it likely will not happen until two-thirds of the community gets vaccinated against the disease, according to Orange County Health Care Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau.

The system’s yellow tier requires a county measurement of less than one case of COVID-19 per 100,000 people and less than 2 percent testing positivity rate, as well as a health equity metric. Orange County is now in the red tier, the second tier in the system.

Chau, who is also the county health officer, was confident Orange County could reach the next, less restrictive orange or third tier soon, but said reaching the yellow tier would be “very difficult.”

“We probably won’t be able to achieve that until there’s a vaccine that would have an acceptance rate by the community that is significant—65 to 70 percent—in order for us to be able to kind of slow down and possibly stop the transmission,” he said at a Board of Supervisors meeting on Oct. 20.

After repeated questioning from the supervisors, Chau said this might be able to occur around next summer, but cautioned it was a very rough estimate.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced at a press conference on Oct. 19 that California scientists would be independently reviewing the safety and efficacy of any Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved COVID-19 vaccines before distributing them in the state.

“Don’t anticipate or expect that you can go down to the local pharmacy any time in this calendar year and likely get a vaccination,” Newsom said.

Each person is expected to be required to get two shots in a 21-day period for the vaccine.

Newsom said the first phase of the vaccine would be “very, very limited” and possibly require special ultra-cold storage. The first doses of the vaccine will go to health care workers, first responders, and other high-risk individuals.

Estimates for mass availability range from the first quarter to the third quarter of 2021—but Newsom said even if millions of people start to get the vaccine, it won’t mean the pandemic is suddenly over.

“I want to remind everybody that vaccines will not end this pandemic overnight,” he said.

At the Oct. 20 meeting, Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel asked Chau if he had ever seen scientific studies supporting the exact numbers used in the different tier requirements implemented by Newsom’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy. Chau said no.

“That will be on the policy side, so this board should have conversations with the governor’s office,” Chau said.

Steel then blasted the Newsom administration, saying the governor was “not a scientist” and that the state was “randomly throwing numbers at us.”

“This county is going to file another bankruptcy, because small businesses are not coming back,” she said.

Orange County previously filed for bankruptcy in 1994 after the county treasurer bought a series of high-risk investments that flopped.

Supervisor Don Wagner said he thought next year would be “troubled,” but didn’t yet think the county would have to declare bankruptcy again.

“What I do think we are looking at though, throughout the county, are widespread bankruptcies from the businesses that are suffering from the fits and the starts and the changes and the somewhat erratic response of Sacramento to COVID,” Wagner said.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett agreed the county is “getting devastated” and said each week more companies are laying off additional employees. This week, Pacific Life Insurance laid off nearly 300 workers.

The supervisor also pointed out that there is still no guarantee Orange County will reach the yellow tier at any particular time.

“If you take a look at the yellow tier, it basically means that we’ve eradicated COVID,” Bartlett said.

However, even in the yellow tier the state still requires certain restrictions on businesses.

“When you look at what it takes to get to the yellow tier, a county like ours with 3.2 million people, less than one case per 100,000. We’re talking about potentially years out. We can’t keep our economy restricted for that period of time,” she said.

On Oct. 21, the Orange County Health Care Agency reported 262 new cases of COVID-19 and 11 new fatalities from the disease, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the county to 57,635 with 1,423 fatalities.

The testing positivity rate remained at 3.2 percent, and the daily case rate remained at 4.6 cases per 100,000 people.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @dadasarahle