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Why are Orange County coronavirus cases rising? Here’s what we know

Armando Mendoza was St. Joseph Hospital's second coronavirus patient and spent 45 days there.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Coronavirus cases have been rising in Orange County in recent days.

The county confirmed 229 additional coronavirus infections Thursday, its highest daily case count since the start of the pandemic. The total broke the previous day’s record of 156 new cases.

As of Thursday, the county had reported nearly 4,000 cases and 80 deaths. By contrast, Los Angeles County has more than 35,000 cases and more than 1,700 deaths; Riverside County has recorded 5,400 cases and 235 deaths.

Still, the recent rise has raised questions.

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Here is what we know:

Testing

More availability of testing is considered one factor, both in Orange County and around California, for the rise in the number of coronavirus cases.

The county began notably ramping up its daily screenings around April 28, County Health Officer Dr. Nichole Quick said this week.

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“As we test more, we’re likely to pick up more cases,” she said.

Quick added that the percentage of people who are tested and come back positive “has remained relatively stable and, overall, has been decreasing, which is good.”

Institutions

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More people have become seriously ill from the virus in recent weeks, including many in nursing homes and jails, according to Orange County Health Care Agency Director Clayton Chau. Those populations also account for many of those hospitalized with COVID-19. There are 227 people hospitalized, and 79 of them are in intensive care.

“Most is due to a volume of cases identified in nursing homes and jails in the past two weeks,” Chau said about the recent surge. “The congregate care population accounts for a fair proportion.”

Officials were not able to say how many of these individuals accounted for Thursday’s numbers. Of the more than 3,900 people of the county’s 3.1 million residents who have had known infections of the virus, 407 individuals have been residents of skilled nursing facilities and 331 have been Orange County jail inmates.

“The infection rate within those congregate living environments has hit Orange County in a delayed manner, compared to some of our large urban peers, but it is here now in Orange County and we have to step up the amount of testing and protocols for cleaning,” county CEO Frank Kim said, adding that testing at such institutions has expanded.

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The city of Newport Beach said its local case count recently spiked “due to, in large part, outbreaks inside a small number of local care facilities where patients and staff have tested positive.”

Southern California had its first big heat wave over the weekend, but L.A. County beaches are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Beaches in nearby counties were open, however. Here are a few scenes from the weekend.

Beaches

Officials do not believe that the county’s newly reopened beaches contributed to Thursday’s spike but could not say definitively.

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“We don’t know yet, " Chau said.

The crowds over the weekend of April 25 and 26 prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to temporarily close the county’s beaches, a decision state officials said was meant to stave off potentially unsafe conditions that could worsen the spread of the coronavirus. The beaches were reopened last week with social distancing rules.

Quick said earlier this week that “correlation to the beach, that is not something that we have evidence of at this point.”

Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at UC San Francisco, said he noticed a steep rise in Orange County’s cases in the days following the weekend of April 25 and 26, and it raises questions. But further investigation is necessary to determine whether the beaches contributed to the spread of the coronavirus, he said.


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