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Orange and Ventura counties see uptick in coronavirus hospitalizations amid reopening

Employees at Finney's Crafthouse in Ventura
Employees at Finney’s Crafthouse in Ventura work last month to prepare the bar to open.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Officials across Southern California are grappling with whether to temper reopening efforts in the face of rising coronavirus hospitalizations, a move that seems likely to spark public outcry.

Statewide, hospitalizations among COVID-19 patients have been relatively flat for the last six weeks, even as officials have allowed myriad businesses to open their doors and a number of residents have resumed daily routines. But in Orange and Ventura counties, hospitalizations are again on the rise, prompting health experts to warn that if the trend continues, it could cause officials to slow the pace of reopening.

The warning comes days before a wave of personal-care industries, including nail salons and massage therapy and tattoo shops, are set to reopen in California. The reasons for the rising numbers vary, but health officials have expressed concern about some people not following health and safety recommendations, including wearing face coverings and social distancing.

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Los Angeles County public health officials on Wednesday reemphasized the need for people to maintain a physical distance around others, wash their hands and continue wearing face coverings as more public spaces reopen.

“We have learned that simple face coverings that cover your nose and your mouth, along with keeping your distance from others, is very effective at preventing the spread of your droplets to others and thus reduces the risk of you infecting someone else unknowingly,” said Dr. Christina Ghaly, director of the county’s Department of Health Services. “We need to respect and work with the structural changes in our communities that are being put in place.”

Los Angeles County officials have not yet outlined plans for the next stage of reopening.

County officials announced 34 new coronavirus-related fatalities Wednesday, bringing the death toll to 2,991. In addition, 2,129 new cases were announced, raising the countywide infection total to 77,189.

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Despite the uptick in the number of deaths, the county’s daily fatality rate has declined compared with a month ago. In early May, the average daily number of deaths in the county was about 45. By early June, that number had dropped to about 33, county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.

Hospitalizations have also remained steady, officials said. But neighboring Orange County reached a new milestone in the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals.

As of Monday, 328 people were hospitalized for issues related to the coronavirus, according to the most recent data available. The number marks the highest reported tally in the county since the onset of the pandemic. County data also show that 131 of those people were being treated in the intensive care unit.

L.A. County once had the worst ICU coronavirus hospitalization rate on a per capita basis among all of California’s 58 counties. But that’s changed, with Imperial County, Kings County and now Orange County having higher ICU coronavirus hospitalization rates, a recent Los Angeles Times analysis found.

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L.A. County reports five ICU coronavirus patients per 100,000 residents. Orange County has 5.2 ICU patients per 100,000 residents, while Kings County has 6.1 and Imperial County has 9.9.

Coronavirus-related ICU hospitalizations have jumped 76% in the last six weeks in Orange County. During the week of May 4, the county reported a seven-day average of 94 people with confirmed or suspected coronavirus infections in its ICU beds. Last week, that number rose to an average of 165 hospitalized.

In early May, the number of people hospitalized for the virus in Orange County was in the low 200s. A month later, those figures had jumped to the high 200s and low 300s.

Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett attributes some of the uptick to outbreaks in skilled nursing homes. She also noted that about two dozen patients in Orange County hospitals were from Imperial County.

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She added that Orange County Health Care Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau is still reviewing a plan to reopen personal-care businesses in the county beginning Friday.

“I look to our public health officer to keep monitoring the data for positivity rates, hospitalizations, ICU beds and deaths to determine whether we need to readjust our reopening plans or other policies such as face coverings,” Bartlett said.

Despite the uptick in hospitalizations, Orange County Board of Supervisors Chair Michelle Steel indicated Wednesday that county leaders have no plans to tamp down on reopening plans.

“Orange County has continued to meet the state’s metrics in the reopening process and remains below the state’s threshold to continue moving forward in the ‘resilience roadmap,’” she said in a statement. “We will continue to do so in accordance with state and federal guidelines while watching these numbers closely.”

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County officials have said other data points — such as deaths and the number of positive COVID-19 tests — paint a more promising picture, as both numbers in Orange County compare favorably with neighboring counties.

“While we are not out of this completely yet, Orange County is in good position to continue moving forward,” Steel said last week “and we have reason to be positive about where we are.”

Cities and states are pressing ahead with plans to do so. But has anything changed about the coronavirus that makes it safer to go out now?

In recent weeks, there has been a significant push from some county leaders and residents to reopen sections of the economy and loosen restrictions put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus. In Orange County, the use of face coverings in public has been pushed to the forefront of the conversation after officials rolled back a mandate requiring residents to wear the masks in public.

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The debate led to a clash outside county offices Tuesday, when a small group who gathered to oppose Orange County’s relaxed rules on face coverings was met by a much larger group who opposed their message.

The protesters crowded around the group, holding signs and shouting, “Hey hey, ho ho, these masks have got to go” and “Fake news has got to go” in singsong refrains.

Gloria Alvarado, the executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation, said the county’s loosened mask policy had put workers and healthcare professionals at risk. Union members who work in grocery stores have told stories of being spit on and yelled at by residents who don’t want to wear a mask, she said.

“That’s what’s painful,” she said. “A few weeks ago, we were celebrating the heroes, the frontline workers. Now they’re asking us to stand with them for safety, and we see people in the community saying no.”

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The battle over masks began in May, when then-county health officer Dr. Nichole Quick issued an order requiring that county residents and visitors wear face coverings while in a public place, at work or visiting a business where they are unable to stay six feet apart.

The move set off a firestorm of controversy as some residents and elected officials challenged the need for the widespread use of face coverings as more businesses in the region continued to reopen. After several intense weeks defending her order, Quick resigned last week.

A day after she left, Chau was appointed as the interim health officer and was immediately peppered with questions from the Board of Supervisors about when he would lift the face-covering order.

“We cannot impose restrictions on people based on fear, just based on theoretical fear,” Supervisor Andrew Do said at the time. “If we open up and we have testing and we start to see changes, I understand the change in position. We’re shooting at a moving target. I’m not asking you to be reckless, but the decision-making process to me is flawed.”

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Two days later, Chau rolled back the requirement. The new order strongly recommends that people wear masks in public settings but stops short of mandating it.

In Ventura County, health officials have been clear that it’s possible the region may have to press the pause button on reopening additional sectors of the economy if hospitalizations continue to rise.

Last week, there were an average of 91 people hospitalized in Ventura County with confirmed or suspected coronavirus infections, the highest number since early April. That’s a 75% increase from each of the previous two weeks, The Times analysis found.

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“At this point, it would be foolhardy to just open up and continue to open up everything given … what our numbers are doing,” said Dr. Robert Levin, the health officer in Ventura County.


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