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Alarmed by spiking coronavirus numbers? Here’s why officials insist they aren’t worried

Shoppers wear masks at the Orange Circle on Thursday in Orange.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Bartenders over the weekend began mixing drinks, gyms turned on elliptical machines and nail salons began polishing away as Los Angeles County reopened more of its economy even as coronavirus cases continued to rise.

The county, a hotbed of COVID-19 in California, now has reported more than 3,000 deaths and 80,000 confirmed cases. The rising case numbers have sparked some worry about whether the economy is reopening too quickly and that easing stay-at-home orders could cause new outbreaks.

But health officials continue to discount those concerns, saying total new cases is not the best measure of community spread because of aggressive levels of new testing. They point to other metrics they say show that the local outbreak has stabilized — even though the number of new cases increased by nearly 20,000 in the last two weeks and by more than 3,600 just over the weekend.

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Two key indicators — the positivity rate and average number of daily hospitalizations — have continued to remain relatively steady, while average daily deaths have declined, L.A. officials said. It is always possible these numbers could start going up, either from spread from reopening businesses, from recent protests over the police killing of George Floyd or other reasons. Officials said they are monitoring the metrics closely and could impose new restrictions if needed.

“The most important data continues to be looking at our death data and our hospitalization data and our rate of positivity, and ... all of the indicators really point to the fact that we are fairly stable and that we in fact continue to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Barbara Ferrer, the county’s health director, said Friday.

As of Sunday, there were 1,426 confirmed coronavirus patients in county hospitals, with 29% in intensive care and 21% on ventilators. That was a slight increase from the day before, when there were 1,406 patients. The average daily number of hospitalizations has been decreasing since late April, Ferrer said Friday, although she did note there has been a slight increase over the past three days. That could be because most hospitals are now testing all patients for COVID-19, even those who are being treated for unrelated issues, she said.

Nearly 945,000 people in the county have been tested for the virus and have received their results, with about 8% testing positive, officials said. That rate has remained steady for the past several weeks.

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The seven-day average of daily deaths has also been trending downward since April 12, Ferrer said. The average reached its highest peak in early May, when 45 to 46 people were dying each day. In early June, the rate had slowed to 20 to 30 deaths a day, she said. The seven-day average stood at 28 on Friday, according to the Department of Public Health dashboard that tracks reopening metrics.

That came two days after both the county and the state recorded their largest single-day totals of new coronavirus infections. California reported 4,291 new cases Wednesday, with 2,129 of them in L.A. County. Health officials said the total was fueled by a backlog of test results that accounted for roughly 600 of the new L.A. County infections.

A Times data analysis found that hospitalizations remain flat statewide, but they are inching up in some areas including Ventura County, Orange County and parts of the Central Valley.

Orange County on Sunday reported its highest one-day total of new coronavirus cases for the second day in a row.

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Public health officials recorded 434 new cases Sunday, which was preceded by 412 cases Saturday. Previously, the county reported a high of 297 new cases on June 14.

With the increases, the total number of cases reported by Orange County reached 10,422. Two more deaths were reported Sunday, bringing the total to 269 countywide.

As the number of cases has ticked upward, testing has also increased, with the county performing an average of 3,800 per day as of Thursday, compared with 2,200 tests per day in early May.

Still, the seven-day average number of daily hospitalizations has also been rising steadily, from 202 in early May to 319 on Friday. According to a Los Angeles Times analysis, Orange County also experienced a 76% jump in ICU hospitalizations in the last six weeks.

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As of Sunday, a total of 332 COVID-19 patients were in county hospitals, with 133 in intensive care. That was a slight drop from Tuesday, when county hospitals saw a high of 345 COVID-19 patients.

Los Angeles County public health officials on Sunday reported 1,784 new cases of the coronavirus and 11 related deaths.

The county now has recorded more than 83,000 cases of the virus and over 3,120 deaths.

The continued rise in new cases came amid the first weekend of more business sectors reopening, as bars, card rooms and some personal care services were given the green light to resume operations Friday, provided they take certain precautions.

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They include ensuring that customers practice physical distancing and wear face coverings.

“These are the actions that allow us to continue our recovery journey, and these actions will be essential to ensure that we don’t overwhelm our healthcare system and see increased numbers of deaths from COVID-19,” Ferrer said Sunday in a statement.


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