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Orange County public health expands coronavirus testing

Bicycle riders practice social distancing just north of the Huntington Beach pier, in Huntington Beach on April 10.
Bicycle riders practice social distancing just north of the Huntington Beach pier, in Huntington Beach on April 10.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Orange County is ramping up its coronavirus testing capacity after purchasing thousands of tests and assembling a wider network of public clinics.

The OC Health Care Agency launched the OC COVID-19 Testing Network Tuesday with six clinics and plans to add four more within the next two weeks.

David Souleles, director of public health services for the Health Care Agency, told the county Board of Supervisors Tuesday that the initial capacity will be 100 tests per site per day, or 600 tests per day, to start. The county has placed an initial order of 14,000 tests with Avellino Labs out of Menlo Park.

The tests, which are given by appointment only, are diagnostic and will determine who is actively ill. They are not antibody tests, which see who has already been infected and recovered.

The tests are a public-private partnership and will augment tests offered by private healthcare providers. They are meant to enhance the safety net for people who are sick but have been unable to get tested for COVID-19, the potentially fatal disease caused by the coronavirus.

“Because of continued challenges of obtaining testing supplies and personal protective equipment for healthcare providers, testing may be restricted at times to high priority groups as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” county health officer Dr. Nichole Quick said in a statement.

There is no out-of-pocket cost, but insurance may be billed.

Initially, patients will still need to be symptomatic, but their symptoms can now be milder than potential patients had been previously as public health was forced to ration an even more limited number of tests.

Souleles said he hopes to see 2,000 tests per day by next month.

Initial locations include AltaMed Medical Group at 1325 N. Anaheim Blvd. in Anaheim and 2720 S. Bristol St. #104 in Santa Ana, Nhan Hoa Comprehensive Health Care Clinic, 7761 Garden Grove Blvd. in Garden Grove, and multiple UCI Health locations.

The AltaMed at 8041 Newman Ave. in Huntington Beach is set to open its testing clinic on Thursday. Visit occovid19.ochealthinfo.com for more information.

As of Tuesday, 33 people had died of COVID-19 and 1,691 had tested positive out of 19,483 tests. The day-over-day increase was 29 from Monday.

The Health Care Agency also said 148 people were hospitalized with the virus Tuesday, 54 of them in intensive care.

Although the county last reported a new death on Monday, the most recent fatalities were an extension of a deadly spell for Orange County as the health agency reported 14 deaths over five of the last seven days. It was a new peak period for the region; this run of coronavirus deaths tops a high-water mark set between March 31 and April 2, when nine people died.

Among the 33 people who have now died, 19 were older than 65, the age group considered to be most at risk.

While deaths have come at a more sustained rate within the past week, overall new cases have decelerated significantly in the region.

As the pandemic gathered steam in mid-March, the number of known cases doubled on average once every three days between March 13-28.

On March 13, Orange County recorded 13 cases. On the 28th, that figure had climbed to 403 — it had grown 31 times over in about two weeks. Another week would pass before Orange County’s coronavirus count doubled again. The next doubling time after that stretched to two weeks, completing another cycle on Saturday when the county health agency announced 1,556 cases.

The letter, sent Monday to county Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, asks that the board close county beaches and trailheads ahead of “unseasonably warm weather” expected at the end of the week.

Quick told the supervisors that she feels county and state stay at-home orders have been effective, reflected in the slowing spread. She noted that hospital patient counts have bounced around, but at a normal rate. So far, no more than 155 people have been in local hospitals on any given day with COVID-19 and no more than 75 have been in intensive care at once.

“That is all very good news,” Quick said.

Also on Tuesday, the supervisors voted to loosen one restriction, on golf courses, and tighten another, on face coverings.

The mask directive mandates face coverings for essential employees working in grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, restaurants, convenience stores and other essential retail outlets. It strengthens the county’s earlier recommendation, but not order, suggesting face coverings for essential workers — although some cities, including Costa Mesa and Laguna Beach, have gone beyond the county’s recommendation and made masks mandatory in some instances.

Supervisor Don Wagner criticized the move, questioning whether the board was being consistent in its messaging to the public.

“I feel like we’re getting whipsawed here,” he said. “We have a committee discussing opening up [the county] and lifting restrictions. Now we say ‘OK, fine, by the way, let’s take a look at what we did last week and clamp down on restrictions.’”

One of those restrictions was on golf courses.

The supervisors unanimously agreed to allow public and private golf courses to reopen or, in some cases, stay open with certain recommendations for social distancing and cleanliness, including sanitizing golf carts after each use and staggering tee times for players. Restaurants and pro shops will remain closed.

Courses had never been specifically included on the county list of nonessential businesses, although most chose to close during the pandemic.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett made the proposal after she said she spent about 10 hours on the phone over the weekend with golfers and golf course operators across the county who longed to get players out on the green again as stay-at-home orders drive some people “stir crazy.”

“I think this is the right direction to go,” Wagner said of the golf course proposal. “We are talking about the light at the end of the tunnel and finding ways to reopen the county.”

Here are the latest COVID-19 case counts for select cities, with their numbers per 10,000 residents:

  • Anaheim: 215 (6 cases per 10,000 residents)
  • Santa Ana: 174 (5.2 cases per 10,000 residents)
  • Huntington Beach: 148 (7.3 cases per 10,000 residents)
  • Irvine: 118 (4.2 cases per 10,000 residents)
  • Newport Beach: 88 (10.1 cases per 10,000 residents)
  • Laguna Beach: 37 (15.8 cases per 10,000 residents)
  • Costa Mesa: 32 (2.8 cases per 10,000 residents)
  • Fountain Valley: 25 (4.4 cases per 10,000 residents)

Updated figures are posted daily at occovid19.ochealthinfo.com/coronavirus-in-oc.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Hannah Fry contributed to this report.

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