Following a surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations last month, Orange County was removed Sunday from the state list of counties being monitored for the virus.
The move marks a turning point for the county. If the rates of new cases and tests performed, percentages of positive tests and hospitalizations, as well as available intensive care beds and ventilators remain at acceptable levels for the next two weeks, K-12 students could resume in-person classes after Labor Day weekend.
Positive tests remained at 5.4%, which is below the state’s maximum threshold of 8%, and the three-day average of hospitalizations fell Sunday by nearly 5%, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.
The county has 29% of its intensive care unit beds and 58% of its ventilators available. Over the most recent 14-day period, the case rate per 100,000 residents is 90.2.
Officials reported one new death and 897 total fatalities Sunday. To date, 45,954 residents have tested positive for the virus, with 380 currently hospitalized and 111 in intensive care.
The county can be placed back on the watch list if it is flagged for any of the six metrics being monitored for at least three days in a row. It first fell below the state’s monitoring thresholds on Wednesday.
The decision to reopen schools falls to individual districts. County officials say 24 private elementary schools and one public school district serving kindergarten through sixth grade have been approved to reopen for in-person classes. About 100 other Orange County private and charter schools have applied for similar permission and are awaiting approval.
Schools must also have an option for online learning if parents do not want their children to go back to in-person classes. State public health officials and educators have offered the in-person option for elementary schools only, acknowledging that online learning for young children is particularly difficult and that they are generally seen as being at lesser risk of developing COVID-19 than older children and adults.
“Do I have fear and anxiety? Of course I do. Do we expect that there might be an outbreak? Of course,” Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, said last week. “But we have to do it. We know that this lockdown has caused emotional turmoil for some of our children, and we know that in-home learning is not the best education.”
Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen said Saturday that he was encouraged by recent increases in mask usage, which he attributed to lowering the case rates.
“I think everybody wants this time to open up in a smart and intelligent way that keeps us open,” he said. “The last thing anybody wants is to have to roll back a second time because it’s devastating for our businesses.
Los Angeles County, meanwhile, remains on the state watch list.
Last week, Los Angeles County’s chief medical officer said new coronavirus cases may soon drop enough to allow officials to apply for waivers to reopen elementary schools. Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser noted that waivers can be sought to reopen schools when cases fall below 200 for every 100,000 people for two weeks.
Over the last two weeks, officials have reported 27,739 new cases, which amounts to 275 per 100,000, but Gunzenhauser said that number was steadily dropping.
“We do believe we could get down to under 200 in the near future,” he said.
He said the length of average hospital stays for COVID-19 has declined from a few months ago, probably because of improved understanding of how to treat the disease. More young people are now being hospitalized for the disease, and they also are likely to recover more quickly than older patients.
But Gunzenhauser warned that younger people are dying from the disease, and the percentage of people ages 18 to 29 hospitalized for COVID-19 has doubled to 10%. Of the roughly 5,400 people in the county who have died of COVID-19, 440 were ages 18 to 41 with no underlying health conditions, he said.
The underlying conditions that make patients most at risk for severe illness and death are hypertension, which is common among those 65 and older, and diabetes, a condition that affects 10% of the county’s population, he said.
Times staff writer Colleen Shalby and Times Community News writer Andrew Turner contributed to this report.