Orange County reported an additional seven COVID-19 fatalities Friday, pushing the region’s total death toll past 700.
While a far cry from the record 32 deaths reported Thursday, the latest fatalities demonstrate that the novel coronavirus is continuing to take a toll on the county, even as officials weigh whether to reopen some schools for in-person instruction.
A frustration of late in that regard, for Orange County and across the state, has been significant issues with the CalREDIE electronic system, which collects information from laboratories and feeds it to state and local health departments.
A series of data failures have created a backlog of as many as 300,000 test results, the state said Friday, and left counties in the dark as to precisely how many new coronavirus infections have been confirmed in their communities.
While the exact impact on Orange County is unclear, “we are expecting a large number of results, positive and negative, to be entered into the system when the state fixes it,” Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the Orange County Health Care Agency and acting county health officer, said during a media briefing Friday.
As it relates to schools, the California Department of Public Health recently announced guidelines for granting waivers enabling elementary schools to reopen, but indicated that counties with case rates above 200 per 100,000 residents should not consider applying.
Without accurate case data, Chau said, there’s no way to know whether Orange County is below that threshold.
“In the process of calling the school back and acknowledging their application, we also inform them that, ‘Hey, thank you for the application, I’m glad you submitted the application, but you need to know the conversation can’t start until we know what our community case rate is,’” Chau said.
Although the county announced only 43 new coronavirus infections Friday — boosting its cumulative total to 38,754 — officials noted that problems on the state’s end “may result in a lower number of daily COVID-positive cases received and tests reported.”
The county also has now recorded 704 total COVID-19 fatalities. An estimated 29,009 people have recovered.
As case counts continue to rise, county health officials have regularly urged residents to take steps to prevent transmission of the virus — including physical distancing, regular hand washing and wearing face coverings in public.
During the pandemic, Orange County has emerged as a hot spot of mask resistance, even though public health experts have said wearing them is an effective way to decrease the spread of the coronavirus.
Though Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide order on June 18 for Californians to wear face coverings while in public, enforcement has been another issue. Several Southern California cities, including Costa Mesa in Orange County, have threatened to fine those who don’t cover up in public, but many haven’t.
Some law enforcement agencies also have been reluctant to enforce the mandate, saying their resources and attention are better spent elsewhere.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes is among those who shares that opinion. He reiterated Friday that he believes “it’s not a law enforcement function to enforce compliance with face coverings.”
“It’s a better use of our resources to go after crime suppression, crime solving and crime prevention than to be tasked with mask compliance,” he said during a media briefing.
He added, however, that the department doesn’t take a hands-off approach when it comes to encouraging compliance with health orders.
“If somebody’s not compliant as a business, we will talk to them and see if we can get voluntary compliance,” he said. “At times when businesses are reluctant to comply, we have taken criminal reports and submitted them to the district attorney’s office for filing consideration. So, it’s not that we aren’t doing anything, we just aren’t arresting people for not wearing a mask.”
But in response to follow-up questions, Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun said those remarks were incorrect and that “no reports or cases have been provided” to the D.A.’s office.
“Deputies have taken information reports on non-compliant businesses, sometimes coupled with referrals to state agencies. That has been sufficient to obtain compliance,” she wrote in an email.