By Shawn Raymundo

After weeks of being placed on the state’s monitoring list for rising coronavirus cases, Orange County was removed from the list on Sunday, Aug. 23, highlighting a reversal from the surge of COVID-19 cases in July that set new records for daily cases and hospitalization rates.

The removal from the watch list came within days of the Orange County Health Care Agency announcing that for the first time in weeks the county was “below all of (the) State’s data monitoring thresholds” and was therefore likely to come off the list.

If Orange County remains off the watch list for 14 consecutive days, schools will be allowed to physically reopen for in-person classes. Simply coming off the list, however, doesn’t reopen other sectors yet, as any other reopenings would require a revised state order.

In a tweet regarding the removal from the watch list on Sunday, Orange County Board Supervisor Michelle Steel encouraged county residents to continue practicing social distancing and hygiene methods to stem the transmission of the virus.

“We must continue to follow health guidelines on facial coverings, hygiene, and social distancing to keep going in the right direction,” she tweeted. “We must all work together as a community to ensure the safe reopening of OC.”

For the second consecutive day on Monday, Aug. 24, the county remained off the watch list as it continued to meet the California Department of Public Health’s standards for acceptable levels in all five monitored categories.

The county’s 14-day case rate per 100,000 dropped to 85.1 and its seven-day testing positivity percent was at 5.4% on Monday, below the state’s thresholds of 100 per 100,000 and 8%, respectively.

The county also reported having 32% of ICU beds available—above the 20% minimum requirement—and 59% of available ventilators—more than the 25% that’s required.

The county’s change in the three-day average of hospitalized patients stayed low at minus-4.6%, well below the state threshold of 10%.

On Monday, the county recorded 353 new COVID-19 cases with no additional deaths, bringing the cumulative case total to 46,307 while the death toll remained at 897. There were 388 cases of patients hospitalized from the virus, with 116 of them requiring an ICU bed. Both the hospitalized cases and ICU cases are down to similar numbers last seen in June.

In South County, as of Monday, Dana Point’s cumulative case total was reported at 227 and San Juan Capistrano’s total was at 397. Over the weekend, San Clemente surpassed a new milestone in total cases, hitting 410 cases.

Amid the rising surge in cases, the state added the county to the dreaded watch list back in late June, putting in place renewed restrictions on several economic sectors to stem the wave of cases and hospitalizations.

Restaurants, wineries and movie theaters, among others, within the counties on the watch list had been ordered to close but could operate outdoors. A few weeks later, Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded those restrictions, ordering those same sectors to close indoor operations statewide.

In his July 13 order, Newsom also ordered the closure of indoor operations for fitness centers, places of worship, offices for non-critical sectors, personal care services, including hair salons and barbershops, and indoor malls within the counties on the monitoring list.

According to county officials on Monday, the governor’s July 13 order is to remain in effect for those economic sectors in Orange County, regardless of whether its off the monitoring list.

“When a county comes off the County Data Monitoring list, they are still subject to the statewide closure orders issued on July 13,” the county health office explained in an email. “The closure orders issued July 13 will remain in effect until the State Public Health Officer determines it is appropriate to modify the order based on public health conditions.”

Newsom, during a press conference on Monday, said adjustments to his order will be made and announced in the coming days.

“Real progress was made over the weekend, we had some good dialogue; we’re making some adjustments based on the feedback we received on Saturday and Sunday,” Newsom said. “We had a meeting this morning on those guidelines and we will be working with other, not only industry, but outside our local health officers and state health authorities, to socialize these guidelines, and we look forward to having them out this week.”

The county’s placement on the watch list had also prevented schools from physically reopening at the start of the school year last week. Under a separate directive from Newsom in mid-July, schools could resume in-person classes only after their county stayed off the watch list for 14 consecutive days.

After those 14 days, Newsom said Monday, local health officers, school districts, parents and other stakeholders can begin implementing plans on “what they believe is the best condition for their kids in moving back to in-person learning.

Before Newsom’s mandate, the Capistrano Unified School District Board of Trustees voted on a flexible reopening plan that, in part, plans to utilize a hybrid model allowing options of some on-campus instruction with safety guidelines or all online learning.

CUSD has said that when campuses can reopen—which could be in less than two weeks should the county stay off the watch list—it plans to transition to the hybrid model.

SR_1Shawn Raymundo
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.

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