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Orange County Reaches 5,000 COVID-19 Death Milestone

SANTA ANA (CBSLA) - The county has reached the milestone of 5,000 COVID- 19 fatalities during the pandemic, but Orange County officials are also eying a possible first step toward making the yellow tier in the state's economic reopening plan next week.

On Saturday, the county reported 47 new cases of COVID-19 and five additional deaths.

"Caseloads are down and we're hoping by Sunday we'll be in the yellow tier," Orange County CEO Frank Kim said.

The county's case rate was down to 2 per 100,000 as of Friday, Kim said. If the county can get under 2 by Sunday then it would record its first week in the yellow tier for case counts and would have to maintain another week on that level before getting to graduate to the least-restrictive tier.

The county has been in the yellow tier for positivity rates for a few weeks.

The county also recorded eight more fatalities, upping the cumulative death toll to 5,000 since the pandemic started. Of those eight additional fatalities, two dated back as far as December as there is routinely a lengthy delay in recording of deaths.

Andrew Noymer, a UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, told county officials in March of last year that he had done a "quick calculation and I figured (the death toll) would be in the 4,000s."

Noymer added, "All is not said and done yet and we're at 5,000 so I was wrong. Some people thought that was too extreme at the time, but to be fair, people didn't understand what we were in for. They thought it was some new kind of flu, which is how people described it. It exceeded my worst, somewhat pessimistic forecast and that's a drag."

Orange County is the 11th deadliest county in the state during the pandemic, Noymer said. The rate is 1,570 deaths per million, he said.

"So we're not the worst by any stretch of the imagination," Noymer said.

Los Angeles County, for instance, is 2,370 deaths per million, and San Diego is 1,110 per million, Noymer said.

"To the east, San Bernardino and Riverside are both higher than us," Noymer said.

"The next 12 months won't bring another 5,000 deaths. I'm quite confident of that," Noymer said. "The worst is behind us."

Of the eight fatalities logged on Friday, three were in April, upping the death toll for that month to 35.

The death toll for March remained at 184 while two more fatalities in February upped the death toll that month to 582.

The death toll in January, the deadliest month of the pandemic, increased by one to 1,533. December, the next deadliest, increased by two to 944.

Orange County officials have announced they will shut down the county's mass COVID-19 vaccination sites in June due to a lack of demand for inoculations.

Instead, the county will focus more on mobile vaccination clinics to provide shots in areas where there is more resistance to getting the jab in the arm.

The Super Point-of-Dispensing, or POD, sites at the Anaheim Convention Center, OC Fair & Event Center, Soka University and Santa Ana College will shut down on June 6, officials said Thursday.

"We're not vacating our role as community vaccinators," Kim said Friday. "We're changing the model because we've gotten through the bulk of high-volume numbers of people who wanted the vaccine. Now we're targeting areas where people have (issues) with access."

It makes more sense to spread the county's staff out to multiple sites to focus on hard-to-reach residents rather than have them set up at a mass vaccination site where appointments are declining, Kim said.

"It's not even an issue of money. It's staffing," Kim said. "If we're putting a lot of staff out there and not doing the volume it would be better to send that staff out to the community and seek people we've not been successfully able to bring in for shots."

Noymer agreed that the shift in approach "makes sense."

"When we first started rolling out the vaccines, we really had to pull out all the stops, and at this point, the best channels are where people would ordinarily go to get their flu shot," Noymer said. "Closing down these mega-sites is basically the most efficient use of resources at this point."

Meanwhile, Orange County on Friday reported just 30 new COVID-19 cases, while hospitalization rates continue a downward trend.

Hospitalizations due to the coronavirus increased from 91 Thursday to 93, and the number of patients in intensive care decreased from 23 to 20.

"That's not a statistical fluke," Noymer said of the hospitalization rates. "It's real."

The county had 36.2% of its ICU beds and 77% of its ventilators available.

Friday's figures brought the county's totals to 254,231 cases, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

The county meets two of the three categories for the least-restrictive yellow tier of the state's four-tier system for reopening the economy but remained in the orange tier after the weekly rankings were released Tuesday.

Orange County's weekly average of daily new cases per 100,000 residents improved from 2.6 to 2.4. Graduation into the yellow tier requires that the case rate must get below 2 per 100,000 people. A county must maintain metrics for a tier for two weeks before graduating to a less-restrictive level.

The overall test positivity rate improved from 1.4% to 1.3%. And the county's Health Equity Quartile rate, which measures positivity in hotspots in disadvantaged communities, declined from 1.9% to 1.4%.

(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)

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