Orange County — Epicenter of Lockdown Protests — Sees Huge Surge in Covid Cases

Screenshot of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, right, during a Tuesday coronavirus briefing.

(CN) — California’s Orange County reported 779 new Covid-19 infections Tuesday, its highest daily count since the beginning of the pandemic, a day after the county was added to a growing list of regions being watched by state health officials.  

Early on in California’s pandemic response, Orange County saw large numbers of residents turn out for public protests against the state’s stay at home order and mandated business closures. 

Orange County health officer Nichole Quick stepped down from her position this month after her face-mask order sparked intense criticism from residents and elected officials in the coastal county. 

Tensions between the former conservative stronghold and the state boiled over when California Governor Gavin Newsom stepped to shut down Orange County beaches after reports of thousands of people flooding the shoreline during the pandemic.

After weeks of steady increases in total Covid-19 positive cases, Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel said Tuesday the figures — along with a ballooning positivity rate in testing — are concerning.  

At least 13,064 people in Orange County have contracted the novel coronavirus as of Tuesday and 330 people have died, according to Orange County public health data.

But Steel said Tuesday the figures must be looked at in context.

“These case counts are directly from CalREDIE, the state’s case reporting system, and reflect specimen collection dates spread out longer than two weeks,” said Steel, who chairs the Board of Supervisors. “The most recent specimen collection date reflected in this report is from June 26th.” 

Steel said she’s confident the county’s public health infrastructure can respond effectively to the outbreak but added Orange County’s interim health officer may soon order bars in the county closed in order to stem viral spread. 

“Our hard work and determination have paid off for several months, with our numbers remaining low when compared with surrounding counties,” Steel said in the statement. “Throughout our pandemic response, and in our phased reopening, we have consistently stated that we would closely monitor the data and correct course as needed.”

The surge in cases in Orange County comes as state health officials reported an additional 6,367 people tested positive for Covid-19 statewide in the last 24 hours. 

The state’s positivity rate — the number of positive cases among residents receiving Covid-19 tests, a key indicator of community spread of the virus — stands at 5.9% over the last week, up from 4.4% two week ago, Newsom said at a press conference Tuesday.

Citing a 45% surge this week in Covid-19 cases compared to the previous week, Newsom has begun scaling back the state’s phased reopening plan, including by ordering bars to close in seven of California’s most populous counties.

With an eye on large gatherings that are typical for the Independence Day weekend, Newsom said he will announce on Wednesday a new set of safety rules for the state.

“One of the areas of biggest concern remains family gatherings, not just streets where people are protesting, but households where people begin to mix and let down their guard,” Newsom said. “Our framework is: if you are not going to stay home and wear a mask, we have to enforce public health guidelines and we will.”

Speaking in Contra Costa County, Newsom said housing the state’s homeless population during the pandemic remains a central focus of his administration. 

“We have not taken our eye off the ball of focusing with intention on the needs of the most vulnerable,” Newsom said amid loud chants and blaring horns from affordable housing advocates protesting nearby. “That has always been top of mind, but this state has failed to address homelessness is a meaningful way.”

A bright spot in the state’s efforts to curb Covid-19 infections among the homeless is Project Roomkey, a program that secures hotel and motel rooms for homeless people who are vulnerable to the spread of the virus.

Newsom said Tuesday the program — which he said could eventually be called “Project Homekey” to convey more permanency — has housed 14,200 homeless people across the state in just a few months. The program has also secured more than 1,300 trailers and enough hotel and motel rooms for nearly 15,700 people.

The state budget signed late Monday by Newsom includes $550 million to help cities and counties acquire hotel and motel properties for the program, which serves homeless people who have tested positive or were exposed to Covid-19.

“We’ve long dreamed about scooping up thousands of motel rooms and converting them into housing for our homeless neighbors,” Newsom said.

California health officials are closely monitoring pandemic conditions in at least 19 counties, including Los Angeles, Orange, Merced and Solano counties, and Newsom said Tuesday he may add an additional four counties to the list.

“We bent the curve in the state of California and we will bend it again,” Newsom said. “We will crush this pandemic and we will annihilate this virus.” 

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