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Virtual Town Hall To Discuss Irvine Reopening And Readiness Of Healthcare And Testing Facilities

City of Irvine leaders held a virtual town hall meeting with medical partners on May 14 to discuss COVID-19 and Irvine’s readiness to reopen in light of the transition into Stage 2. Participants included Mayor Christina L. Shea, Councilmember Farrah N. Khan, and representatives from UCI Health, OC Health Care Agency, Kaiser Permanente and Hoag.

Mayor Shea expressed her concern for Orange County’s recent increase in the number of cases, which jumped from 135 new cases a couple of days ago to around 229 new cases. In light of this, she asked, “What is attributing to this increase in the last few days?” 

Medical professionals considered the relaxation of COVD-19 containment policies as a factor of the increased cases.  

“Recently, we hit our apex for the highest number of ICU patients in the county. There’s no doubt in my mind that … the relaxation of some of the social distancing is probably playing a role,” Tod Newton, a doctor from Kaiser Permanente, said. 

Another representative also pointed out that the past holiday has played a role in this increase as people visited their families and friends. Dr. Bernadette Boden-Albala, UCI Director and Founding Dean at UCI Public Health, also attributed the more populated beaches to the spring weather which brings people out of isolation.

The City Council received recurring questions about Irvine’s plan on implementing effective and safe COVID-19 testing sites. To this question, Councilmember Khan responded that the City of Irvine has approved a drive-thru PCR/ antigen testing that is effective May 26 and free for all Irvine residents including those without insurance. Mayor Shea noted that all businesses will need to test their employees as a safety measure. 

The drive-thru antigen testing site plans to accept around 260 residents a day. If the numbers are more than predicted, a registration process will be put in place. In the case that the numbers exceed post-registration plans, then a four lane will be executed. Mayor Shea also urges residents to remember that this is a “one point in time test.” 

UCI Public Health is collaborating with the OC Healthcare Agency.  

“Undertaking a county wide surveillance study looking at antibodies of residents, 5,000 people, across Orange County that will begin in the next week or so,” Dr. Boden-Albala said. 

According to Mayor Shea, the antibody test was approved, but has not yet received EUA temporary approval  or FDA approval. The focus for Irvine remains on the antigen testing that will begin on May 26. 

In order to better understand the difference between antibody and antigen testing, Dr. Newton explained in simple terms that antigen testing, which uses swabs either in the nose or the mouth, tests whether someone is infected with COVID-19 at the moment. The antibody test can test to see if a person  was previously infected.

Irvine is preparing for a second wave by obtaining the necessary medical resources. Dr. Newton stated that the PPE stock is prepared for a second or even third surge. A number of ventilators were also obtained at Kaiser Permanente, and the situation is looking up for an appropriate response to a second wave. 

In addition to the coming antigen testing site, the UCI Health representative mentioned other drive-thru testing facilities currently available in Irvine, many of which operate through UCI. UCI also provides medical resources for people to discuss their symptoms and concerns. At these UCI testing facilities, essential workers have the highest priority. 

The importance of contact tracers was highlighted in the meeting because the decrease in COVID-19 cases requires extensive tracking, first tracking people who have the virus to eventually contact tracing the people they have been around and getting those people tested. It was mentioned that UCI Health has hired more contact tracers in anticipation for the higher demand in the future. UCI plans to have a 40 hour training in early July so that these students can eventually be hired by Orange County hospitals and testing facilities. 

COVID-19 has forced counties and states to pivot from their original health care plans in response to the changes in the economy and social distancing policies. 

“We’re going to be looking at a downturn in our economic forecast as we move forward the next very months,” Mayor Shea said. 

In addition to the adaptations made in response to COVID-19, there has been an increased use of  virtual medication, also known as tele-health communication. Tele-health communication allows medical visits to be conducted online in the comfort of one’s home, and it has seen a surge since COVID-19, though some patients still require in-person appointments. 

 “We’ve had great success with video and telephone appointments that our patients, by and large -not across the board- love it, and I think it’s here to stay in one way shape or form,” Dr. Newton said. 

After thanking the special guests for their time and input, Mayor Shea gave the last few words to the community. 

“Be safe and take care of yourselves. Let’s be kind to one another because we are all under a lot of stress. Thank you,” Mayor Shea said when she concluded the virtual town meeting.

Kaitlin Hwangbo is a Staff Writer. She can be reached at hwangbok@uci.edu.