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Orange County Transitions to Less Strict Red Tier

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Orange County officially transitioned to the less-restrictive red tier on March 14 after weeks of declining COVID-19 rates. Indoor restaurant dining, movie theaters and gyms can re-open with capacity restrictions.

The county entered the red-tier just as the range expanded due to a rewrite of the Blueprint for a Safer Economy, which stated that tier criteria would allow greater daily COVID-19 case rates once 2 million vaccines were administered to California’s most impacted communities. 

“After reassessment using new thresholds due to the state meeting its goal of 2 million vaccines administered in its hardest hit communities, 13 counties will move to a less restrictive tier, from Purple (widespread) to Red (substantial): Amador, Colusa, Contra Costa, Los Angeles, Mendocino, Mono, Orange, Placer, San Benito, San Bernardino, Siskiyou, Sonoma and Tuolumne,”  the California Department of Public Health press release said. 

The updated Blueprint for a Safer Economy changed the red tier requirement from four to seven daily new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people to four to 10 daily new cases. Orange County has now dropped to six new daily cases per 100,000 people.

“Consistent with the disproportionate impact of the virus, the state is modifying the Blueprint for a Safer Economy to lead with opening activities when vaccines have been deployed to the hardest-hit communities,” a press release from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said. “This modification will shift Blueprint tier thresholds to allow slightly higher case rates per 100,000 population once more inoculations have occurred in the communities suffering the most, allowing counties to move to less restrictive tiers.”

The state reallocated 40% of its vaccine supply to communities most impacted by the virus in an effort to promote vaccine equity, slow the virus’s spread and save lives.

“This approach recognizes that the pandemic did not affect California communities equally,” the press release said. “40% of COVID cases and deaths have occurred in the lowest quartile of the Healthy Places Index (HPI), which provides overall scores and data that predict life expectancy and compares community conditions that shape health across the state.”

The HPI determines the quartiles based on “data related to the economy, education, healthcare access, housing, neighborhoods, clean environment, transportation and social environment,” according to a state equitable vaccine administration fact sheet. Orange County has four of the state’s 400 lowest-quartile zip codes, OC Health Agency Director and Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau said during an Orange County board meeting.

“Those four zip codes are in the city of Santa Ana 92701 [and] 92703, in the city of Garden Grove 92844, and in the City of Anaheim 92805,” Chau said. “Out of the 40% allocation to all of the 400 lowest [quartile] zip codes in the state, we will get 2.1% of that bucket.”

The HPI quartile system also takes into account population income rates, which could further reduce vaccination disparities.

“The rate of infections for households making less than $40,000 per year (11.3) is more than double that of households with an income of $120,000 or more (5.2),” Newsom’s press release said. “At the same time, California’s wealthiest populations are being vaccinated at nearly twice the rate of our most vulnerable populations. The state is committed to doing better.”

Vaccination allocations to Orange County include the newer Johnson & Johnson vaccine that arrived March 8, in addition to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines already being offered. According to Chau, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine provides immunity within two weeks of receiving the first — and only — dose. 

“If you have more people get vaccinated, there’s less chance for the virus to spread. That’s why the threshold can be more relaxed,” Chau said. “Remember our tier eligibility now, our focus is still on seniors 65 and older who are the most vulnerable.”

As of March 21, 249,539 people in Orange County have been infected with COVID-19 and 4,607 have died from the virus. On March 21 alone, 113 new positive COVID-19 cases were reported, and 45 COVID-19 deaths occurred. 

Kallen Hittner is a City News Intern for the 2021 winter quarter. He can be reached at khittner@uci.edu.