Orange County seemed to have dodged the novel coronavirus outbreak in the spring, seeing far fewer COVID-19 cases than many of its neighboring counties. That began to change after Memorial Day weekend as more people ventured from their homes, many ignoring masking, social distancing and other virus precautions.
An alarming rise in local cases followed in late June, spiking over the July 4 holiday weekend and leading California Gov. Gavin Newsom to renew shutdowns of indoor eateries, bars and large gathering places across Orange County and elsewhere around the state.
By mid-August, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Orange County began to trend downward as more local residents began to observe measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
“I do think Orange County has survived its first wave of the virus,” says Dr. Susan Huang, medical director of Epidemiology and Infection Prevention for UCI Health. “The people of Orange County deserve congratulations for their speed in turning this around.”
A late first wave
Although Orange County businesses and schools shut down in spring along with the rest of the state, fewer COVID-19 cases had emerged locally than elsewhere when restrictions eased in May.
“We went into lockdown before we saw a surge,” explains Huang, a professor of medicine in the UCI School of Medicine’ Division of Infectious Diseases. “Many people here never had a fear of the coronavirus. So when it got warm, people had been pent up and were feeling relaxed about going out without taking precautions.”
But as cases multiplied and residents began to have more direct experience with the virus, they did an about-face, she says. They took masking, distancing and hand hygiene more seriously, practices that largely shut down the spread of infection.
The remarkable turnaround — it takes about a month to see the results of behavior changes with this virus, Huang says — shows what can be done in a short time when a majority of people in a region do take precautions.
Continuing to follow these safety measures will be key to controlling the anticipated second surge.
UCI Health is already preparing for a second wave of COVID-19, which epidemiologists expect will start about four to six weeks after schools and businesses reopen and as temperatures drop through the fall and winter, when many other coronavirus infections (influenza, some cold viruses) are circulating.
“It is inevitable that we’ll see a second wave,” Huang says. “How bad it will be will depend on how high and fast the infections rise, as well as on how well we as a community mitigate the risks.”
Preparing for round two
As of Sept. 10, Orange County recorded more than 50,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 1,000 deaths.
To blunt a second surge, Orange County business and schools can help by supplying safety equipment and ensuring that people and students take the same measures that led to the drop in virus cases by late August. Everyone has a role to play.
“We made a very rapid reversal of that late first wave because the average person observed precautions,” Huang says. “If the virus doesn’t rise fast and high, we can control it.”
People should continue to follow the same practices they used to turn back the first wave, well before a surge in new COVID-19 cases arrives this fall. These include:
- Wearing a mask that covers your nose, mouth and chin in all public places and high-risk environments.
- Staying at least six feet from others who aren’t part of your immediate family.
- Washing your hands or using hand sanitizer frequently.
- Avoiding touching your face or mask.
- Disinfecting high-touch surface areas and objects when possible, otherwise us a tissue.
“For all of Orange County, well done,” says Huang. “You know what it takes to reverse a COVID-19 surge.”