OC Joins Other Regions to Report Coronavirus Recovery Numbers
Tuesday, May 26, 2020
Under pressure from the Board of Supervisors, Orange County’s Health Care Agency will begin posting estimates of how many county residents have recovered from the coronavirus as of May 26.
County health officials will join their counterparts in Riverside County, Ventura County, and the city of Long Beach in reporting that number daily. Los Angeles County, San Bernardino County, San Diego County, and the city of Pasadena do not offer that information, although San Bernardino County may do so in the future.
Southern California health departments have been split over whether to track recoveries and how to do it. There is no standard method and no uniform definition of what “recovered” means as it relates to the coronavirus.
But those in favor of tracking recoveries believe the information can give the public a better understanding of the spread of the virus and a bit of positive news during troubled times, even if the numbers are incomplete or estimated.
For example, while about 7,000 Riverside County residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of Monday and 292 have died, about 4,200 people have recovered. That leaves about 2,500 active cases in the county — at least, among people who have been tested.
Riverside County Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser was adamant that the county’s health department report recoveries, said spokesman Jose Arballo Jr.
“It provides a fuller picture of what’s going on …” Arballo said. “It’s important for the public to see there are people recovering, moving on with their lives. We wanted to show both sides: the seriousness of it through hospitalizations, ICU (cases), deaths, but also that people get through this.”
In Riverside County, a case investigator contacts each person who has tested positive for COVID-19 to start the process of contact tracing, Arballo said. When each person’s 14-day isolation period ends, the investigator contacts the person again to ask if they’re feeling better. Once they’ve gone 72 hours without symptoms, their case is closed and they’re counted as recovered.
Long Beach, which has its own city health department, uses a different process.
For patients who were sick enough to be hospitalized, health officials track when they were discharged, said Communicable Disease Controller Emily Holman. But there are too many cases and too little staff for the department to check in with everyone else.
Instead, Holman said, they assume that anyone who tested positive and wasn’t hospitalized has recovered after a 10-day infectious period is over. Using that method — which she said is common throughout California — officials calculate that of Long Beach’s 1,582 confirmed cases, 1,100 people have recovered, while 73 have died.
The number of recoveries was something the public wanted, more than something health officials rely on to determine their response, Holman said.
“We did have pressure from the public — they really wanted this number,” she said.
For people who want an indication of their community’s current health level, she recommended paying more attention to hospitalization numbers.
Orange County Joining In
Orange County’s recovery numbers also will be estimates, Health Care Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau said.
He cautioned at two events last week that they would likely “overwhelmingly” underestimate the true number because anyone who wasn’t tested — including people with no symptoms or with mild cases who never sought medical treatment — would be missing from the total.
“The recovery data will not be perfect. It is important to watch the trends over time,” he said at a Thursday news conference.
On Tuesday, Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel, who has made repeated requests for this information, assured him that she understood the limitations.
“Other counties are doing it,” Steel said. “I think that’s going to leave people feeling much better in Orange County.”
Placentia resident Phill Skinner, 68, agrees. He had been frustrated that the county wasn’t tracking recoveries.
“All we’re doing right now is publicizing negative numbers — we’re-all-gonna-die-type numbers,” Skinner said. “There’s a lot of recovery out there … It adds a little hope to the fatalism of the numbers that they’re currently putting out.”
In both San Bernardino County and Pasadena, where recovery information isn’t being tracked, officials pointed out that there is no uniform definition for recovery from COVID-19. Los Angeles County health officials did not respond to a request for comment.
“We have seen that some people feel their symptoms have resolved, only to have more symptoms develop later. In some cases, the later symptoms pose serious health risks,” Pasadena Public Health Director Dr. Ying-Ying Goh said in an email. “The communicable disease controllers from jurisdictions across the state have discussed and debated how to define case resolution. As a standard definition has not been adopted, comparisons cannot be made between jurisdictions.”
Pasadena “reports data to the public that is informative and accurate,” spokeswoman Lisa Derderian noted.
San Bernardino County is trying to figure out an “accurate and complete way” to report recoveries, spokesman David Wert said.
“As part of our contact-tracing process, we are reaching out to each person who tested positive to ask them if they ever got sick or were diagnosed with (COVID-19) and what their status is,” he wrote in an email. “That should give us a clear, honest picture of recoveries.”