Irvine city leaders were joined by Orange County health experts during a virtual town hall meeting Thursday, May 14 to discuss more details of the city’s Reopening and Readiness Plan.

As Irvine navigates its way into Stage 2 of its recently approved four-stage plan to reopen businesses, the virtual town hall focused on hosting questions from the public. Irvine residents were encouraged to submit questions prior to the meeting, which was led by Irvine Mayor Christina Shea and Councilmember Farrah N. Khan.

The two council members were joined by Dr. Bernadette Boden-Albala, UCI Health director and founding dean, Dr. Todd Newton, medical director at Kaiser Permanente, and Dr. James Leo, chief medical officer.  

As the OC Health Agency continues to track COVID-19, data shows the county experienced its highest back-to-back spike of COVID-19 cases, with 156 cases reported May 13, with an additional 226 cases on May 14. 

Panel experts acknowledged the increase of cases occurring in Orange County, and pointed to a variety of factors for spikes. 

Dr. Todd Newton explained that, with increased testing, more positive results can be expected. However, Newton cautioned against using the number of positive tests as a method of determining the severity outbreaks. As of May 17, Irvine had a total of 153 COVID-19 cases, with zero reported deaths.

“Absolutely the number of cases are going up in Orange County. We are testing more, across-the-board,” Newton said. “We use hospitalization, which I think is a better proxy, given that the number of tests will be variable, and also the timeframe of getting the test back will be variable.”

Orange County has completed at least 2,000 tests per day since April 28, reaching a countywide high of 3,109 tests on May 6.

Still, Newton did not want to discredit the amount of testing occurring, instead pointing to relaxed social distancing as a contributing factor in Orange County’s uptick in COVID-19 cases. 

“There’s no doubt in my mind that, one, increased testing does play a role but two, the relaxation of some of the social distancing is probably playing a role as well, and we are seeing the numbers go up,” he said.  

Dr. Bernadette Boden-Albala agreed that the increase in cases could be attributed to individuals who have relaxed social distancing. However, she said it is possible the numbers could be attributed to nursing homes or skilled nursing facilities in the county.

“Individuals are taking some liberties in relaxing policies. People have been visiting the beaches and I think people are feeling a little bit better. Spring is here, and we want to go out,” she explained. “We’re also seeing cases in nursing homes; transmission is really fast in these nursing homes so I think some of those numbers may be attributable to that, as well.”

As experts reiterate the need for testing as a critical tool in battling COVID-19, the availability of testing in Irvine became a frequently discussed topic during the virtual town hall.   

For Irvine residents, testing comes in the form of a $95,000 testing program that was unanimously approved by the City Council on May 12. However, there will be changes to the original testing program that was presented to residents. 

The original plan includes a drive-through testing site at the Orange County Great Park with free antigen and antibody tests for all Irvine residents. The program is set to begin on May 26.

While the city is still planning to deliver free antigen testing, Irvine Mayor Christina Shea clarified that since the antibody tests are not fully FDA approved, the city would not be offering them at this time.

The difference between the two tests is stark. The antigen test, or PCR test, is used to detect the presence of a virus while it is active. The other, an antibody test, will determine a past exposure. Dr. James D. Leo, Chief Medical Officer at MemorialCare, who was a special guest on the virtual town hall panel, spoke to the differences in testing availability and why.

“At MemorialCare we are focusing on the antigen — or PCR — testing, not the antibody testing, because at the present time the antibody tests are all approved by the FDA only under the Emergency Use Act,” Leo explained. “[Antibody] tests are really valid for looking at the whole population, but are not helpful in making individual patient decisions about whether a person is protected from disease. We don’t yet know if antibodies actually provide immunity for people.”

Dr. Newton added to the antibody test discussion, citing numerous unknowns with the current antibody tests available. Newton’s main concern is the reliability and accuracy of tests, along with the ability to produce accurate tests on a massive scale. 

“First, the test has to be accurate,” he said. “The first [antibody] tests that were released, many of them were grossly inaccurate, some of them were worse than a coin flip — so they were terrible.”

Newton admitted this was uncharted territory, but said he remains optimistic about the county’s readiness and ability to slowly move toward normalcy. In the coming days, the county will begin restarting more elective procedures, while still leaving social distancing protocols in place. But he reminded the public that it had no plan of slowing down medical care for those who need it. 

“We can’t be passive and we certainly can’t let our guard down. But right now, we’re very prepared,” he said. “From my perspective the entire county has done well, hospitals have capacity, people are in pretty good shape, but we’re not seeing New York-type numbers now.”