By CBSLA Staff

SANTA ANA (CBSLA) — Orange County Wednesday continued to show declining trends in cases of COVID-19, giving county officials hope of graduating to the less-restrictive red tier of the state’s coronavirus reopening system by St. Patrick’s Day.

The county reported 160 new COVID-19 cases, raising the caseload to 246,980, and 14 more fatalities, raising the death toll to 3,966.

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Hospitalization rates continued to decline, with 403 patients as of Wednesday, down from 425 on Tuesday, with 107 in intensive care, a drop from 116 on Tuesday.

“I’m pretty optimistic that two weeks from now we’ll be able to enter the red tier,” Dr. Clayton Chau, the county’s chief health officer and director of the OCHCA, said Tuesday.

Meanwhile Wednesday, rainy weather prevented outdoor dining at Dick Church’s family restaurant in Costa Mesa.

“No one’s going to sit outside,” said manager Brittany Patch. “we need to be able to sit inside and we’re excited. I hope it comes soon.

Orange County just missed moving to the less-restrictive red tier despite the fact that in two of the key categories, the numbers are good enough to slide to the orange tier.

To get to the red tier, the county has to have a case rate per 100,000 population of 4 to 7, a positivity rate of 5% to 8% and a Health Equity Quartile rate of 5.3% to 8%.

The county’s most recent overall testing positivity rate was at 3.8% and the health-equity positivity rate was at 4.9%, which would put both in the orange tier, said Orange County CEO Frank Kim. The case rate per 100,000 residents, however, was at 7.6, just short of the red tier.

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If the county can maintain the case rates and positivity rates it has now, it could enter the red tier by March 17, Chau said. The county must then hold those rates for another two weeks to qualify for a less-restrictive tier that would allow for the reopening of more businesses.

“What I’ve just been told is we have point six left to get to the red tier so our businesses our restaurants especially can open up at 25 percent,” said Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley. “We’ll be there by Wednesday, I’m hopeful of that.”

However, doctors worry that reopening too much too soon could be dangerous because of the COVID variants are in the community.

“Jumping back in is a bad idea,” said Dr. Eric Alcouloumre. “Moving slowly, carefully, and safely back in is an awesome idea and it is exactly what we should be doing.”

Alcouloumre, who has been working on the frontlines at Hoag Hospital, is concerned about the COVID variants and does not support reopening just yet.

“I think the tier system that we’re following statewide, which is carefully measured steps…is exactly the way to go,” he said. “The risk of spreading the virus outside is very, very small and the risk of spreading the virus inside, especially in poorly ventilated areas where people are crowded, is very, very high so it makes no sense to jump immediately to 100 percent reopening.”

Dick Church’s, who resorted to take-out only on Wednesday says business has been down 70 percent.

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(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)