As Santa Ana city leaders implored the community to stop mixing households, wear masks and refrain from holiday gatherings to curb the spread of COVID-19, the county continued its streak of shattering records for coronavirus patients in overflowing hospitals.
Another 13 people died from COVID-19. Eight were skilled nursing facility residents and three were assisted living facility residents.
Since Sunday, 51 deaths have been reported in Orange County. Last week, the county reported 62 fatalities, up from 41 and 26, respectively, in the two previous weeks.
The fatalities reported Thursday, which date back to earlier this month, raised the death toll to 1,731.
The county logged 2,615 new diagnoses of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the cumulative case total to 113,783.
Hospitalizations jumped from 1,486 on Wednesday to 1,519 Thursday, including 343 intensive care unit patients, up from 319 the previous day.
Both are new records — a daily occurrence dating back to last week.
The county’s ICU bed availability dropped 9.5% Wednesday to 7.1% Thursday in the unadjusted category, and in the “adjusted” metric it remained zero. The state created the adjusted metric to reflect the difference in beds available for COVID-19 patients and non-coronavirus patients.
The 11-county Southern California region’s percentage of available ICU beds dropped from 0.5% to zero.
The Orange County Health Care Agency has issued an order suspending the ability of hospitals that take part in the 911 system to request a diversion of ambulances to other medical centers.
Dr. Carl Schultz, the agency’s EMS medical director, said in a statement that hospital emergency rooms have become so overwhelmed due to the COVID surge that “almost all hospitals were going on diversion.”
“If nothing was done, ambulances would soon run out of hospitals that could take their patients,” Schultz said. “Therefore, we temporarily suspended ambulance diversion. While this will place some additional stress on hospitals, it will spread this over the entire county and help to mitigate the escalating concern of finding hospital destinations for ambulances.”
Schultz added: “To the best of our knowledge, this has never happened before.”
Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento joined Santa Ana Unified School District and City Council members in a news conference Thursday appealing to the public to avoid participating in holiday festivities and to wear face coverings in public. Some of the participants attended the news conference in person and some through a Zoom call.
“The reason why we’re here is we want to speak with one voice, with one common message,” Sarmiento said. “I believe in us, I believe in our community. I know we can do this together, but we need a rallying cry. This is a call to service. We can’t do this alone. We need your help. We’re pleading with you to join us to save our community.”
Santa Ana has the most cases in the county with 22,570 total since the pandemic began. Sarmiento said the city has suffered 330 deaths.
“We’re in the midst of the holiday season, Christmas is right around the corner, New Year’s is right around the corner,” Sarmiento said. “Those are traditional moments. We want to gather with family and friends. We can’t do that this year. Maybe gather virtually if you can. Just try to find other ways to get togther.”
America Bracho, executive director of Latino Health Access, recalled a conversation she had with a friend Thursday morning that revealed the problem with in-person gatherings.
“A friend of mine tells me he couldn’t go to work last week because he got sick around Thanksgiving,” Bracho said. “I asked him were you celebrating? He said, no, we attended a funeral of my aunt who died of a non-Covid condition, but we gathered around for her funeral and the people at the funeral got sick. As a result they got sick and another family member died of Covid. This time they attended a funeral virtually.”
Bracho added, “I am very sad that people have to continue dying because they’re gathering, thinking this isn’t going to happen to me… We’re seeing the result of multiple gatherings — the elections, the games, the parties, Thanksgiving. What is going to happen in Christmas and New Year’s.”
Santa Ana is inviting residents to call 714-805-6517 to get signs and window placards that encourage residents to wear face coverings and to stay at home as much as possible and follow other COVID-19 health guidelines.
Orange County CEO Frank Kim said another thorny problem has been people going to work with cold or flu-like symptoms because they fear getting fired or losing salary. The county board of supervisors on Tuesday extended paid sick time for COVID-19 to county employees.
Kim said he concerned that the latest stimulus package under consideration in Washington will exclude money for states and counties.
“I’m really disappointed because I think it’s a failure to understand that states and counties and cities have all been part of frontline responses,” Kim said. “We’re the ones to do the testing, and the state is asking us to assist nursing facilities when they have a Covid breakout and we’re responsible for playing a primary role in vaccine distribution, which will be a huge logistical issue. There is a misunderstanding at least what we’ve heard in the narrative that the money is a bailout for mismanaged states and county governments, which is absolutely not true.”
Come January, the county will have to dip into is general fund to keep up testing facilities, which will come at the expense of other public services, Kim said.
Orange County’s adjusted daily case rate per 100,000 rose Tuesday from 30.3 the previous week to 42.7, with the positivity rate increasing from 10.6% to 13.2%. The county’s Health Equity Quartile Positivity Rate, which measures the cases in highly affected, needier parts of the county, rose from 16.2% last week to 18.8%.
The county is testing 526.8 people per 100,000 on a seven-day average with a seven-day lag, which is an all-time high.
All of the county’s metrics now fall within the state’s most-restrictive, purple tier of the state’s four-tier coronavirus monitoring system.
Prior to this month, the record for ICU patients in Orange County was 245 during the mid-July surge. Overall hospitalizations have been breaking records daily since Dec. 2.
The county received its first shipment of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine Wednesday. About 25,000 doses were delivered.
Vaccines continued to arrive in Orange County on Thursday, and now county officials are expecting about 32,000 doses of Moderna’s vaccine next week. A Food and Drug Administration advisory committee has recommended approval, paving the way for full emergency authorization by week’s end.
An outbreak in the county’s jails, which started last week, now has 626 inmates infected, down from 627 reported Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Don Barnes has been ordered by an Orange County Superior Court judge to reduce his jail population by half, meaning 1,800 inmates could be released to home confinement, ankle-bracelet monitoring or just fully set free.
The Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to hire outside counsel to help Barnes in the legal struggle with the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued to reduce the jail population.
The board also voted to sue the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to challenge the departments to take convicted felons from the county’s jails during the pandemic.
The county is also dealing with an uptick in outbreaks at skilled nursing and assisted living facilities. As of Tuesday, 32 skilled nursing facilities have had two or more confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 36 assisted living facilities had two or more cases.
County officials have been asked to provide personal protective equipment, more training or staffing to help curb the spread of COVID-19 in those facilities, where the main reason for the spread is likely from employees who contract the virus off-site, Kim said.