Orange County saw a slight dip in the number of people hospitalized due to COVID-19 Thursday, but the intensive-care unit population continues to grow amid a regional surge in virus infections.
The county’s new daily case numbers were lower than usual, with the Orange County Health Care Agency stating that previous issues with the state’s data-reporting system led to some new infections that would ordinarily be reported on Thursday being included in Wednesday’s report.
As a result, the county reported only 610 new cases on Thursday, a dramatic drop from Wednesday’s near-record 4,514. The new cases lifted the county’s cumulative total from throughout the pandemic to 157,183.
The OCHA also reported one additional virus-related death, lifting the overall death toll to 1,875.
There were 2,128 people hospitalized due to COVID-19 as of Thursday, down slightly from 2,145 reported on Wednesday. But the number of COVID patients in ICU care rose to 495, up from 479 on Wednesday.
The county has 40% of its ventilators available, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.
The county’s state-adjusted ICU bed availability remained at zero, and the unadjusted figure held steady at 5.9%. The state created the adjusted metric to reflect the difference in beds available for COVID-19 patients and non-coronavirus patients.
The Southern California region is at zero ICU capacity.
All of the county’s metrics continue to remain within the state’s most-restrictive, purple tier of the four-tier coronavirus monitoring system.
Orange County’s adjusted daily case rate per 100,000 — released on Tuesdays — increased from 51.8 last week to 53.5 this week. The positivity rate rose from 15.2% to 16.9%.
The county’s Health Equity Quartile Positivity Rate, which measures the cases in highly affected, needier parts of the county, rose from 22.7% last week to 24.2%.
Orange County CEO Frank Kim said earlier there was hope of a cresting of the Thanksgiving wave, thanks to recently declining testing positivity rate. But that rate actually rose slightly on Thursday, reaching 16.9%, from 16.5% Wednesday.
Health officials are bracing for a post-Christmas surge, followed by a potential New Year’s wave.
Experts say it takes five to 10 days for a surge to take shape and Wednesday was the fifth day since Christmas.
UC Irvine Medical Center activated its mobile field hospital with 40 additional beds on Wednesday.
Andrew Noymer, a UC Irvine associate professor of population health and disease prevention, said it’s hard to say if the county has reached its peak from Thanksgiving, but even so it’s likely a Christmas surge is coming.
“We saw with Thanksgiving it took awhile to build,” Noymer said. “I’m expecting January to be severe. We haven’t seen the worst yet. But nobody can predict the future of this.”
Noymer noted that the county’s positivity rate has been “highly volatile.”
With hospitalizations at such a high level, officials want to make use of the Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa, but only six patients are currently being treated there. A total of 51 have been treated at the state facility, Kim said. Some of the obstacles to treating patients at Fairview include a shortage of staff needed for the beds there, he said.
Outbreaks at the county’s skilled nursing facilities and elderly assisted living facilities — defined as two or more cases within 14 days — are an ongoing problem for the county. As of Tuesday, 40 skilled nursing facilities and 55 elderly assisted living facilities have outbreaks.
“We need to hurry up and inoculate those individuals and staff working with those individuals,” Kim said. “The virus is coming in through the employees, so we need to get those employees vaccinated quickly.”
Transportation Security Administration figures for security screenings nationally reflect more traveling over Christmas than Thanksgiving. On the day before Christmas Eve, nearly 1.2 million screenings were done at U.S. airports, compared with 1.9 million on the same date in 2019.
Preliminary data indicates that traffic at John Wayne Airport was down during Christmas compared with Thanksgiving.
From Nov. 24 through Nov. 30, 64,947 passengers passed through the Orange County airport for a daily average of 9,278. From Dec. 20-26, 60,193 passengers went through the airport for an average of 8,599 a day.
Noymer said he is not as concerned about travelers contracting coronavirus at the airport or on a plane.
“More people pass through South Coast Plaza than the TSA checkpoint at John Wayne (Airport),” Noymer said. “But we’re churning the whole country, moving people around from college kids from Overland, Ohio, going back to home and people going to see in-laws or grandmothers, or whatever. That’s moving the virus around, increasing the motion and commotion of people and therefore of the virus and it’s not what the doctor ordered.”
While it is generally understood that COVID-19 poses the greatest risk of fatality to elderly patients, Noymer pointed out that in Orange County, 25% of the deaths are residents younger than 65. Most of those deaths are in the 55 to 64 age group, he added.
Meanwhile, there were 1,229 inmates infected Wednesday, down from 1,246 on Tuesday. The county is awaiting 179 test results.
Two inmate are hospitalized with “minor symptoms,” Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said Wednesday. One inmate has died.
The county has three mobile field hospitals operating, with 50 beds at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange and 25 each at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Los Alamitos Medical Center. UCI plans to use 40 of the 50 beds, Kim said.
The county has four more mobile field hospitals left that have 25 beds apiece, he said.