Orange County’s COVID-19 hospitalizations and case rates continued dropping, but reports of fatalities mounted, with January’s death toll approaching the worst of the Delta variant-fueled summer surge, according to data released Wednesday.

The number of COVID-positive hospital patients in the county dropped from 872 to 846, with the number of intensive care patients ticking down from 164 to 161.

OC has 17.7% of its ICU beds available, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency. Local health officials get concerned when the level falls below 20%. The county has 61% of its ventilators available.

Of those hospitalized, 85% are unvaccinated and 87% in ICU are not inoculated, the OCHCA said.

Saturday marked the first day since Jan. 9 that hospitalizations fell below 1,000. The downward trend began on Jan. 18.

The county reported 16 more COVID-related fatalities Wednesday, hiking the cumulative death toll to 6,126 since the pandemic began.

All the deaths logged Wednesday occurred in January, raising last month’s death toll to 154. The most recent recorded fatalities occurred on Jan. 24, when two people died of virus-related causes. Nine days of last month have not yet logged any fatalities.

Jan. 14 has been the deadliest day so far last month with 14 fatalities. That tops the deadliest day during the summer surge by one, and the last time fatalities on one day approached that level was early March of last year. The deadliest day so far during the pandemic was Jan. 2 of last year, when 71 succumbed to COVID-19-related causes.

December’s death toll stands at 101, with 111 in November and 134 in October.

September’s death toll stands at 197 and August’s death toll is 182.

In contrast, the death toll before the Delta variant fueled a late-summer surge was 31 in July, 19 in June, 26 in May, 47 in April, 202 in March and 620 for February. January 2021 remains the deadliest month of the pandemic, with a death toll of 1,598, ahead of December 2020, the next-deadliest with 985 people lost to the virus.

The OCHCA also reported 1,528 new positive COVID tests Wednesday, bringing the county’s cumulative total to 520,166.

Outbreaks — defined as three or more infected residents — decreased from 45 to 38 at assisted living facilities Jan. 26-31, the most recent data available, and remained at 30 for skilled nursing facilities.

The county’s adjusted daily new case rate per 100,000 residents dipped from 117.1 Tuesday to 109.2 Wednesday. The testing positivity rate dropped from 17.9% to 16.6%, and fell from 15.5% to 13.9% in the health equity quartile, which measures underserved communities hardest hit by the pandemic.

The case rate per 100,000 people decreased from 93.2 on Jan. 15 to 69.2 on Jan. 22 for residents who were fully vaccinated with a booster shot; from 210.4 on Jan. 15 to 126.6 on Jan. 22 for the fully vaccinated without a booster; and from 304.4 to 194 for those not fully vaccinated.

Dr. Jennifer Jolley, an OB/GYN from UCI Health, said Tuesday that a recent study out of Scotland showed that unvaccinated pregnant moms are more likely to require hospitalization when infected with COVID-19 and face a four-times higher risk of stillbirth than seen during the Delta wave. The risk of requiring a ventilator for unvaccinated pregnant women is reportedly about 15 times higher than for the inoculated.

Vaccine hesitancy among pregnant women persists, with about 42% of expectant mothers inoculated, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I understand and expect that women and families will be hesitant to accept a new medication or vaccine,” Jolley told City News Service.

But this recent study shows that the vaccines are safe, she said.

“We really want to continue on the mission of helping families understand that COVID causes more severe disease in pregnancy,” she said. “Women are more likely to die and more likely to be on a ventilator and more likely to have severe symptoms carrying a fetus if they get infected.”

Jolley said pregnant women are also more likely to get infected with the virus as well. The Scottish study showed that 90% of the pregnant patients in hospitals and in critical care were unvaccinated, Jolley said.

The Omicron variant is viewed as less severe than Delta, but it is still causing severe disease for expectant mothers, Jolley said.

She stressed that the vaccines do not penetrate the placenta, but the antibodies from the mother are conveyed to the fetus. That is what is known as “passive immunity” for the unborn, she added.

“I’ve had some patients who had the vaccine during pregnancy,” Jolley said, adding that many others were inoculated before conception.

Now doctors are advising already vaccinated expectant mothers to get a booster shot, she added.

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