Vaccine example. Photo via Pixabay.

Orange County’s COVID-19 hospitalizations continued its plummet, but reports of fatalities keep rolling in, with January’s death toll approaching the worst of the Delta variant-fueled summer surge, according to the latest data.

The number of COVID-positive hospital patients in the county dropped from 846 to 818, with the number of intensive care patients falling from 161 to 147.

OC has 15.5% 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, 84% are unvaccinated and 87% in ICU are not inoculated, the OCHCA said.

“We’re still hearing that hospitals are still really strained at this time,” Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, the county’s deputy health officer, told reporters Wednesday.

Some hospitals have paused elective surgeries to handle the winter surge of patients, Chinsio-Kwong said.

Pediatric cases have seen a decline since last week, she added.

The county was seeing about 50 children hospitalized “on any given day” last week with 18 in intensive care, Chinsio-Kwong said.

“Today, we have 37 kids hospitalized with COVID and eight in the ICU,” she 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 14 more COVID-related fatalities Thursday, hiking the cumulative death toll to 6,140 since the pandemic began.

Ten of the deaths logged Thursday occurred in January, raising last month’s death toll to 164. The most recent recorded fatalities occurred on Jan. 24, when two people died of virus-related causes. Eight days of last month have not yet logged any fatalities.

“There’s a good possibility of that,” Chinsio-Kwong said when asked if January’s death toll may exceed the worst of the summer surge. “Just because of the significant amount of positive cases over the last couple of weeks. The current variants may be milder, so even if the percentage may be lower, the sheer number of cases will be the same amount of deaths if not more than Delta. Proportionally, we expect it to be less, but the gross number will be the same or a little bit higher.”

Of the fatalities that occurred in December and January “the majority of folks who are dying during that period were older. We do have a couple of younger aged folks who did pass away and the majority of them are still unvaccinated.”

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 2021, when 71 people succumbed to COVID-related causes. Four of the deaths logged Thursday occurred in December, November, October and September.

December’s death toll stands at 102, with 112 in November and 135 in October.

September’s death toll stands at 198 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 1,265 new positive COVID tests Thursday, bringing the county’s cumulative total to 521,431.

Outbreaks — defined as three or more infected residents — decreased from 38 to 36 at assisted living facilities Jan. 31 to Feb. 2, the most recent data available, and dropped from 30 to 24 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 72.6 Jan. 22 to 38.5 on Jan. 29 for residents who were fully vaccinated with a booster shot; from 134.8 to 62 for fully vaccinated with no booster; and 207.2 to 92.9 for those not fully vaccinated.

The number of fully vaccinated residents in Orange County rose from 2,385,501 last week to 2,399,059, according to data released Thursday. That number includes an increase from 2,231,852 last week to 2,245,066 of residents who have received the two-dose regimen of vaccines from Pfizer or Moderna.

The number of residents receiving the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine increased from 153,649 to 153,993. Booster shots increased from 1,095,438 1,137,045.

In the relatively recently eligible age group of 5 to 11 years old, the number of children vaccinated increased from 62,239 last week to 67,784 versus 200,796, who have not been vaccinated. It’s the least vaccinated age group in Orange County. The next-worst vaccinated eligible age group is 25 to 34, with 319,730 inoculated and 139,671 who have not gotten a shot.

The age group that has gotten the most booster shots is 55 to 64.

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 could face a four-times higher risk of stillbirth than observed 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.

Pregnant women are not more likely to get infected with the virus, but they are more likely to experience severe symptoms, Jolley 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,” she 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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