Forty more COVID-19 patients have been admitted to Orange County’s hospitals, according to figures released Monday, heightening concerns the summer surge fueled by the Delta variant has not yet crested.
“Today’s numbers dashed our hopes that maybe we have found the peak of the summer wave,” said Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention.
“We begin another week with a substantial increase” in COVID-19 patients, Noymer told City News Service. “You can’t have increasing hospital numbers without me being concerned.”
Hospitalizations increased from 498 on Friday to 538 on Monday, with the number of intensive care unit patients from 120 to 124. The Orange County Health Care Agency releases updates on COVID-19 figures Mondays through Fridays.
The county has 19.9% of its ICU beds available, and 71% of its ventilators.
Dr. Clayton Chau, the county’s chief public health officer and director of the OC HCA, told reporters during a briefing Monday that the overall testing positivity rate was 8.1%, and 8.4% for the lower health equity quartile, which measures the impact of the pandemic in disadvantaged communities. He said the case rate per 100,000 residents was at 19.3. Those numbers are about where they were a week ago in the weekly averages.
“For me, I consider that stabilization, which is good,” Chau said.
Noymer was more skeptical.
“Case numbers are really squirrelly to interpret right now,” Noymer said. “Hospital numbers are what I’m looking at and I know people are sick of me saying that.”
The county recorded 2,117 new infections for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, raising the cumulative to 275,964. The county also reported 30,278 tests, raising the cumulative to 4,496,519.
Two more fatalities were logged — one from Aug. 2 and the other from July 24. The cumulative death toll is 5,158.
The death toll for August so far is four.
The death toll for July is 14; 16 for June; 22 for May; 43 for April; 199 for March; 612 for February; 1,563 for January — the deadliest month of the pandemic — and 968 for December, the next deadliest.
Fatalities have decreased because of the high vaccination rates of seniors who are most vulnerable to the virus, experts said.
Chau said the highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 “is obviously much more contagious and causing people to have worse symptoms.”
About 10% of people who were hospitalized during the winter surge ended up in the ICU, but now the rate is about double that, Chau said.
“So that’s my concern and it has happened everywhere in the country, not just California,” Chau said.
At least 90% of the hospital patients are unvaccinated, Chau said.
Of the breakthrough-infection patients, about half have compromised immune systems for a variety of reasons such as being an organ transplant recipient or having to take medication that suppresses the immune system, Chau said. Officials also suspect that some of the breakthrough infections are being caught because COVID-19 testing is mandated for all patients and people who come to the hospital for other reasons, he said.
Chau emphasized that all three of the vaccines, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson remain “very, very effective” against infection and serious illness.
“Truly, truly, the vaccines are effective,” Chau said. “We have no way out of this pandemic without the majority getting vaccinated. There is no other way out of this pandemic.”
Chau said he was preparing a new health order aligning with the state’s Aug. 5 order requiring vaccination for healthcare providers. The new county health order will expand on the state’s mandate, extending it to emergency medical technicians, home healthcare providers, paramedics and dental office employees, Chau said. Los Angeles County also included those categories of workers in its vaccine mandate.
Chau said 75.6% of all eligible vaccine recipients in the county have received at least one shot. Factoring in the entire population, including children younger than 12 who cannot get a shot yet, about 65% are fully vaccinated, Chau said.
Chau warned against relying on natural immunity from a previous infection because reinfection is possible and a prior infection offers less protection than a vaccine.
“It doesn’t last long compared to people who get vaccinated,” Chau said of antibodies generated by a prior infection.
Chau also noted that vaccination following a prior infection offers more robust protection.
“Even if you got COVID, you should get vaccinated,” Chau said.
The county on Thursday updated its vaccination numbers. The county has 1,941,560 fully vaccinated residents out of a population of about 3.2 million, including 127,665 who have received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.
The number of residents who have received at least one shot of the two-dose vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna totals 232,057, and a majority of them will get their second shot, experts say.
The case rate for fully vaccinated residents is significantly lower than the case rate for not fully vaccinated residents, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency. According to the update on Thursday, the seven-day case rate is 7.4 per 100,000 for fully vaccinated, but 40.1 for those not fully vaccinated.
During a briefing Monday, Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley welcomed Charles Barfield, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, the county’s largest union, and Sarah Auwarter, president of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers.
Barfield criticized the county’s “self-attestation” process of asking county employees to volunteer whether they have been vaccinated. Barfield preferred that employees show proof of vaccination.
Barfield said there has been an “alarming increase” in outbreaks among some employees in the county’s offices serving the public. He advocated enforcing mask usage for the public and employees indoors on county property.
Auwarter said she wished state officials would enforce mask usage for students and educators indoors and outdoors.