a hospital patient in a hospital bed.
An example of a hospital patient, not one in the story. Photo from Pixabay.

Orange County’s weekly averages for COVID-19 appeared to stabilize, offering hope that the county may have reached a peak in case rates, but hospitalizations continued to climb, data showed Tuesday.

According to weekly averages released on Tuesdays, the county’s average daily case rate per 100,000 residents increased from 19 last week to 20.2, while the test positivity rate ticked down from 8.3% to 8.1%.

The county’s Health Equity Quartile rate, which measures the impact on disadvantaged communities, slipped from 8.5% to 8.4%.

“Technically, we should be peaking now for cases… and then in September peaking in hospital and ICU… so we’re not out of the woods yet, and people need to be careful over the next two weeks,” Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, deputy health officer for the Orange County Health Care Agency, told reporters Tuesday.

Dr. Clayton Chau, the county’s chief health officer and director of the OCHCA, said he thinks “we’re pretty stable now” with the infection rates. “I am confident to say that we’re probably reaching a peak now, a plateau,” Chau said. “But we’re keeping an eye on the hospitalizations.”

Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, was less sure.

“I’m starting to worry that this wave will morph into one big fall wave,” Noymer told City News Service. “So, have we found the peak, and the answer is nobody knows.”

Even if the county is seeing a peak from the Delta variant-fueled summer wave, the virus could find a second wind as children return to in-person learning for fall classes, Noymer said.

Noymer was troubled by another rise in hospitalizations on Tuesday, when they increased from 538 to 549, with the number of intensive care unit patients going up from 124 to 126.

The county has 21.6% of its ICU beds available, and 70% of its ventilators.

“It’s been six weeks since there was a decline in hospitalizations,” Noymer said. “They can talk about case rate averages, but the hospital numbers haven’t gone down in a single day in the last six weeks. I don’t want to be doom and gloom, but I’m being a realist.”

The county recorded 668 new infections Tuesday, raising the cumulative total to 276,632 since the pandemic began. The county also reported 14,594 tests, raising the cumulative total to 4,511,113.

Three more fatalities were logged — one in May and two others in January. The cumulative death toll is 5,161.

The death toll for August so far is four.

The death toll for July is 14; 16 for June; 23 for May; 43 for April; 199 for March; 612 for February; 1,565 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.

Of those eligible to get a shot, 75.4% of Orange County residents have received at least one dose, up from 73% last week, Chau said. Of the eligible residents, 67% are fully vaccinated now, up from 65% last week.

The county is also seeing an increase in interest for a third shot of the two-dose vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna that have been authorized for immunocompromised people, Chau said. That population includes organ transplant recipients and other people undergoing therapies that suppress their immune system.

“We have seen a rise in the cases of people coming into everywhere, not just the county, who qualify for the third dose of MRNA vaccines,” Chau said. “CVS ran out of appointments for the first time in quite some time.”

Chau also said many nurses and physicians are struggling with morale problems as they slog through a year-and-and-half of the pandemic with another surge.

At least 90% of the hospital patients in the county are unvaccinated, Chau said.

“They’re not happy putting themselves and family at risk again because, compared to the last few surges, people now have an option and they’re not understanding why they’re not taking that option,” Chau said of vaccines.

There are four children in intensive care from COVID-19 at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, Chau said. In all, the hospital has 11 patients with COVID-19. About half of the hospital’s ICU beds are filled with COVID-19 patients, Chau said.

“The fact that we have kids in ICU, I don’t like,” Chau said, adding all of the children are unvaccinated, including the ones 12 and over who are eligible for inoculation.

Chau recommended that when students return to school if they are in large groups of other unvaccinated students outdoors they should mask up.

Supervisor Katrina Foley, whose husband teaches teenage students, said, “If the adults model, the children will follow.”

Of the infections affecting vaccinated patients locally, 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 warned against relying on natural immunity from a previous infection because reinfection is possible, and he said a prior infection offers less protection than a vaccine.

The case rate for fully vaccinated residents is significantly lower than the case rate for not fully vaccinated residents, according to the OCHCA. 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.

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