There may be only two confirmed cases of Orange County residents infected with the new and highly contagious COVID-19 variant Omicron but it is likely much more prevalent than that, the county’s deputy health officer told reporters Thursday.

“I suspect the projected data of actual prevalence of Omicron is probably above 60%” of the county’s cases, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, the deputy health officer, said in a weekly call with reporters.

The data “lags” about a week to 10 days, she said.

“We suspect most of those are Omicron,” Chinsio-Kwong said of the uptick in COVID-19 infections. “There will still be a mixture of Delta.”

No matter what residents should do all they can to avoid getting infected by using a “snug and fit” face covering when going indoors or congregating in large crowds or getting vaccinated, which includes boosters to those who have been inoculated previously, Chinsio-Kwong said.

Even if the new variant presents milder symptoms, there’s just as much reason to try to prevent transmission, she said.

“Everytime it infects an individual, it has a chance to mutate,” Chinsio-Kwong said. “We need everybody to take precautions and to limit the spread of COVID.”

Testing has been on the rise, she said.

“We know there’s a lot more testing going on because antigen tests are flying off the shelves, and antigen tests are not reported,” Chinsio-Kwong said.

Parents should be on the lookout for more testing done before students return to classes following the winter break, Chinsio-Kwong said.

Hospitalizations increased from 215 Wednesday to 218, with the level of intensive care unit patients inching up from 57 to 58.

The Orange County Health Care Agency reported 655 new infections Thursday, raising the cumulative pandemic total to 322,550. The five fatalities logged Thursday increased the overall death toll to 5,864.

The case rate per 100,000 was 10.2 with a test positivity rate of 3.1%, and 3.6% in the health equity quartile, which represents the neighborhoods hardest hit by the pandemic.

Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, said Wednesday it is still unclear if another wave is beginning.

COVID-19 testing is on the rise, and the increase in cases could have to do with the increases in traveling and family gatherings for the holidays.

“I think there will be a surge in testing,” Noymer told City News Service. “Hospital numbers are what matter more … They’re up a little bit, but 215 is not unknown territory for us. I want to see that sustained at that level before I’m calling it. … Let’s be clear, there’s going to be a COVID wave in Orange County, I’m just not prepared to say it’s starting in earnest now.”

It is possible the wave could mirror the Delta variant-fueled surge of this summer, Noymer said.

And even if hospitalizations rival last winter’s levels, there likely won’t be as many deaths because of the vaccines, Noymer said.

The county had 20.3% of its ICU beds and 68% of its ventilators available as of Thursday. Of those hospitalized, 87% are unvaccinated and 88% in intensive care are unvaccinated.

The case rate per 100,000 for the unvaccinated is 30.9 as of Dec. 18, the most recent statistics available. That’s up from 25.4 on Dec. 11.

For the vaccinated, the case rate is 6.8, up from 3.8 as of Dec. 11.

Studies show that Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are at least 70% effective against infection for the Omicron variant, Chinsio-Kwong said, adding that they nearly always protect recipients from hospitalization or death.

The number of fully vaccinated residents in Orange County increased from 2,295,286 to 2,314,232, according to data released Thursday. That represents 67% of the county, Chinsio-Kwong said.

That number includes an increase from 2,144,648 to 2,162,816 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 150,638 to 151,416. The county has dispensed 768,412 booster shots.

The fatalities logged Thursday occurred this month, raising December’s death toll to 21. November’s death stands at 97.

October’s death toll stands at 126, 196 for September and 182 for August.

In contrast, the death toll before the more contagious Delta variant fueled a summer surge was 31 in July, 19 for June, 26 for May, 46 for April, 202 for March and 620 for February.

January 2021 remains the deadliest month of the pandemic with a death toll of 1,596, ahead of December 2020, the next deadliest at 985.

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