Orange County has seen a significant decline in the number of intensive care unit COVID-19 patients, as overall trends continue on an encouraging path.
After a one-day break due to the Easter holiday, the county on Monday reported 208 new infections and logged four more coronavirus-related deaths since Saturday, bringing the cumulative case count to 251,310 and the death toll to 4,772.
The hospitalization counts, however, are a more key metric monitored by public health professionals, and in Orange County those numbers continued to trend down.
Hospitalizations remained at 109, the same as Saturday, but the number of patients in intensive care dropped from 23 to 16, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.
The county has 36.5% of its ICU beds available and 72% of its ventilators.
“Things are looking good in Orange County; things are genuinely on the upswing,” said Andrew Noymer, a UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention.
“People say, `Aren’t you worried about the variants coming and taking over and, of course, I’m worried … but the numbers don’t show that happening here yet,” he said.
Cases are rising in some other states such as Michigan and Massachusetts, but there’s no way to know if the same will happen in California, Noymer told City News Service.
“COVID has a way of evading our most facile predictions,” he said. “If California is good until July again, or beyond, because of the upper hand we have in vaccinations, then I don’t see hiding in our basements … We have to send our kids back to school sooner or later and it might as well be sooner, as long as the data are looking as good as they are now.”
There’s a danger in clamping down while the statistics are trending positively, Noymer said.
“There may be some time in the future for us to hide in our basements and I’d rather keep our powder dry for that eventuality and have a little freedom now,” he said.
Noymer also noted the improvement in the pace of fatalities.
“The slowdown in deaths has been profound,” Noymer said.
The county’s death toll for March stood at 116, far below the February number of 551. The death toll for January, the deadliest by far during the pandemic, stands at 1,470, while December’s was 922.
The December and January death tolls reflect a holiday-fueled surge. The monthly totals continue to be adjusted as deaths are confirmed as being COVID-related.
The most recent weekly update from the state, issued on Tuesdays, showed the county’s test positivity rate improved from 2.1% to 1.7%, and the adjusted case rate per 100,000 people on a seven-day average with a seven-day lag improved from 3.5 last Tuesday to 2.8.
The county’s Health Equity Quartile rate, which measures positivity in hotspots in disadvantaged communities, improved from 3.2% to 2.6% last week.
Orange County is coming off a record for COVID-19 vaccinations set Thursday, when 13,400 doses were administered at county-operated point of dispensing sites.
Orange County officially moved into the orange tier of the state’s re-opening system last Wednesday, the same day officials opened their newest large-scale vaccination POD site at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.
Vaccinations are key to emerging from the pandemic, Noymer said.
“We’re still in the mode where we need to vaccinate,” he said. “We need to seize this opportunity to vaccinate … Every day there’s a story about how well they work against new variants, but … the evidence says they still work against the variants. The lesson for Orange County and California is just vaccinate now.”
The county’s move into the orange tier of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy allowed the county to ease restrictions on a variety of business sectors. Retail stores now do not have to limit capacity at all, and churches, movie theaters, museums, zoos and aquariums were allowed to expand from 25% to 50% of capacity.
Restaurants were given permission to expand indoor dining to 50% and wineries to offer indoor service at 25%, while bars that don’t serve food got the green light to reopen outdoors. Gyms and fitness centers were cleared to expand to 25% of capacity, and family entertainment centers can offer indoor attractions such as bowling.
Under current rules, the county’s new case rate must dip below 1 per 100,000 residents to make it to the yellow tier, but the county has qualified for the yellow tier in positivity rates for the past week. Once the state reaches 4 million vaccinations in low-income communities, the benchmark for advancing to yellow will increase to 2 per 100,000 residents.