Starting next week, John Wayne Airport travelers will be able to get free COVID-19 test kits, officials announced.

Public health professionals have been encouraging all travelers to get tested in the hopes it will catch more infected people who can quarantine and help curb the spread of the virus.

“This is another example of the important work we have been doing throughout these past two years to protect our community during COVID,” Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do said.

The tests will be available at the airport starting Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Orange County reported 356 new cases of COVID-19 and seven additional deaths associated with the virus Friday. That brings the county’s cumulative totals to 313,743 cases and 5,756 fatalities since the pandemic began, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

The number of coronavirus patients in county hospitals increased from 169 on Thursday to 176 on Friday, with the number of intensive care patients ticking up from 55 to 56.

Of those hospitalized, 86% are unvaccinated and 88% of those in intensive care are unvaccinated.

The county had 21.8% of its ICU beds and 69% of its ventilators available.

The county’s case rate per 100,000 for the fully vaccinated was at 2.6 as of Nov. 27, down from 2.9 on Nov. 20, according to the latest data available. The case rate for the unvaccinated was at 12.7, down from 15.1, during the same time period.

The number of fully vaccinated residents in Orange County increased from 2,229,621 as of Nov. 24 to 2,242,235 as of Thursday.

That number includes an increase from 2,080,656 to 2,093,447 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 stands at 148,788.

There are 229,507 residents who have received one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

Since booster shots have been allowed for age groups under 65 the breakdown is as follows so far:

— 1,312 for ages 12 to 17;

— 16,963 for ages 18 to 24;

— 41,982 for ages 25 to 34;

— 54,901 for ages 35 to 44;

— 72,079 for ages 45 to 54 and;

— 100,109 for age 55 to 64.

Since ages 5 to 11 were allowed earlier this month, 41,984 children have received at least one dose. That leaves 226,596 children 5 to 11 who have not been vaccinated in the county.

Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, the county deputy health officer, said vaccinations have been picking up some velocity of late.

“As of Nov. 29, 513,000 either received a booster or an extra dose,” Chinsio-Kwong said. “We did see a pickup of vaccination following the Thanksgiving holiday.”

On Thursday, 23,000 doses were dispensed, “which is really assuring,” she said.

About 4,000 kids 5 to 11 years old received a dose on Thursday, she said. About 16% of those 5 to 11 years old have received at least one dose, the doctor said.

“So far, a good chunk of that is being done at pharmacies,” she said. “I’m really happy to see we did see a rise in demand for vaccines following the Thanksgiving holiday.”

Chinsio-Kwong said she spoke with a child in the newly eligible vaccine group who was “excited” about getting vaccinated so he would be protected when extended family came to visit for the holidays.

Of the fatalities logged Friday, six of them occurred in November, raising last month’s death toll to 47. One occurred in October, raising that month’s death toll to 113.

September’s death toll stands at 188, ahead of August’s death toll of 177.

In contrast, the death toll before the more contagious Delta variant-fueled summer surge was 31 in July, 19 for June, 26 for May, 46 for April, 200 for March, 616 for February.

January remains the deadliest month of the pandemic with a death toll of 1,593, ahead of December, the next deadliest at 982.

“The majority of those are still unvaccinated,” Chinsio-Kwong said of the recent fatal victims of coronavirus.

In the wake of the announcement that the first U.S. case of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus has been detected in San Francisco, the head of UC Irvine’s COVID-19 response team said Wednesday that it is too early to gauge the impact the new mutation will have. On Thursday, an Omicron case was discovered in Minnesota.

“It’s in the very, very early days right now and we really don’t have a lot of good information to go on,” UCI’s David Souleles, formerly of the Orange County Health Care Agency, told City News Service on Wednesday.

Scientists are researching whether Omicron is as contagious as the Delta variant that sent COVID numbers soaring earlier this year, whether it is more harmful in terms of symptoms or how much it can evade vaccines, Souleles said.

Omicron was first detected last week in South Africa, he noted.

“We should start to know more in the coming weeks, but it’s too early to make any type of predictions,” Souleles said.

Souleles said it was “good news” that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, believes the current vaccines “provide some level of protection” against Omicron.

Delta continues to be the dominant strain and it remains to be seen if Omicron can overcome it, as other variants have not been able to compete so far.

Souleles said he was “not surprised” that Omicron was first detected in California, noting that Orange and Los Angeles counties were the second and third jurisdictions to detect COVID-19 in the United States on Jan. 25, 2020.

“We should keep doing what we’ve been doing — get vaccinated,” Souleles said. “All of those things will help provide protection and help stop the spread of Delta, and that prevents further variants from emerging.”

He also said it was important to continue to rely on masking as well.

Souleles noted that 98% of UCI’s students and 96% of its employees are fully vaccinated. There have only been a “very few” students and employees who have sought medical or religious exemptions, he said.

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