Orange County COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations continue to rise, but a UC Irvine epidemiologist said Thursday the numbers appear to be relatively flat although an expected winter surge is certain now.

“I’d say it’s still relatively flat,” Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, told City News Service. “There’s going to be a winter surge and that’s just like the law of gravity at this point. The omicron variant is going to guarantee that’s true. I’ve been saying for some time there will be a winter peak … but now I can tell you with absolute certainty there will be a winter peak. Omicron removes all doubt. Right now, I think we’re still in the calm before the storm.”

The case rates per 100,000 residents increased from 5.8 a week ago to 7 as of Wednesday, Orange County CEO Frank Kim told City News Service on Wednesday. The test positivity rate increased from 2.6 to 3.4, he added.

“There’s a bump we’re seeing, and a corresponding bump in hospitalizations,” since Thanksgiving, Kim said. “Hopefully, it doesn’t get much worse than this and it is fairly mild.”

Still, the pace of infections and hospitalizations are manageable, Kim said. “When I talk to the hospital systems they say it’s manageable.”

Noymer said, “Thanksgiving is kind of in the rear-view mirror at this point and we’re doing better than last year, and I expect this winter peak to be less severe than last year.”

The county’s weekly COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 residents increased from 6.1 to 6.4, while the rate of people testing positive for the virus increased from to 2.4% to 3.3%, according to the data that is released on Tuesdays.

The county’s Health Equity Quartile positivity rate — which measures progress in low-income communities — increased from 2.8% to 3.3%.

The number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 increased from 183 Wednesday to 196 on Thursday, with the number of patients in intensive care climbing from 57 to 59, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

The county also reported 295 new infections and 10 additional deaths associated with the virus Thursday, raising its cumulative totals to 316,070 cases and 5,806 deaths.

One of those fatalities dates back to December of last year. There have been no fatalities logged in December of this year so far. Eight of the fatalities occurred in November, raising last month’s death toll to 74. One fatality occurred in October, raising that month’s death toll to 125.

September’s death toll stands at 192, ahead of August’s death toll of 179.

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 and 617 for February.

January 2021 remains the deadliest month of the pandemic with a death toll of 1,594, ahead of December 2020, the next deadliest at 985.

The county has 18.6% of its ICU beds and 69% of its ventilators available, according to the OCHCA.

Of those hospitalized, 87% are unvaccinated, and of those in intensive care, 89% are unvaccinated.

The case rate per 100,000 residents among the unvaccinated climbed from 14.4 on Nov. 27 to 24.2 as of Dec. 4, the latest figures available from the OC HCA. The case rate per 100,000 for vaccinated residents increased from 2.9 to 4.5 during the same time frame.

The number of fully vaccinated residents in Orange County increased from 2,242,235 as of Dec. 2 to 2,270,828.

That number includes an increase from 2,093,447 to 2,121,094 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 148,788 to 149,734.

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