A rising tide of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in Orange County indicate the expected winter surge is taking off, the county’s deputy health officer told reporters.

The increasing case counts “indicates we’re heading into a surge,” Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong said Friday.

The deputy health officer added that testing of wastewater indicates the newer, more contagious Omicron variant was likely circulating in California prior to Thanksgiving.

“Delta still remains the single most sequenced strain that is causing all of our hospitalizations,” Chinsio-Kwong noted. “That should encourage more people to get vaccinated.”

Hospital officials already “have to brace themselves for a very busy season,” whether Omicron overcomes Delta or not.

“At a minimum we may see the same rise of hospitalizations we saw in August or September, which peaked at 592 patients Aug. 26. That’s dwarfed by 2,259 patients on Jan. 7, just as vaccines were being rolled out for health care workers.

“We’re hoping we can avert that, but it does require everyone to be more cautious and to wear a mask indoors,” Chinsio-Kwong said. “Everybody needs to take their risk factors into account. We are strongly encouraging everyone who is eligible to get a booster vaccine.”

Chinsio-Kwong noted that on Thursday booster shots were approved for ages 16 and 17.

Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, told City News Service Thursday that he felt the county was not yet at the expected winter surge.

“I’d say it’s still relatively flat,” Noymer said. “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 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 ticked down from 196 on Thursday to 194, with the number of patients in intensive care inching up from 59 to 60, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

The county also reported 314 new infections and eight additional deaths associated with the virus Friday, raising its cumulative totals to 316,384 cases and 5,814 deaths.

Two of the fatalities occurred this month, marking the first two deaths for this month so far. Six others occurred last month, raising November’s death toll to 80.

The death toll for October stands at 125, 192 for September and 179 for August.

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 19.1% of its ICU beds and 68% 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.

“Vaccination is our way out of this pandemic,” Chinsio-Kwong said.

She said she understands many residents still have concerns about the vaccines, but the virus itself poses greater risks. Chinsio-Kwong encouraged residents to speak with their doctor about their concerns regarding vaccines.

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