Orange County’s COVID-19 hospitalizations jumped above 200 as the county logged two more virus-related deaths, according to data released Wednesday by the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Hospitalizations increased from 188 on Tuesday to 215 Wednesday, with the level of intensive care unit patients inching up from 56 to 57.

The county reported 1,057 new infections, raising the cumulative pandemic total to 321,395. The fatalities logged Wednesday increased the overall death toll to 5,859.

On Friday, the OC HCA reported the county’s first case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. The infection was detected in a man who is fully vaccinated and has experienced mild illness.

Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, said it’s still unclear if another wave is beginning. COVID-19 testing is on the rise, and it 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 20.9% of its ICU beds and 68% of its ventilators available as of Tuesday. Of those hospitalized, 87% are unvaccinated and 89% in intensive care are unvaccinated.

The seven-day average case rate from Dec. 14 through Monday decreased from 10.4 to 9.4 per 100,000 people and the average number of daily cases dropped from 585 to 530, according to the OC HCA. The positivity rate remained about 3.1%.

Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, the county’s deputy health officer, said she anticipates the infection rate will go up before the end of the month as Omicron overtakes Delta in the country.

Chinsio-Kwong last week advised residents to invest in better-quality masks with an expected winter surge in cases looming and potentially further fueled by the more contagious Omicron strain.

When asked about parents wanting to take their children to see holiday shows, Chinsio-Kwong said, “I get it. I have kids who really want to go out and see performances.”

But, she added that she “went out and bought more disposable masks,” and suggested that surgical N95 masks are preferred over cloth masks.

Chinsio-Kwong stressed residents should be on guard even while gathering outdoors.

“If you already bought your tickets to `The Nutcracker,’ I guess you can consider going … but I would strongly advise your child, who is vaccinated, to wear a very snug N95 mask,” Chinsio-Kwong told reporters.

Avoid going to the movies, she said.

“You can do movies at home,” she said. “It’s actually better at home. You can get popcorn, spread your feet out. It’s probably safer that way. … But if you decide to go the movie theater, wear an upgraded mask … and eat a snack afterwards or outdoors.”

Chinsio-Kwong said she is going to rethink holiday get-togethers.

“My family is fully vaccinated, but I’m really going to think hard about this one,” she said. “I’m going to request all of my family members be fully vaccinated and boosted. I’m going to probably even give out a lot of masks as gifts to make sure they’re safe. I’m not thinking about being in crowded areas.”

Orange County is 66% fully vaccinated, but there are about 700,000 residents who have not gotten even one dose of vaccine, Chinsio-Kwong said.

“This is still a significant number,” she said. “That means one in five who are eligible are not protected with even a single dose. This is problematic with Delta and Omicron circulating.”

Even without the pandemic, winter is among the busiest times for hospitals, as there is often a rise in influenza and cardiac cases as well as domestic violence cases, she said.

Chinsio-Kwong acknowledged mask fatigue, but emphasized residents have to stick it out for at least another month or so.

To those still hesitant or nervous about getting vaccinated, she implored them to speak with their doctor. Fears of side effects like myocarditis from the vaccines are dwarfed by the impact COVID-19 can have on the heart, Chinsio-Kwong said.

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 two fatalities logged Wednesday occurred this month, raising December’s death toll to 16. 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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