Orange County’s COVID-19 hospitalizations jumped up again, reaching levels not seen in three-and-a-half months, according to data recently released by the Orange County Health Care Agency.

The number of hospitalizations increased from 322 Tuesday to 376 Wednesday, with the number of intensive care unit patients climbing from 66 to 72.

“I can’t tell you where the peak will be, but it will keep going up,” said Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention.

“Tomorrow will be higher than today,” Noymer told City News Service on Wednesday. “It’s par for the course. It’s going to be another challenging January. It’s just a little harder to know where it’s going to peak. But it’s going to get worse before it gets better. What we’re seeing is a strain that’s more infectious and with a shorter incubation period, which causes a skyrocketing in cases.”

According to OCHCA data, the last time a fully vaccinated individual was hospitalized was Dec. 10, but Noymer said that should change.

“We’re going to start seeing vaccinated older people without a booster in the hospital,” Noymer said.

The last time hospitalizations were this high was Sept. 13.

The county has 20.9% of its intensive care unit beds available and 68% of its ventilators. Of those hospitalized, 87% are unvaccinated, and 88% of those in ICU are not inoculated.

Dr. Dan Cooper, a pediatrician and associate vice chancellor for clinical and translational science at UC Irvine, agreed with Noymer that K-12 schools should remain open despite the highly infectious strain of Omicron gaining a foothold over the already highly contagious Delta variant.

“My thoughts have not changed since two years ago,” Cooper told City News Service. “We need to keep schools open. I said that then because even then it was clear with the original COVID was not affecting children that badly.”

And although children can be a “reservoir” of COVID-19 and help spread it, Cooper said whether they go to school or not they will continue to be vectors. Last year, for instance, many impromptu, amateur daycare centers were popping up because parents still had to work, so children were out and about anyway, helping to spread the virus, he said.

“There was absolutely no regulation of what was going on in small apartments,” Cooper said. “The idea that keeping kids out of school prevents them from spreading the disease is not proven and it’s probably false.”

Distance learning presents its own issues with the lack of socialization affecting the mental health of students and likely contributing to the obesity epidemic, Cooper said. It also leads to a “general decrease in learning,” he added.

Cooper continued to preach the wisdom of getting children vaccinated. Cooper said he attended a discussion with parents at Children’s Hospital of Orange County this week and he understands the concern about the vaccines.

“I do think we need to look at the data, but the data are looking so good and the number of children having serious effects is so low,” Cooper said.

The doctor said parents should keep in mind that even with influenza, the longterm consequences can be serious.

“Influenza can leave them susceptible to heart disease for the rest of their lives,” he said, adding that a case of mono can lead to chronic fatigue syndrome.

“I’m not quite ready to say it should be mandated,” he said of the coronavirus vaccines. “But I’m approaching it.”

Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said she had plans to get together with out-of-town friends for the holidays and they all ended up contracting COVID-19 even though they were vaccinated. When she called a local restaurant owner to check in on him, he said he was so busy because COVID-19 had most of his staff at home that he didn’t have time to talk, she added.

“I don’t know if it’s people letting their guard down,” Bartlett said.

But she advised residents to wear a face covering indoors and in crowds, and to be sure to wash their hands often.

“People have to have stringent health and safety protocols, especially when they’re out in public mingling with other people. If they do that chances are they’ll be OK,” Bartlett said.

She said there’s a “misnomer” that has led some to believe just because they’ve been vaccinated that they won’t get infected.

But she emphasized that vaccination, and especially getting a booster shot when eligible, ensures residents they can avoid serious illness. Her friends are dealing with a variety of symptoms, “But at the same time they’re still at home quarantining, recovering and not in a hospital, so that’s the good thing about being fully vaccinated. Even if you get one of these breakthrough cases you could get sick, but you won’t have to go to a hospital and you won’t die.”

Bartlett said she’ll avoid celebrating the new year in public.

“I don’t think I’m going out for New Year’s Eve,” Bartlett said.

So far, the county has officially sequenced four cases of Omicron, according to the OCHCA’s data.

The adjusted daily case rate per 100,000 residents increased from 15 on Tuesday to 18 on Wednesday, with the testing positivity rate increasing from 4.5% to 5.4%, and from 4.4% to 5.1% in the health equity quartile which measures underserved communities hardest hit by the pandemic.

The county reported 2,749 more infections, raising the cumulative total to 332,761, and logged five more fatalities, raising the overall death toll to 5,888.

All of the fatalities logged Wednesday occurred this month, raising December’s death toll to 40.

November’s death toll stands at 101, 127 for October, 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 with 985 people lost to the virus.

The case rate per 100,000 residents for the unvaccinated was 30.9 as of Dec. 18, the most recent statistics available. That’s up from 25.4 on Dec. 11.

For the vaccinated, the case rate was 6.8, up from 3.8 as of Dec. 11.

The number of fully vaccinated residents in Orange County increased from 2,295,286 to 2,314,232, according to data released Thursday. That represents 67% of the county.

That number includes an increase from 2,144,648 to 2,162,816 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 150,638 to 151,416. The county had dispensed 768,412 booster shots as of that date.

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