Orange County’s COVID-19 hospitalizations continued to soar Thursday with concerns mounting about health care staffing shortages.

The number of hospitalizations zoomed up from 376 Wednesday to 420 Thursday, with the number of intensive care unit patients jumping from 72 to 86. Hospital levels have not been this high since Sept. 11.

“It’s going to be quite busy over the next several days,” Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, the county’s deputy health officer, told reporters in a weekly media call on Thursday. She acknowledged that wait times to drop off patients have been rising.

“This is where we encourage people to be patient … as (hospitals) transition to accommodate everyone requiring medical care,” she said.

Nine of the county’s 25 hospitals have set up surge tents to triage patients as was done during last winter’s surge.

“I know hospitals are in direct communication with our EMS team and they’re all planning to appropriately respond to the surge. So each hospital will make changes depending on wait times … There are different protocols when hospitals or health care systems … are going to determine when to resurrect a tent. You can be sure there are a lot of conversations going on behind the scenes when it is appropriate to resurrect a surge tent.”

COVID-19 outbreaks locally are mirroring national trends, Chinsio-Kwong said.

“You’re seeing that in the travel industry with airlines, you’re seeing it in restaurants and some health clinics closing,” she said. “Many employers will see a lot of people calling in sick… This will significantly impact our health care industry. … And for those seeking medical attention for anything other than Covid, the wait times will be longer because the health care workers themselves will get sick.”

She estimated 10% to 15% of the health care force will be affected by some sort of the illnesses circulating from coronavirus to the flu and the common cold.

“People really need to be careful,” she said. “Wear the mask appropriately. Use a lot of good hand hygiene,” she said. “It is a time for us to reconsider, to remind ourselves what we can do to keep ourselves healthy mentally and physically. That means better decisions on what we’re eating … If your blood pressure is high, take your medication and watch your blood pressure. … We want to do everything we can to minimize the burden on the health systems.”

Chinsio-Kwong reminded the community that the agency has an ample supply of test kits residents can order online at ochealthinfo.com/covidtest. The PCR tests can be done at home and results are available one to two days following receipt of a mailed-in sample.

They are not the antigen tests that are “flying off the shelves” locally, but they are more accurate, Chinsio-Kwong said. Supplies of the tests at John Wayne Airport, however, are “dwindling,” she added.

The county has 21.6% 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, told City News Service on Wednesday 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 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 that he understands the concern about 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 long-term 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 Wednesday that 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, 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 28 cases of Omicron, according to the OCHCA’s data.

The adjusted daily case rate per 100,000 residents increased from 18 on Wednesday to 22.8 Thursday, with the testing positivity rate increasing from 5.4% to 6.5%, and from 5.1% to 6.3% in the health equity quartile which measures underserved communities hardest hit by the pandemic.

The county reported 3,402 more infections, raising the cumulative total to 336,163, and logged two more fatalities, raising the overall death toll to 5,890.

One of the fatalities occurred this month, raising December’s death toll to 41. The other fatality occurred in April.

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, 47 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 83 as of Dec. 25, the most recent statistics available. That’s up from 31.7 on Dec. 18.

For the vaccinated, the case rate was 21.6, up from 6.1 as of Dec. 18.

The number of fully vaccinated residents in Orange County increased from 2,314,232 to 2,328,647, according to data released Thursday. That represents 67% of the county.

Of the population eligible for getting a shot from ages 5 on up, the county is 71% vaccinated.

That number includes an increase from 2,162,816 to 2,176,795 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 151,416 to 151,852. The county had dispensed 837,313 booster shots as of Thursday.

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