Orange County’s COVID-19 hospitalizations surpassed 1,000 for the first time since last February, according to data recently released by the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Hospitalizations ballooned from 964 on Monday to 1,013 on Tuesday, with the number of intensive care unit patients rising from 140 to 159, according to the OCHCA.

“It’s hard to say when this will go down,” Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, told City News Service. “… I still don’t think you need to hide in the basement, but people need to align their activity with their risk and the risk they pose to others. A year ago I said they should hide in their basement, particularly if they weren’t vaccinated yet because a year ago they were ramping that up and real people were starting to get it not just healthcare workers. Now I think people can still go out, but … if you’re living with a great grandmother or you’re immunocompromised for whatever reason then you need to realize there’s still a pandemic raging.”

The county is in much better shape than it would have been without vaccines, Noymer said. Also, the Omicron variant appears to pose milder symptoms than previous variants.

“I did talk to a large hospital system CEO this morning, and they indicated things weren’t as bad as prior waves,” Orange County CEO Frank Kim said Monday.

But the hospital executive said there were concerns with “staffing shortages,” Kim said, with many healthcare workers getting infected or having to isolate due to an exposure.

Fountain Valley Hospital recently brought on 25 nurses to help out, using funding from the state, Kim said. There have been requests for 100 more nurses from six local hospitals in recent days, according to Kim.

The county’s adjusted daily case rate per 100,000 residents jumped from 71.8 Monday to 108 Tuesday. The testing positivity rate soared from 21.5% to 25.2%, and it increased from 22.3% to 27% in the health equity quartile, which measures underserved communities hardest hit by the pandemic.

The seven-day average for tests per 100,000 people increased from 603.9 on Monday to 739 on Tuesday.

The county logged 5,081 new positive COVID-19 tests Tuesday, increasing the cumulative total since the pandemic began to 402,886.

“You can look at the data in two different ways,” Kim said. “We continue to see increases in daily positivity and case numbers, but that is also a function of increased testing. I also think that’s underreported because so many individuals have access to rapid testing (at home).”

With at-home testing, a request is made to use a QR code to add results to the database, but Kim said, “I suspect it’s very little” in terms of participation.

There was some good news to be found in a decrease in patient drop-off times via ambulance. Last Thursday, the ambulance drop-off times were at 52 minutes and 36 seconds, but that was down to 40 minutes and 30 seconds as of Tuesday, according to the OCHCA.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously mandated that county employees be given 40 more hours of sick leave so they will be encouraged to stay home when under the weather.

About 600 county employees, out of a total of about 17,000, have been infected since mid-December, Kim said. When an employee gets infected, they’re out a minimum of five days given the need for quarantine. That can eat up all of a workers’ sick leave so that they might be more inclined to show up for work with mild symptoms in the future, Kim said.

The county logged three more COVID-related deaths on Tuesday — one last month, one in November and another in January of last year. The death toll for December is now 60. Deputy county health officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong said Friday that 50 of those who died in December were unvaccinated and seven were seniors.

November’s death toll increased to 103. October’s death toll stands at 127, with 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 1,597, ahead of December 2020, the next deadliest with 985 people lost to the virus.

Orange County had 21.4% of its intensive care unit patient beds available and 64% of its ventilators available as of Tuesday.

Chinsio-Kwong said officials get “nervous” when the ICU bed availability drops below 20%. Of the hospitalized patients, 87% are unvaccinated, and 88% of the ICU patients are not inoculated.

Last Thursday, officials reported a child younger than 5 had died from the disease, the county’s third pediatric death of the pandemic.

“We must continue to be mindful of protecting children,” Chinsio-Kwong said. “I’m sad to see only 26% have started the vaccination process. I’m hoping more parents will choose to get their children vaccinated.”

It’s not certain whether the child had been infected with the Delta or Omicron variant, Chinsio-Kwong said. But she said the Omicron variant is having more of an effect on children than previous variants, and she expects pediatric cases to rise locally, mirroring a national trend.

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