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Orange County is seeing a lull in COVID-19 hospitalizations, but the county’s chief health officer has said residents should continue to be “vigilant” as more contagious variants are surfacing.

Neighboring Los Angeles County has been reporting a rise in cases attributed to the highly contagious BA.2 subvariant of the virus.

“If they (Los Angeles County) start seeing cases rise there might be a possibility we see a rise as well,” Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong said.

Last week, Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, predicted the BA.2 Omicron subvariant could drive another surge in infections. He noted that it is already being detected in wastewater, which is a leading indicator.

Chinsio-Kwong said another even more contagious subvariant, which has been detected in England, has not been sequenced locally yet in Southern California.

“But it’s yet another reason we all still need to be vigilant,” she said of the virus’ ability to adapt and become more transmissible. The new XE subvariant is 10% more transmissible than BA.2, which was 40% more contagious than prior variants, Chinsio-Kwong said.

Chinsio-Kwong also encouraged residents to continue making use of face coverings when indoors.

“It’s another protective barrier to help protect me from getting sick, and if I happen to have illness it can help prevent others from getting sick from me,” Chinsio-Kwong said.

Orange County’s COVID-19 hospitalizations have fallen to levels not seen since July.

Hospitalizations linked to the virus increased slightly from 66 on Sunday to 70 on Monday, the most recent data available. The number of patients in intensive care bounced up from 13 to 14.

Of those hospitalized with the virus, 84% are unvaccinated while 86% percent of those in intensive care are unvaccinated, according to the OCHCA.

The case rate per 100,000 people ticked up from 3.4 to 3.5 with the positivity rates also inching up from 1.8% to 1.9% overall and in the health equity quartile, which reflects those in needy communities hardest hit by the virus, according to the OCHCA.

The county also logged 10 additional deaths, raising the cumulative death toll to 6,901.

Half of those fatalities occurred in March, upping the death toll for last month to 43. Two of the fatalities occurred in February, increasing that month’s death toll to 305. Two others occurred in January, increasing that month’s death toll to 542. And another fatality occurred in December, increasing that month’s death toll to 113.

The county also logged 288 new infections, increasing the cumulative to 547,557.

The case rate per 100,000 people for fully vaccinated residents who received a booster shot increased from 3.2 on March 19 to 3.8 on March 26, according to data released Thursday. For those fully vaccinated without a booster shot the rate went from 2.5 to 2.8. And for those not fully vaccinated the rate went from 4.2 to 4.1.

The number of fully vaccinated residents in Orange County rose from 2,446,410 last week to 2,448,788 this week, according to data released Wednesday. That number includes an increase from 2,290,047 to 2,292,327 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 156,363 to 156,461.

Booster shots increased from 1,228,846 last week to 1,234,473 this week.

Chinsio-Kwong said 37% of children 5 to 11 have gotten at least one dose and 32% are fully vaccinated. In the 12-17 age group, 72% have gotten at least one dose and 66.7% are fully vaccinated. Among those 65 and older, 99% have gotten at least one dose and 92.6% are fully vaccinated.

“We still need a lot of help to get younger children vaccinated,” Chinsio-Kwong said. “We encourage parents to talk to their pediatrician and healthcare providers to consider vaccination.”

Chinsio-Kwong said that while children are at lower risk of contracting severe illness many are not wearing masks at school anymore and are “engaging in high-risk activities.”

Even though the federal government will no longer provide free tests and vaccines, the county will continue to do so at its sites for the time being, Chinsio-Kwong said.

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