As Orange County begins to re-open more of its economy, hospitalizations for coronavirus have continued to steadily rise in recent weeks.
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As of Tuesday, 301 people were hospitalized with Coronavirus in OC, up 67 percent from a month ago, according to mandatory data reported by hospitals to the California Department of Public Health.
Coronavirus patients in intensive care are also up over the past month in OC, from 73 people on April 26 to 119 on Tuesday, May 26. The data is a point in time of how many patients were hospitalized each day.
On its COVID website, the county reports different, voluntary hospitalization numbers that are from fewer OC hospitals than the state data.
While local hospitals still have significant capacity to take care of more patients, officials and business leaders are keeping a close eye on the numbers as the disease continues to spread in OC.
“We’re obviously seeing an increase in hospitalization,” said county CEO Frank Kim.
“I think the important thing is that we expect the public to continue to abide by all of the health orders and to be safe and cautious when they’re interacting in public. The COVID infections have not gone away, even though we’re opening businesses,” he added.
“We’re still seeing community transmission. So we encourage all residents to continue practicing social distancing, washing hands,” and all the advice from state and local health officials.
“Even though the county’s open, be safe and utilize all of the common sense precautions that are being communicated by all levels of government,” Kim said.
Business and health leaders, when asked about the rising hospitalizations, emphasize the importance of continuing to practice physical distancing and wearing face coverings when around others in public or businesses.
“I think the most important thing is to remember, as every leader tells us, we are not out of the woods here,” said Lucy Dunn, president and CEO of the Orange County Business Council.
“This is the first pandemic we’ve experienced and we’re all learning from each other. So…remember to practice the rules that folks have been saying for weeks now – to mask up, keep your social distance, your physical distance at 6 feet, sanitize – these are all important things to continue to remember,” she added.
“I think the numbers are important to watch, to [remind] us to be vigilant, and to remember to continue to do the safe practices we have been doing for a while now.”
“There’s a certain sense that things are over right now, but we’re probably only in the very beginning. It’s like we’re in the second inning of a baseball game,” said Dr. Paul Yost, a medical doctor and chairman of CalOptima, the public agency that is the largest health insurer in Orange County.
“[We] just have to be cautious and be responsible,” he added. “We still don’t have a vaccine, still don’t have effective treatment. Still practice common sense, social distancing, wear a mask when in public.”
County health officials have attributed much of the increase to outbreaks at nursing homes in OC, where over 1,000 residents and staff have tested positive and 54 are known to have died from COVID-19.
“In the last month, we’ve seen a significant increase in outbreaks in nursing homes, which has contributed to the hospitalized counts. This accounts for some but not all of the increase, the rest is due to an increase in community transmission,” OC Health Care Agency spokeswoman Jessica Good said Wednesday in a written answer to Voice of OC’s questions.
“There is a surge there,” Supervisor Doug Chaffee said of coronavirus cases at local nursing homes.
“We still have tremendous capacity left to accommodate more [hospital patients],” he added. “So while it’s not good to see more hospitalizations, at least we can handle it.”
“It is certainly troubling,” Supervisor Don Wagner said of the increased hospitalizations.
“The opening has only been in the last few days, so it’s clear to me that these cases are coming from before we did any of the opening. So for folks to say there is some sort of [connection with re-opening] I think is just medically wrong,” Wagner told Voice of OC on Wednesday.
“What we need to do is open responsibly, given what we’re seeing. And I think that’s what we’re all struggling to do as successfully as possible.”
OC was in better shape than all four of its surrounding counties in mid-April, but now is exceeding Riverside and San Bernardino counties and catching up to San Diego County’s hospitalization rate. The rates take into account population size.
This week, Orange County officials have cited another reason for the local increase in COVID patients: transfers of coronavirus patients from other counties to OC. The out-of-county residents are about 6 percent of OC’s coronavirus hospitalizations as of this week, or a total of 19 patients out of the 301 patients.
“I think that what we’re hearing is, in part we’re bringing in folks from other counties. I don’t think those are large numbers,” Wagner said Wednesday. “They’re going to keep coming, because apparently some of the surrounding counties are impacted.”
Imperial County, in particular, has transferred a total of 9 hospital patients to Orange County, on Monday and Tuesday of this week.
The Health Care Agency didn’t have an answer for how many Orange County residents were being hospitalized in other counties.
As the county re-opens, Chaffee emphasized the importance of testing and contact tracing to notify others who have been exposed so they can isolate.
“That’s how you contain it,” Chaffee said. “[That’s] why it’s really important we do the testing and follow-up.”
Dunn, of the business council, encouraged people to act responsibly to help prevent more people from having to be hospitalized.
“At least our hospitals are prepared now, but we don’t want them to be overwhelmed. And it does require each of us to be responsible and do our part,” said Dunn.
“To wear a mask isn’t to protect you, it’s really about helping protect your neighbor. And that’s a thing that gets lost on people, that this is the one time where you can’t say ‘What’s in it for me.’ You have to be thinking about caring for the community as a whole,” she added.
“Folks know they can’t go into the grocery stores without masking up. It might be inconvenient, but if it keeps one hospital bed not filled, that’s a good thing, and yet we can still get our groceries and still do business.”
The use of masks triggered an intense debate among county supervisors earlier this week, with Chairwoman Michelle Steel questioning whether it was onerous to require the public to wear masks in Orange County when they can’t keep six-foot distance from others who aren’t in their household.
Steel questioned the effectiveness of masks, wondering if they help prevent the spread of coronavirus and pushed back hard against the assertions made by health care officials.
The county Health Care Agency director defended the use of masks, pointing to CDC recommendations in saying they help because some people don’t know they’re sick.
“Wearing masks is not to protect yourselves. Wearing masks is to protect others,” Chau said. “Number two, is you don’t know if you have the infection because you could be asymptomatic.”
Steel continued her questioning of Chau’s assertions about masks, something he quickly challenged.
“Do you have any science-based – that, you know– ” Steel said.
“Yes, yes. I just read [to] you from CDC [guidelines],” Chau shot back. “I would be happy to print out all the research papers that [were] published, and send it forward, to the board.”
Business leaders like Dunn emphasize that following the health guidelines – including mask wearing – will not only help keep people safe, but also prevent a risk of returning to more restrictive orders shutting down businesses.
“We do not want to go backwards. We do not want the governor to mandate stay-at-home orders more restrictive than we already have. And so it takes every one of us to be responsible and do the safety precautions [and ] keep it up,” Dunn said.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.