Orange County health officials are issuing a dire warning about an ongoing surge of coronavirus patients at local hospitals they expect to worsen in the coming weeks, and are urging everyone to “protect the hospitals” by keeping six-foot distance from other people and wearing face coverings when that’s not possible.

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“Orange County is seeing a substantial increase in disease transmission,” county Health Care Agency officials wrote in an update Wednesday, noting the percentage of people testing positive has more than doubled in the last three weeks even as more people are getting tested.

“Elevated disease transmission is impacting hospital capacity,” the report adds, pointing to 17 consecutive days of increasing coronavirus hospitalizations in OC, which are now rising at the fastest rate of the pandemic, leading hospitals to prepare to go further into “crisis care” surge measures like converting waiting areas and tents into treatment rooms.

“The trends are very concerning and we can continue to expect the impact on the healthcare system to get worse in the coming days and weeks,” Health Care Agency officials wrote. After a disease starts spreading faster, they noted, there’s a lag time before hospitalizations rise, followed later in time by a rise in the need for more intensive care beds.

“We need a reduction in disease transmission to protect the hospitals,” the county report states, calling on the public to follow health measures like masking and physical distancing.

“Everyone in Orange County needs to adhere to the mitigation strategies to slow [the virus’] spread,” county officials wrote, listing them as:

  • “High risk persons (65 or older, or underlying health conditions) should stay home as much as possible,”
  • “Stay home when sick,”
  • “Isolation of cases and quarantine of all contacts (within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more),”
  • “Practice social distancing at all times; 6 feet or more,”
  • “Wear face coverings when unable to maintain social distancing; high compliance is critical given asymptomatic transmission,”
  • “Wash hands frequently,”
  • “Avoid touching face,”
  • “Disinfect frequently touched surfaces often.”

[Click here to read the OC Health Care Agency’s daily update report.]

Coronavirus hospitalizations are now surging in Orange County and other large Southern California counties, with OC overtaking Los Angeles County’s hospitalization and intensive care rates. Daily patient counts in OC are now rising by about 130 per week since mid-June – about six times faster than the months leading up to that point.

If the surge reaches hospitals’ capacity to mobilize resources, that puts “a strain on the ability to care for all patients, both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19,” said Dr. Gagandeep Grewal, associate medical director of emergency medical services at the Orange County Health Care Agency.

“For example, there could be a limitation in bed capacity and staffing resources causing treatment of all conditions, including strokes and heart attacks, to be limited. This is ultimately harmful for individuals,” he added.

As of Tuesday, there were 679 coronavirus patients in Orange County hospitals, more than double the number of people hospitalized at the beginning of June.

Hospitals in OC reported a total of 27 out-of-county patients, or 4 percent of all patients in Orange County, including 18 patients from Imperial County.

Patient counts in Orange County are now jumping closer to levels where hospitals could go further into “crisis care” surge measures like converting waiting areas and tents into treatment rooms, Voice of OC reported Wednesday.

“We’re seeing surges across all the hospitals that are in our area, and of course that’s concerning,” Dr. Jason Cord, president of the Orange County Medical Association, in an interview Tuesday with Voice of OC.

“We certainly haven’t maxed our capacities, but we have concerns that we want to be able to make sure we have the ability to care for everyone” who needs medical care, he said.

“I strongly feel that social distancing and mask wearing are critical components to that – it’s the science. There’s not really a question of whether it should happen,” Cord added. “It flattens the curve and prevents overruns of hospitals, where we outpace our resources.”

“I think the majority of people want to do the right thing, and do, to the best of their ability,” he said. “I do think it’s important to recognize that a lot of people are doing the right thing.”

For weeks, Orange County’s top elected official, supervisors’ Chairwoman Michelle Steel, painted a rosy picture of OC’s coronavirus data, falsely saying it’s better than all of the surrounding counties during OC’s weekly coronavirus news conferences.

In fact, the county’s own data showed hospitalization and death rates in Orange County were worsening and outpacing neighboring counties in recent weeks.

The day after Voice of OC published an article last Wednesday about her misrepresentations of the data, Steel acknowledged the higher coronavirus rates in her weekly update last Thursday, noting a recent meeting she had with hospital executives.

It’s unclear which hospitals are closest to reaching capacity, because county and state officials have so far declined to release hospital-specific numbers of occupied and available beds.

On paper, about 40 percent of all hospital beds in Orange County are still available, though county health officials caution that staffing shortages and other factors may mean not all of those remaining beds are available.

“We are seeing more [emergency room] diversion despite hospitals not being filled to inpatient capacity, meaning there is a disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on the hospitals, not only due to volume,” Grewal said.

“In addition, ability to staff the beds may be compromised as staff shortages may occur (infected staff and inability to surge staff due to overall demand). As such, ‘available’ beds may not be as available as once thought from a practical sense.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at

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