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Orange County hospitals are preparing to enter surge mode as the county saw another bump in coronavirus hospitalizations, while the virus continues to spread.


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“Hospital Surge Plans are already activated to an extent, as conditions worsen,” reads a Wednesday situation report from the county office of Emergency Medical Services. 

“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,” states the report. 

At the beginning of June, 292 people were hospitalized, including 121 in intensive care units. There were also 226 dead out of 7,767 confirmed cases. 

Since then, cases have more than tripled, while hospitalization and death counts keep climbing. 

Dr. Daniel Chow, an assistant professor at UC Irvine, said the rate the virus is spreading at has to be slowed down. 

“You have to slow this down before we get overwhelmed. You don’t want to wait until we get overwhelmed to slow this down,” Chow said. 

The situation report stated, “Orange County is seeing a substantial increase in disease transmission.”  

Meanwhile, the virus has now killed 455 people out of 27,031 confirmed cases, according to the OC Health Care Agency. The total deaths include 22 new deaths reported Wednesday. 

There’s also 722 people hospitalized, including 238 in intensive care units. Hospitalizations have more than doubled since June 1, when 292 people were hospitalized. 

“Increased ICU need comes even later as illness continues to worsen over time,” states the report. “The current metrics show a clear reflection of the disease progression and we need a reduction in disease transmission to protect the hospitals.”

Just over 329,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people. 

Although County officials and the situation report said hospitals are increasing their bed capacities, Chow said it only buys time before an overflow. 

“So you have to reconcile is, how is it possible that we’re increasing patients in the ICU at the same time ICU capacity is increasing,” Chow said. “It is a safety net, it does buy time … people will often say that we have capacity, but you have to slow it down before you reach max capacity.” 

Chow, who’s also co-director for UCI’s Center for Artificial Intelligence in Diagnostic Medicine, created a YouTube video explaining the hospital capacity, using an overflowing sink analogy from an earlier interview with Voice of OC. 

OC interim Health Officer, Dr. Clayton Chau, told Supervisors hospitals may face a staffing and resource shortage. 

“Orange County has sufficient hospital capacity to manage the virus,” Chau said Tuesday. “Staff resources and PPE availability is always a challenge.” 

At last Thursday’s news conference, Chau said he expects hospitals to start getting hit harder in the coming weeks. 

“These trends are very concerning and we can expect the impact on our health care system in the coming days and weeks,” Chau said. “A strain on the hospital systems means a strain on the ability to care for all patients. Both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 folks.”

UC Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer said it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly caused the explosion in cases because protests, restaurant reopenings and shopping mall reopenings happened at the same time. 

Although, Noymer said, there was likely more virus exposure at the malls and restaurants because a majority of protests happened on the weekends and weren’t consistently open like the businesses. All the protests happened outside. 

“I’m not giving you an iron clad guarantee that nobody got something at the protests,” Noymer said. “I’m saying that we can’t pinpoint it.” 

For weeks leading up to the reopenings, Noymer said public health officials should have only allowed one sector of the economy to open in at least two-week intervals so the impacts could be measured. 

“So when we do an experiment, we change one thing at a time,” Noymer said. 

“So when they did all these agricultural experiments in the early days of statistics … they would plant like 10 rows of crops, all the same, and then they would sort of randomly choose one row to get fertilizer and randomly choose another row to get weeding or whatever,” he said. “Then they can determine the effect because they didn’t change everything at the same time.”

OC Health Care Agency Medical Director, Dr. Matthew Zahn, said he and others in the communicable disease division have noticed a drop in cases stemming from restaurants since Gov. Gavin Newsom shut down indoor dining a couple weeks ago. 

“We’ve seen outbreaks associated with many different kinds of work sites, but the largest number have been seen in restaurants. Restaurant clusters increased dramatically in number coincident with opening of in-room dining in the county, we’ve seen a decrease in these reports since in-room dining was discontinued,” Zahn said in a Wednesday email.  

Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

Staff reporter Nick Gerda contributed to this story. 

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