Orange County’s second wave of coronavirus infections is putting more and more people in the hospital and making it clearer to epidemiologists and public health experts the potential for a situation like — or even worse than — the region’s summer sickness wave.
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County officials, who have long been eager to move into less restrictive tiers to reopen more sectors of the local economy, canceled their weekly news conference on Thursday for public virus information just a few hours before publishing new data that points to a worsening situation on their hands.
The number of coronavirus hospitalizations now stands at 251 people, up from yesterday, including an also increased number of 89 people in intensive care units. That same day, 295 new cases were reported.
The ever-growing number of people in the hospital comes just in time for a winter season where holiday traditions mean many indoor gatherings among families and family friends.
“Given sort of the trends — not just in OC, but across the country — it’s not looking good. I think there’s a real strong potential that it could be a lot worse than in the summer,” said University of California, Irvine epidemiologist Sanghyuk Shin in a phone interview.
At one point in July, more than 700 people were hospitalized with the virus.
Meanwhile, local community health clinics’ efforts to expand testing and healthcare equity in nonwhite communities are shedding light on new case rate fronts emerging throughout the county.
Central and north county cities like Anaheim, Santa Ana and Garden Grove have long been known throughout this public health crisis to be hotspots for coronavirus cases. But Thursday data from the county Health Care Agency reported a nearly 8%, 7-day average case rate in another zip code spanning one south county city, San Juan Capistrano.
The case rate for the zip code, which spreads over the city’s unique south county Latino commercial and residential hub, was appreciably higher than in those spanning the city’s coastal neighbors like Dana Point and San Clemente.
The Santa Ana-based community health equity clinic, Latino Health Access, had just expanded testing efforts there.
Similarly, in the north county City of Stanton where testing efforts also increased, one of that area’s zip codes reported a 7-day average case rate of 7.7%.
Although the county’s metrics on the state’s tiered reopening system slightly improved this week like positivity rate and cases per 100,000, those metrics measure what’s happening in the county two weeks ago.
For example, that data won’t include most of last week’s uptick in cases, which saw nearly 400 new cases a day throughout most of last week. Those cases are reported on the date which a person was swabbed for the test, not the day it was reported out from the county Health Care Agency.
All of OC’s neighboring counties have been moved back into the Purple Tier, the more restrictive tier on the state’s reopening system.
Shin — who specializes in studying how diseases, like Tuberculosis, spreads through aerosol droplets when people talk, cough, yell, sneeze and sing — said COVID-19 spreads much the same way.
“That’s what the epidemiological evidence points to, as well as the environmental science and engineering folks … those experiments point to that as a primary mode of spread,” Shin said.
For now, OC remains in the Red Tier, which allows retailers, malls, movie theaters, restaurants, beauty parlors and a host of other businesses to operate limited indoor operations. A move to the Purple Tier would close restaurants and movie theaters, while further limiting indoor operations in the rest of the businesses.
Shin’s colleague, epidemiologist Andrew Noymer, is paying close attention to the intensive care units.
“It’s where the rubber meets the road, we’re worried about people who are in a bad way,” he said.
Noymer, who’s also a public health expert, said ICU numbers can also forecast the incoming virus deaths.
“Some of the early July mortality numbers kept trickling into September,” Noymer said. “The ICUs were in the 150s over the summer.”
As of Thursday, 251 people were hospitalized for the virus, 89 were in intensive care units, 295 new cases were reported and so were six new deaths.
The day before, 244 people were hospitalized for the virus, including 83 in intensive care units.
That’s the highest it’s been since early September, when OC was coming out of the summer virus wave.
“The second wave is starting, I would say,” Noymer said. “We don’t wanna see ICUs in the 80’s and 90’s and so on … I’m frankly concerned.”
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 1,520 people out of 63,460 confirmed local, cumulative total cases, according to the county Health Care Agency.
The virus has already killed nearly three times as many people as the flu does on average in Orange County.
For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.
According to those same statistics, cancer kills over 4,600 people, heart disease kills over 2,800, over 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people.
Shin said the second wave could potentially be worse than the Summer wave if people don’t follow public health protocols like wearing a mask, limiting parties and other gatherings and trying to avoid crowded situations as much as possible.
“I think there’s a real strong potential that it could be a lot worse than in the Summer. Again, because of seasonality being in play,” Shin said. “A lot of the summer activities of gathering together occurred outdoors.”
Holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are typically celebrated indoors, and with a lot of extended family who aren’t from the same household, Shin said.
“Nothing is set in stone, I think it really depends on how much of the public health measures that the Orange County residents adopt,” Shin said. “I think there is clearly a potential for it to be much more widespread and for our hospitals to be more stressed than we had experienced in the past.”
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data: