A second wave of coronavirus case spikes and hospitalizations could hit Orange County soon as the debate to reopen classrooms continues at schools throughout the county.
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“The worst was in early July here in Orange County. We’re already seeing second waves in Massachusetts and other places. We’re going to be seeing something quite similar, in fact,” said UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert Andrew Noymer in a Monday phone interview.
He said he’s closely monitoring how many people are in intensive care units because of the virus.
“This fall we’ve been as low as the 40s. Right now we’re in the upper 50s as of Sunday, but we have been in the 60s. I think we’ll really know when the second wave is starting to bite in Orange County when we’re in the 70s or higher,” Noymer said.
“But make no mistake about it, there’s going to be a second wave in Orange County and nationwide.”
Factors like classroom reopenings and changing weather can affect how bad the second wave can be, Noymer said.
Some recent studies indicate low humidity can cause virus droplets to spread easier. Winter months typically have low humidity levels.
Last month, Reuters reported Japanese researchers found certain low humidity environments might cause the virus to spread on respiratory droplets more than 50% compared to lower humidity situations.
Noymer said the humidity theory has nuances to it: if it’s too humid, the droplets could fall to the ground, instead of spreading more and if it’s extremely dry, the respiratory droplets will likely dissipate quicker.
“The hypothesis is that when it’s too humid, water droplets in the air tend to grow — they absorb water and get bigger. Imagine like a pea soup fog,” Noymer said. “It gets thicker and the ground gets wet because the droplets get heavy. So the theory is this is also true with respiratory droplets.”
“When it’s bone dry, when it’s desert dry, the droplets tend to desiccate. So there’s a sweet spot,” he said.
Yet the humidity theory is difficult to study, Noymer said.
“It’s hard to tease out because in the real world we don’t get to experiment. So it’s hard to tease out what’s at the bottom of causality, basically,” he said.
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 1,483 people out of 60,298 confirmed OC cases, according to the county Health Care Agency.
For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, according to state health data. Of that number, 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.
According to those same statistics, the flu kills about 543 OC residents annually.
Noymer said residents can expect Orange County to hit its 2,000th coronavirus death in January.
Hospitalizations have been increasing since hitting their lowest point Oct. 24, when 150 people in hospital beds, since the summer spikes that led to over 700 people hospitalized at one point in July.
As of Monday, 183 people were hospitalized, including 60 in intensive care units.
“When the ICU stays above 70 for a few days in a row, that’s when we know the game’s on,” Noymer said.
Meanwhile, The Orange County School of the Arts Board of Trustees delayed reopening classrooms until January in a special meeting last Friday.
Initially, the school had planned to have students back Thursday, but will now continue virtually until next semester.
The board also approved a revised instructional plan for the Spring 2021 semester, giving students the option to continue online or return to campus through a hybrid model.
Families have until next Friday to decide which model they want for their kids.
“For our students who can’t wait to be together again, we are developing safe, appropriately distanced events for small groups over the next several weeks, so that they can socialize and enjoy being on campus in person. We want our parents to know that this new plan will be well worth the wait come the New Year, and we thank them for their patience,” Executive Director and founder, Ralph Opacic, said in a statement.
The delay comes more than a week after teachers at the charter school raised concerns about the lack of specifics in the reopening plans, safety measures and worries that students are going to lose teaching time through the proposed hybrid model.
School officials reached a memorandum of understanding with the Orange County School of the Arts Teacher Union regarding a return to the classroom. Union members approved the memorandum with 98% of the vote, according to a news release from the school.
“We’re happy that school was delayed until January 11 to go get all safety procedures in place, we’re also happy that the students have a choice of either doing a Distance Learning Academy or a hybrid in person academy,” said Marla Cross, president of the teacher’s union.
Similar concerns over reopening have been playing out in other school districts across the county. Some districts have delayed reopening, while others pressed forward with plans to reopen.
Noymer said schools may help spread the virus because of how epidemiologists study flu outbreaks, but it’s hard to tell because the virus is still being studied.
“Most of Orange County schools are in a hybrid situation, they’re certainly not fully open. Schools play a role, at least in the flu. A lot about what we know in seasonal diseases is extrapolated from the flu.”
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.