OC’s Coronavirus Hospitalizations Keep Increasing, Health Officer Points to Private Gatherings

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

St. Joseph Hospital on Aug. 21, 2020.

House parties and dinners are largely driving the second wave of coronavirus infections not just in Orange County, but across the state, as hospitalizations steadily increase from the case spikes. 


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“We were worried about kind of five specific things heading into the fall: Halloween parties, and you could include Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) parties, Election Day, Thanksgiving, Black Friday/Christmas shopping and then Christmas itself, or the winter holidays,” said UC Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer in a Monday phone interview. 

Now public health officials are seeing the aftermath of private gatherings. 

“Whatever effects that those have had on increasing transmission, those are baked into the cake at this point. We can’t go back in time,” Noymer said.

OC health officer Dr. Clayton Chau also said the county’s spiking cases are from parties, dinners and other private gatherings. 

“I’m hoping that people understand when we let our guard down and have these gatherings, we transmit the virus to each other,” Chau told county Supervisors at their Tuesday meeting. 

He also said people should listen to local and state health guidelines limiting the gatherings outdoors as much as possible, and by not having too big of gatherings. 

“We can get through this very quickly if we follow those,” Chau said. “Many of our poor residents, vulnerable residents, don’t have that luxury (to work from home)  and have to go to work.” 

Chau said he fears for the working class and medically vulnerable residents. 

“I get emotional thinking about how this would affect them. So I’m asking the community … to make sure we do everything we can to protect each other,” he said. 

The rapid increases caused state public health officials earlier this week to put Orange County, along with a host of other counties, back to the Purple Tier, the most restrictive on the state’s business reopening system. 

That means an end to indoor operations at restaurants, gyms, places of worship and movie theaters, while further limiting the number of people allowed inside the rest of the businesses. Most college classes — except lab classes — will also be moved back to video conferences. 

On Tuesday, county Supervisors allocated $1 million in virus relief funds to help restaurants move their operations back outside during the winter. Restaurants can get $1,000 grants to help buy heaters and tents. 

Elementary, junior high and high schools that have already reopened won’t be affected by OC’s move back to the Purple Tier. 

All Southern California counties are now in the Purple Tier. 

County officials announced Tuesday that 14,000 free coronavirus testing kits will be available next week to Anaheim and Santa Ana residents for pick up. They expect half a million of the home test kits by the end of December. 

Meanwhile, cases are increasing faster than the Summer wave, which put over 700 people in hospitals at one point in July. 

“Statewide is actually rising faster than in the Summer wave. So in terms of the speed, we’re actually worse, and in terms of the level we’re note quite there yet,” Noymer said. 

The case increases aren’t isolated to specific parts of the state or groups, either. 

“Every age group, every demographic … in every part of this state, we are seeing case rates increase and positivity rates increase as well,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a Monday news conference. 

Newsom was criticized publicly after going to a birthday party earlier this month for a longtime political advisor and lobbyist, which had a dozen people from more than three different households, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

It’s a move Newsom and state public health officials have been urging Californians not to do. 

“I made a bad mistake. Instead of sitting down, I should have stood up and walked back out to my car,” Newsom said at the Monday news conference. 

Newsom’s disregard of public health guidance also comes as public health officials across California are urging people to not hold large Thanksgiving dinners, and instead celebrate the holiday with people who only live in the home. 

Chau also urged OC residents to rethink having large Thanksgiving dinners this year as hospitalizations are steadily increasing. 

As of Tuesday, 270 people were hospitalized for the virus, including 79 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.

It’s the highest amount of hospitalizations OC has seen since early September, when the county was coming out of the Summer wave. 

Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has now killed 1,526 people out of 65,957 confirmed 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.

As cases and hospitalizations increase, state public health officials are urging Californians to not travel out of state, or even to another county. 

“This is not a mandate, this is not a travel ban, this is not a restriction. This is to really discourage out of state travel,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, at Monday’s news conference. 

Orange County Supervisors criticized Newsom and the State Legislature for not debating the state’s virus policies so people can better understand why decisions are made, like limiting private gatherings to no more than three households in attendance. 

“We have not heard from the legislature. Why not? I don’t know. The fact that there is one party that is very much in the majority and I see this as a dereliction of their responsibility in the legislature to not push back, or to even question, to at least require the articulation of standards,” Supervisor Andrew Do said during Tuesday’s regular meeting. 

Supervisor Don Wagner said Newsom and state public health officials have moved goal posts too many times, which leaves some people hopeless. 

He also took issue with OC’s immediate move back to the Purple Tier. 

Yesterday, state health officials removed a two-week wait period before counties either advance or fall back in the tiering system because of the rapid spread of virus cases across the state. 

“Because we’re seeing no end in sight. By that, I mean every time this Governor comes up with some sort of plan for the coronavirus, it changes — It changes for the worse,” Wagner said. 

Supervisors are also pushing for state officials to factor in OC’s hospital capacity to allow for more businesses to reopen by advancing through the state’s tiering system. 

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who’s been working with Newsom’s administration as president of the California State Association of Counties, said they’re still trying to get state public health officials to take hospital capacity into account. 

“To take a broad brush and apply it to all of the 58 counties in california, I don’t think that’s the right thing to do at this point,” Bartlett said. “We still have capacity in our hospital system… our hospitals are prepared right now for any type of a surge for COVID-19.” 

But state public health officials haven’t budged. 

“We have heard and have had lots of conversations with health officers and frankly many others about the integration of a hospital preparedness metric. We chose not to use it, although we follow it closely,” Ghaly said earlier this month. 

He said when cases go up, hospitalizations increase three to four weeks down the road. 

“We believe that in order to really forecast where a county is and where they should be in the tiering system, that looking at hospitalizations is too far a lagging indicator,” Ghaly said. 

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

Infections | Hospitalizations & Deaths | City-by-City Data | Demographics


Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio