Orange County’s daily coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to increase as Thanksgiving draws near, while county residents are being urged to limit the size of their holiday celebrations.
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“I think it’s very alarming,” said Sanghyuk Shin, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist at UC Irvine.
“For every group gathering, there is probability that one person in that group that is infectious is much higher than last week and by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, it will be much higher.”
Shin, along with other local epidemiologists and state public health officials are warning against the traditional Thanksgiving dinners this year.
“We’re getting this steep increase in the number of cases. That means the probability you’re gathering together with somebody in your group that is infected and is infectious is only increasing. So this is absolutely the wrong time for larger groups of people to get together,” he said in a Wednesday phone interview.
Orange County saw 628 new cases reported Wednesday — a number not seen since August, when over 400 people were hospitalized as the county was grappling with the Summer wave.
Shin warned the hospitalizations could start rapidly increasing.
“One thing to remember that the number of cases is kind of the precursor to the number of hospitalizations, which is then a precursor to the number of severe illness and ICU cases and then that’s a precursor to death. So, when we see the number of cases increase like this, so far it’s inevitable, you’re going to increase the number of hospitalizations,” he said.
At one point in mid-July, over 700 people were hospitalized. At that time, there were roughly 460 people dead.
By the end of July, the virus killed over 600 county residents.
And by the end of August, nearly 1,000 people were dead from the virus.
As of Wednesday, the virus has killed 1,528 people out of 66,585 confirmed cases, according to the county Health Care Agency.
There were also 291 people hospitalized, including 90 in intensive care units. That’s up from 183 overall hospitalizations at the beginning of the month.
So far, the virus has killed nearly three times OC’s average flu deaths a year.
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.
UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, Andrew Noymer, also said people should rethink the traditional holiday settings this year as cases as OC’s second wave worsens.
“For Thanksgiving, I really think people need to make sure we have a lot to be thankful for in 2021 by limiting multi-household gatherings,” Noymer said in a Monday phone interview.
He suggested only celebrating the holiday with people that live in the same household.
Noymer also said people need to keep their guard up and follow public health guidance to limit virus transmission as a potential vaccine could come out sometime next year.
“The vaccine is all the more reason to double down on being safe, not a reason to be lax. Because the vaccine means if you can keep yourself safe … whenever you get the vaccine, that means you’ll never get the virus, assuming all goes well,” he said.
Meanwhile, some OC Supervisors have seemingly sent mixed messages about the upcoming holiday season.
“There is a pattern of increased infections in terms of the number of cases and hospitalizations after holidays, or major events that increase the number of gatherings,” Supervisor Andrew Do said at a Tuesday news conference.
Do, along with Supervisor Doug Chaffee, announced there’s going to be 11,000 self-test kits for Anaheim and Santa Ana residents to pick up before Thanksgiving. Residents will give a spit sample and mail the test kits back, using a prepaid shipping label that comes with the test kits.
“If you are going to celebrate with people, try to limit it to two households per gathering,” Do said “Ideally, you could do it virtually. And we would encourage you to do it outdoors.”
But if people are going to gather, Do said they can pick up tests.
“By making testing available and convenient, we would like you to work that into your holiday celebration practice. Meaning, if you are going to see your grandparents, or family in general, two or three days before you go, you want to take a test,” Do said.
“The result will be available in 24 hours and you will know your status going into the gathering. Then two or three days after the gathering, take another test,” he said.
Chaffee echoed Do’s comments.
“Keep the size of your groups down a little bit, if you can, I know that family gatherings can be large. If you have one of those gatherings, wait three or four days and ask for a test kit,” he said.
At Tuesday’s county Supervisors meeting, OC health officer Dr. Clayton Chau urged residents to avoid private gatherings and restrict the number of people from different households that come to dinners and parties.
“Truly we encourage folks not to gather. Especially if you don’t feel well. But if you gather, outdoor is much safer than indoor.”
Supervisor Don Wagner questioned the logic behind the three-household maximum on private gathering recommendations from the state.
“There is no science that says three households is the magic number. Two might be better, four might be okay. 12 at the French Laundry — maybe too many,” Wagner said, referencing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s apparent indoor dinner earlier this month with a dozen people, including lobbyists.
“It’s ultimately an arbitrary policy choice made by this Governor,” Wagner said.
Chau said the household limit is trying to reduce the chances of transmitting the virus.
“The science of the gathering of three households is actually a public health harm reduction approach to it. Less is better than more,” Chau said. “Two households or even stay alone is better than hanging out with each other.”
Shin said he’s already seeing stress on the hospital system and fears there may not be enough capacity for the second wave because of the current rate of case increases.
“It’s really a point of significant stress for me,” Shin said. “A lot of my colleagues and students are health care workers who are starting to get overburdened and the workload is very difficult to manage. I just don’t think that we have the capacity to handle the number of people who get ill if this trend continues.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio