Orange County coronavirus patients are going to hospitals this month at rates faster than in June, when the first wave battered the county and put over 700 people at one point in July.
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As of Friday, 506 residents were hospitalized with the virus, including 139 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.
That’s a 176% increase since the month began, when there were 183 people hospitalized.
When June began, there were 292 people hospitalized. By the time the month ended, 542 people were hospitalized — a nearly 86% increase.
Counties up and down California are wrestling with increasing hospitalizations, along with many other states.
“I think that certainly the numbers of deaths will likely go up,” said secretary of the state’s Health and Human Services Agency, Dr. Mark Ghaly at a Tuesday news conference.
He said the second wave is already straining hospitals.
“We’re exceeding our highest number ever of cases and beginning to see our hospital systems pressed with COVID beyond where they’ve ever been pressed before,” Ghaly said.
OC also saw 1,943 new cases today. That number reflects cases from Thursday and Friday because the Health Care Agency didn’t report out numbers on Thanksgiving.
Ghaly has repeatedly said roughly 13% of new cases will end up in hospitals two to three weeks down the road.
Local community leaders and public health experts fear a holiday case spike also.
“Hopefully it will be a much brighter Spring. But we’re headed for some ugly days in the next few months,” said Ellen Ahn, executive director of Korean Community Services, a Buena Park-based nonprofit.
The county Health Care Agency has partnered with scores of community groups like Korean Community Services and Latino Health Access, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit, to bring testing, isolation resources, education and other critical services to residents in working class, often minority, communities.
Public health officials and experts have been urging Californians to rethink the holidays and are encouraging people to not throw large dinners and parties with people they don’t normally live with in an effort to curb virus transmission.
“I think that people are more aware that they need to take measures. If they gather — we are insisting in the message not to gather — but if you gather, just do it with people that are like your closest family members, the people you live with normally,” said America Bracho, executive director of Latino Health Access.
In a phone interview last week, UC Irvine epidemiologist Sanghyuk Shin said the risk of contracting the virus is exponentially increasing as every day passes.
“For every group gathering, there is probably 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 said.
Like Ghaly, Shin also warned case spikes foreshadow hospitalizations and ultimately death.
“The rising numbers are very troubling. One thing to remember is 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,” Shin said.
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 1,577 county residents out of 75,095 confirmed cases, including 18 new deaths reported Friday, according to the county Health Care Agency.
The virus has already killed nearly three times as many people in Orange County as the flu does on an average yearly basis.
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, more than 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people.
The county is on track to surpass its average yearly deaths with over 19,000 people dead as of October, according to state health data.
UC Irvine epidemiologist Daniel Parker, said OC’s daily new cases could overload the contact tracing system.
Parker said if contact tracers have to speak with at least five different people for every new case, then high daily case counts are going to jam up the tracing efforts.
“Those types of efforts work better when the cases are low. But when they’re shooting through the roof, you can’t contact trace,” Parker said in a phone interview last week.
Orange County has averaged over 900 new cases a day for the past week.
Public health officials are having a tough time figuring out where exactly the outbreaks are happening.
“I can’t put my finger on the exact source of transmission,” Ghaly said in response to Voice of OC’s question Monday.
He said counties have been consistently pointing to private gatherings like dinners and house parties as a source of outbreaks.
“We continue to hear from different counties, different things. They all mention that private gatherings are an important source of transmission but not the only. And sometimes not even pinpointed as the highest source of transmission,” Ghaly said.
He warned that dinners and parties are likely to drive up new cases because asymptomatic people — infected people who don’t show symptoms — can easily spread it to others.
“In general what we know is any time you get together with individuals where you guard comes down, your mask comes off, you’re closer than a few feet apart, there’s a risk of transmission.”
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio