A second wave of coronavirus infections is beginning to hit Orange County, along with surrounding counties, after hospitalizations and case counts have continued to rise over the past two weeks.
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“The second wave has started, but it’s not baked into the cake how profound it will be,” said UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert Andrew Noymer.
He said if people don’t let their guard down, it may not be as bad as the summer spikes.
“It depends on all of the citizens of Orange County to do their part,” Noymer said.
Hospitalizations in OC crept up to 224 on Tuesday, the highest number of people hospitalized since Sept. 9, following the June and July case spikes.
At one point in July, over 700 people were hospitalized.
And Orange County’s coronavirus infection rate could be rising to levels that haven’t seen since the summer wave.
The reproductive rate is used by epidemiologists and public health professionals to predict how many people an infected person could pass the virus to. If the rate reaches 1, that means each infected person can infect another person — all of which exponentially can increase the spread.
UC Irvine epidemiologist Daniel Parker said some university researchers have found the infection rate is going up in Orange County.
“So back around early June, late May, it (the infection rate) was a little bit above 1 and that’s when things were just shooting through the roof,” Parker said.
As of late last week, “it’s not real high, but it’s pretty close to 1. If it’s 1 or over, that’s real bad,” Parker said.
Researchers are expected to update the infection rate tomorrow.
But, he added, the data isn’t painting what the current picture is in the county.
“But there’s that lag, right. The cases you’re seeing today, those happened almost a month ago,” Parker said.
Noymer said he hopes people still follow public health guidance so the infection rate doesn’t rise above 1.
“So if you have 1.0, then you’re just kind of treading water. So each infection is creating a new infection,” Noymer said. “The problem is when it’s 1.1 or 1.2, because then you’re adding even more cases.”
Noymer said he’s keeping a close eye on the number of people in intensive care units.
“The thing I look at very closely is ICU numbers,” Noymer said. “The ICUs were in the 150’s over the summer … but they were down to as low as 42 at one point in September/October. And now they’ve been in the 70’s consistently for a few days, so that is not pleasing to me or anyone else.”
Of the 224 people hospitalized Tuesday, 79 were in intensive care units, according to the Health Care Agency.
“I’m frankly concerned,” Noymer said.
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 1,512 county residents out of 62,830 confirmed cases, including three new deaths reported Tuesday.
The virus has already killed nearly three times as many people as the flu does on average in Orange County.
For context, OC 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.
Parker said OC may be able to avoid spikes in cases and deaths if people follow the public health protocols, like avoiding gatherings and wearing a mask.
“Maybe we’ll be vigilant, but I don’t know, I’m a bit of a pessimist right now,” he said.
Meanwhile, all of the counties surrounding OC are in the most restrictive tier, the Purple Tier, on the state’s business reopening system because of the positivity rates and new average daily cases. San Diego was moved to the Purple Tier on Tuesday.
For now, Orange County sits in the Red Tier, the second most restrictive tier.
That means retailers, malls, beauty salons, movie theaters, restaurants, gyms and places of worship are open under limited capacity.
Larger entertainment venues, like theme parks, sports stadiums and bowling alleys remain closed.
A move back to the Purple Tier would see movie theaters close, while restaurants and houses of worship would have to move their operations outside. It would also further limit the number of people allowed inside malls and retailers, depending on the specific guidelines for each industry.
The rising cases around California are causing concerns for state and local public health officials, especially since the holiday season is around the corner.
“It is clear we are seeing increasing cases,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency at a Tuesday news conference.
He said more counties will be moving back to more restrictive business reopening tiers next week.
“As we look forward to next week and we see which counties may have missed tier thresholds this week, we anticipate … over half of California’s counties will have moved into a more restrictive tier,” Ghaly said.
No county moved to a less restrictive tier on Tuesday, which is when state public health officials update the business reopening system.
Ghaly, Noymer and Parker all fear new infections stemming from Thanksgiving dinner and other upcoming holiday celebrations.
All three said people should avoid doing Thanksgiving dinner and other celebrations with people they don’t live with.
“I’m really apprehensive about Thanksgiving,” Noymer said. “People need to really reflect on protecting the elderly and other high-risk groups. And just not use Thanksgiving as this massive springboard into the other holidays.”
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