Coronavirus case rates are increasing all throughout Orange County during the second wave, including some parts of South County, which didn’t see dramatic case or positivity increases in the first wave.
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“Unfortunately the entire County of Orange is lighting up right now with COVID,” said Dr. Curtis Condon, research manager for the county Health Care Agency.
At a Tuesday virtual panel hosted by county Supervisor Doug Chaffee and Anaheim City Councilman Jose Moreno, Condon said zip codes up and down the county are seeing increasing positivity rates.
“Almost every zip code in north Orange County and many in south Orange County are Tier 1 — with positivity rates over 8%,” Condon said, referring to the state’s four-tiered business reopening system.
Laguna Niguel, Ladera Ranch, Dana Point and parts of San Clemente have over a 7% positivity rate, while southern San Clemente has a 10% positivity rate.
Orange County sits in the Purple Tier, or Tier 1 on the state’s reopening system because of rising case rates. That means no indoor operations restaurants, gyms, places of worship and movie theaters, while further limiting indoor operations at retailers.
All Southern California counties have been placed in the most restrictive Purple Tier as cases in the region began skyrocketing last month.
The countywide positivity rate was 8.8% as of Wednesday.
There were an additional 1,208 cases reported Wednesday.
State public health officials estimate roughly 12 to 13% of new cases will end up in hospitals two to three weeks down the road.
OC’s Case rates and hospitalizations were on downward trends following the first wave, which saw over 700 people hospitalized at one point in July.
Those trends started to reverse beginning late October.
As of Wednesday, 689 people were hospitalized, including 171 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.
“Back in early September things were getting better,” Condon said. “Then with the fall months coming on … we see the positivity rising systematically throughout these zip codes.”
While case rates are rising in South County, working class neighborhoods in North and Central County are being battered by the virus. Some positivity rates are clawing their way to 14%.
But this time there’s assistance readily available for many of the residents after the county Health Care Agency Director and county health officer Dr. Clayton Chau partnered with a host of nonprofit community groups to bring education and targeted resources into the hardest hit neighborhoods.
The collaboration began in June with Latino Health Access, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit.
“The difference between July and November is that we are better prepared,” said Latino Health Access Executive Director America Bracho at the Tuesday panel.
“So that is a huge difference. The people in the community are also aware of the services. They are being very independent and informed in their behaviors,” she said.
Bracho said Latino Health Access staff are working nearly around the clock to help with contact tracing.
“Imagine the amount of work we are having with the surge in cases. Our staff is working very very late into the night,” she said. “We really need to move in the speed of the virus.”
She said the contact tracers have to move as quickly as possible so people know they’ve tested positive and can isolate themselves to prevent further spread of the virus.
Bracho also shared data from UC Irvine researchers showing the first wave began in wealthier coastal communities and slowly began to spread to working class communities in OC, severely impacting the neighborhoods in the Summer.
Now, positivity rates are increasing across the board.
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 1,578 county residents out of 80,551 confirmed cases.
The virus has already killed nearly three times as many Orange County residents 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 state death 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.
Chau said local public health officials can’t pinpoint the exact source of the rapid virus transmission.
“In Orange County again we have looked at every single business sector. And the number one conclusion we made … is that people are gathering,” Chau said.
State public health officials have also said the same thing.
But public health experts say differently, especially as cases skyrocket and strain contact tracing efforts.
“The answer is is nobody knows for sure. We just know that it’s happening. I personally think that we can’t rule out restaurants — there’s not a whole lot of evidence that it’s just people gathering in each others’ homes,” said UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert Andrew Noymer in a Friday phone interview.
Noymer said the current caseloads have rendered the county Health Care Agency’s contact tracing efforts largely ineffective.
He also said some business interests have embraced the idea that private household gatherings are the main driving force behind the case increases.
“I think the idea that it’s mostly small gatherings was proposed in good faith, but it’s been really embraced by those who have skin in the game of businesses that are catering to gatherings of people,” Noymer said.
He also said some outdoor dining set ups are just as bad as indoor dinners.
“Some of these so-called outdoor dining arrangements, which are really just people packed like sardines into tents, do not impress me,” Noymer said.
Meanwhile, Noymer, Chau and state public health officials are all concerned about the potential virus impacts from Thanksgiving because many people traditionally have large dinners with extended family.
UC Irvine Dean of Public Health Bernadette Boden-Albala said the virus is so widespread in the community, that various activities are contributing to the increased spread like restaurants, crowded malls and private gatherings.
“I am very, very leery about indoor mall settings,” Boden Albala said in a Tuesday phone interview. “Try to find places where you know that they are limiting the number of people coming in, try to find a time where other folks aren’t there.”
Researchers found the virus spreads faster indoors because it’s carried on aerosol particles that float on the air when people breathe and talk, which is why infectious disease experts and doctors encourage people to wear masks and avoid crowded indoor settings.
“Spend the least amount of time in there. This isn’t the time to do window shopping in stores — you really want to limit your indoor exposure,” Boden-Albala said.
Public health experts like Boden-Albala and Noymer suggest residents only go shopping for essential needs and stay away from people who are not from the same household. Outdoor activities, like jogging or hiking, are fine if it’s not crowded, the experts said.
With vaccines on the horizon, Boden-Albala said residents should still follow public health protocols to help avoid unnecessary deaths.
“I think people are fatigued, they’re looking for normalcy and they’re trying to justify all their actions,” she said. “We just have to hold out for a little while longer.”
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