Orange County saw thousands of new coronavirus cases over the weekend, while hospitalizations continued to steadily increase as a growing resistance to the regional shutdown order is surfacing.
Editor’s Note: As Orange County’s only nonprofit & nonpartisan newsroom, Voice of OC brings you the best, most comprehensive local Coronavirus news absolutely free. No ads, no paywalls. We need your help. Please, make a tax-deductible donation today to support your local news.
The county Health Care Agency reported more than 5,200 cases over the weekend, with 3,250 more cases reported Monday — the highest ever reported.
And OC has the second highest number of people hospitalized for the virus in the state.
As of Monday, 1,287 county residents were in hospitals, including 288 in intensive care units — the highest levels, so far.
State public health officials estimate 12 to 13% of all new cases end up in hospitals two to three weeks down the road.
OC’s been averaging over 2,000 new cases reported a day for the past week.
Numerous critical care and emergency room doctors said the hospitalizations are straining the county’s hospital system, which could lead to jeopardized care for non-virus patients because critical resources — like staffing — are quickly being used up.
The typical stay for an intensive care unit is two to four days. For some coronavirus patients, their stays last for months, which jams up the system, doctors say.
People are increasingly protesting the regional stay at home order, which went into effect last Sunday because Southern California’s intensive care unit capacity dropped below 15%.
As of Sunday evening, the region’s ICU capacity dipped to 4.2%.
As of Monday, OC’s ICU capacity for virus patients was gone, according to the county Health Care Agency. Although, the county has 9.3% of overall ICU beds left, known as the “unadjusted rate.”
“Adjusted = Takes into account the percentage of COVID-19 positive patients in the ICU (the higher the percentage of COVID-19 positive patients in the ICU, the more the adjustment). Unadjusted = Just the plain % ICU availability,” reads a Tweet from the county Health Care Agency.
The governor’s order has shut down nonessential businesses like barbers and beauty parlors. It also closed outdoor dining, but restaurants can still do take out and delivery.
According to various social media posts and news reports, many businesses, like restaurants and bars, are defying the orders because they can’t afford to shut down again.
The order also closed outdoor playgrounds and nixed overnight camping, although hiking is allowed and outdoor recreational facilities remain open. State public health officials quietly reversed the playground closure last Wednesday.
UC Irvine epidemiologist Sanghyuk Shin said the state and federal government need to step up and send more direct aid to closed businesses and unemployed people for the order to be effective and help reverse the worsening situation.
“That social and economic support is a critical component from a public health perspective of combating it and bringing epidemics to an end. So that absolutely has to be in the equation when we talk about how best we can protect our residents in California,” Shin said in a Monday phone interview.
UC Irvine economist Ami Glazer said legislators should’ve thought about incentive programs for businesses and people, which could spur more people to follow public health guidelines while potentially preventing the regional stay-home order.
“Say we pay people $50 a week to test negative — so now they have an incentive to not congregate, not go to bars,” Glazer said in a Monday phone interview.
Glazer said an incentive program could work for employers, encouraging them to limit indoor operations and strictly follow health measures. The subsidy would also encourage more testing, which public health experts say is critical to helping combat the spread.
“Say they pay the employer $10 a day for each of its employees testing negative for coronavirus,” Glazer said. “So rather than use a sledgehammer, give the money in the way where people can do what’s being asked.”
He also said business hours at some busy retailers should be expanded so they’re able to prevent overcrowding indoors, which contributes to the virus spread.
Meanwhile, the virus situation is expected to continue on a dangerous path.
“It’s really grim and disheartening to see the numbers continue to go up and we’re not seeing any evidence it’s going to slow down anytime soon. While it’s impossible to predict the future, it looks like, at the very best, we’ll see the situation continue to get worse at least until mid January,” Shin said. “All the numbers that we’re seeing suggest that things will continue getting worse.”
Since the pandemic began, the virus has killed 1,694 county residents out of 105,764 confirmed cases.
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 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.
The county is on track to surpass its average yearly deaths with over 19,000 people dead as of October, the latest available state health data.
Shin said the coronavirus is now the country’s leading cause of death.
“Just last week we had almost 12,000 COVID 19 deaths. In comparison, we had 10,000 heart disease deaths, which is traditionally the number one cause of death in the U.S. So COVID-19 has surpassed heart disease as the number one cause of deaths,” he said.
Epidemiologists said things have spiraled so out of control, a shutdown like the one from March should be enacted to reverse the deteriorating trends.
“Absolutely. I think government at all levels should do everything we can to mobilize resources to support the most vulnerable — people who are homeless, people who are working in essential jobs, that these communities be supported financially in order for the general population to actually control infectious diseases
Shin’s colleague, epidemiologist Andrew Noymer also said nonessential retail should be closed down.
“It’s more important now than March. I would’ve rather seen the malls open in March than now. Of course that’s easy to say in hindsight,” Noymer said in a phone interview last Thursday. “I would say, yeah, indoor shopping needs to shut down. We’re really in a crisis.”
And Thanksgiving is adding a surge on top of a surge.
“We’re already seeing its impact. I think at some point in the future we’re going to look back and talk about what a disaster Thanksgiving get-togethers were and the lack of sufficient leadership from the government’s part,” Shin said, noting the public messaging on virus measures has failed.
He also fears another spike on top of a spike later this month from Christmas.
Various social media posts appear to show OC residents going to parties, bars and nightclubs over the weekend, despite the public health orders.
Bars and indoor dining were major contributors of virus transmission during the first wave.
“We dropped the ball on having sufficient public health messages and our political leaders are telling people conflicting messages,” Shin said.
Orange County Supervisors have protested the regional shut down order and are demanding local control from Gov. Gavin Newsom over the issue.
Shin also said public health experts, like himself, are also to blame for the failed public messaging.
“The fact that large numbers of the population are not taking COVID 19 seriously is a huge failure on the part of the leadership, perhaps on the part of the public health community like myself,” Shin said. “It’s a failure on all of us. It’s just really grim.”
Shin said there’s a stark contrast in pandemic response and results between the United States and a host of other countries.
He pointed to South Korea, which has a population of roughly 51 million people.
“As an example of just kind of comparing what’s going on outside of the U.S., South Korea, the country that I’m from, just last week they had, for the first time, their number of cases go above 1,000,” Shin said.
OC had three times that amount reported just on Sunday.
Shin said it’s a glaring reflection of failures stateside.
“Their leadership there has been able to, by and large, convince the population that this is a serious disease and the people have to get together and make sacrifices and to curb this epidemic. Whereas in Orange County we haven’t been able to do that. Despite our population in Orange County being a fraction of South Korea’s, we had three times the number of cases.”
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio