As Orange County hospitals are juggling scores of new coronavirus patients everyday, UC Irvine researchers are rolling out a program that could help doctors and nurses predict if a person’s symptoms will worsen within three days. 

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 idea is to help identify patients who are more high risk and who likely need more critical care, it allows people to plan and act right away,” said Dr. Daniel Chow, a UC Irvine radiologist who helped develop the program. 

Chow said the program takes into account a wide array of factors, including age, gender, medical conditions and history. 

“This is based on our Orange County patient experience,” Chow said in a Thursday phone interview. “We looked at our patients who were sick, who were doing well and we started observing these trends and putting it together.”

He said they’ve put together all the various aspects into the program. 

“So it’s having the data help inform our decision making. This kind of stuff is really necessary right now,” Chow said. “It’s an all hands on deck situation.” 

Chau said he’s been talking with some doctors at other hospitals to see if they’d like to use the program, but nothing official has happened, yet. 

Dr. Alpesh Amin, chair of UCI’s Department of Medicine, said the program will also help doctors place patients in certain areas of the hospital faster. 

“It helps in terms whether a patient needs to be admitted or not. It can help us to determine if a patient can be discharged from the hospital or whether a patient should be transferred from the ICU,” Amin said in a Thursday phone interview. “They use the information along with their clinical judgement to make better decisions.” 

Meanwhile, OC’s hospitals continue to face a tsunami of coronavirus patients. 

As of Thursday, 1,893 people were hospitalized, including 405 in intensive care units. 

And Orange County keeps seeing an increase in new daily cases. 

The county Health Care Agency reported 3,490 cases on Thursday. 

State public health officials estimate roughly 12% of all new cases end up in hospitals two to three weeks down the road. 

It’s a difficult virus for the medical community to tackle because some people don’t show any symptoms, yet can still spread it. Others feel slight symptoms, like fatigue and a mild fever. Others end up in ICUs for days and weeks before making it out, while other people eventually die from the virus. 

Dr. Michael Katz, a critical care physician at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, said the hospital had to roll out surge plans — meaning they’re having to build new beds in different parts of the hospital to handle the wave of new patients. 

“We’re definitely heavily involved, at this point, in our plans for surge coverage — internal expansion of ICU beds, redistribution of staff into critical care areas and we’re pulling in some help from outpatient staff,” Katz said in a Wednesday phone interview. 

Katz, who’s also an emergency care physician, said building beds is easy, but finding more critical care staff to come help the already busy hospital workers is the hard part. 

In order to find more staffing and keep beds free, he said doctors are evaluating cancelling non-emergency procedures on a case-by-case basis. 

“I don’t know how close we are in terms of staffing constraints,” he said. “Right now we’re getting our needs met, which is impressive to me. I didn’t’ know we could go this far, even.” 

The situation has deteriorated to the point where county health officials are forcing hospitals to take ambulance patients, even if their emergency rooms are full. 

Kaiser Permanente is also curbing some non-emergency procedures. 

“Our system, right now, is not at capacity, because capacity is a moving target because we can shift into other rooms. We can decrease our elective surgeries and procedures and we’re doing that and we can put up tents — mobile field hospitals — which is what we’re seeing in our sister hospitals,” said Dr. Todd Newton, OC medical director for Kaiser Permanente. 

Newton, also an emergency care physician, said the current trends indicate hospitals are going to be stretched pretty thin soon.

“If everything stays on the course we’re seeing now, we could be seeing 100%, 150% even 200% more cases than we’re seeing now today. Ad that has everyone staying up at night, planning. Because that’s going to be a problem,” Newton said in a phone interview last Friday.

The virus has now killed 1,781 OC residents out of 134,820 confirmed cases. 

It’s already killed more than three times as many people as the flu does on a yearly average. 

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.

Orange County has already surpassed its yearly average 20,000 deaths, with 21,110 people dead as of November, according to the latest available state data

UC Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer said the trends might stay the same sometime until mid-January — but that depends on if people avoid large indoor crowds and holiday celebrations, like what happened after Thanksgiving when OC saw massive case increases. 

He said people should avoid crowded places like malls and stay away from restaurants bars — many of which are still open, despite the state’s regional shutdown order. 

“But guess what? What if a restaurant opened and nobody wants to go because the patrons were too scared of COVID,” Noymer said in a Tuesday phone interview. “We can’t just blame the restaurants. It’s all of us. As I’ve said many times: the pandemic is us.”

Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Infections | Hospitalizations & Deaths | City-by-City Data | Demographics

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.