Orange County’s skyrocketing coronavirus trends are putting the county on a dangerous path to maxing out hospitals and pushing medical workers to the brink.
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This week, OC’s case increases and hospitalizations keep breaking records.
As of Tuesday, 946 county residents were hospitalized, including 238 in intensive care units — the highest ever, so far.
That’s a 379% increase since Nov. 1, when 183 people were hospitalized.
Current hospitalizations have already eclipsed the July peak, when 722 people were hospitalized, including 238 in ICUs.
“It is very unfortunate and I’m hearing from my colleagues who are nurses that are the frontline, my students who work in the same setting, that things are just getting very busy and stressful. I think we’re hitting a situation where we’re going to be pretty maxed out very soon. So it’s alarming for sure,” said UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert Sanghyuk Shin in a Tuesday phone interview.
He said the virus situation is likely to keep deteriorating.
“I’m not really sure how to put it, but it’s a dire situation. At least from all the data we’re seeing, it’s not likely to get better any time in the near future,” Shin said.
Dr. Michael Katz, a critical care doctor at St. Jude’s Medical Center in Fullerton, said he’s never seen hospitals impacted like this.
“I’ve been practicing 20 years now. Certainly during my career I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve seen several bad flu seasons — that doesn’t compare to this in any way shape or form,” Katz said in a Monday phone interview.
Katz, who treats virus patients in the ICU, said staffing is already pushed to the limits because virus patients stay in the ICU much longer than patients in pre-pandemic times.
“So we’re running into limitations for staffing. There might be a couple more physical beds at a facility, but there’s just no more nurses. And this is the calculation that leads us to gauge when elective procedures need to start getting canceled,” he said.
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 1,633 county residents out of 90,513 confirmed cases, according to the county Health Care Agency. That’s up nearly 150 since Nov. 1.
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.
At their regular meeting on Tuesday, Orange County Supervisors challenged Gov. Gavin Newsom and state public health officials over the recent regional shutdown order,
Orange County also saw 1,671 new cases Tuesday and has averaged 1,500 new cases a day.
State public health officials estimate 12 to 13% of new cases end up in hospitals a few weeks down the road and deaths follow a few weeks after that.
Supervisors criticized the shutdown orders and advocated for local control over the issue.
“We can’t even walk around, we can’t even gather,” Supervisor Michelle Steel said. “You know what, we’re not going to get any sales tax income.”
The order prohibits gatherings, but allows for outdoor exercises like walking or jogging.
“Something doesn’t make any sense here and there’s no scientific base that you cannot eat outside of the restaurant … all of these restaurants and all of these hair shops … … So what’s the next step? What did you hear from the Governor’s office, what kind of scientific base to shut down?” Steel asked county health officer Dr. Clayton Chau.
She also said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Newsom are “competing with each other to try to make each state go straight into third world countries at this point.”
When later asked a similar question from Supervisor Andrew Do, Chau said they’re in constant talks with the California Department of Public Health.
“It’s a two way conversation … we do express our concern to certain decisions that might be coming down,” Chau said. “I assume they take it back and have discussions…that’s how the process works.”
Do expressed concerns about rapidly increasing hospitalizations.
“Our ICU capacity today is now down to 13%.” We can no longer rest in the laurel that we are not like other counties anymore,” Do said.
Supervisor Don Wagner, a chief critic of the state’s public health orders, said the county isn’t going to disobey the order. Instead, they’re lobbying for Newsom to adjust the current one.
“I wanna make it clear that what it (the resolution) is urging is that the Governor change his orders and allow for local control. Not that this board ignore those orders. Those are individual decisions that businesses and the people that make up our communities are going to have to decide for themselves.”
Wagner also went through a laundry list of elected officials, like Newsom, who didn’t follow the guidelines when they went to restaurants, according to various news reports.
“The Governor has demonstrated whatever he is doing today … isn’t working,” Wagner said. “Right now we’re chasing our tails and we’re chasing Governor Newsom.”
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said they have to balance hospitalizations and the economy.
“We need to reopen our economy, we can’t keep reopening and closing,” Bartlett said. “The businesses need to stay open … it’s too detrimental and it’s terrible for the workforce to be hired and fired. So we got to look at a more balanced approach.”
She also said they’re going to look at increasing hospital staffing and building more ICU beds.
In a phone interview last week, Dr. Jim Keany, a critical care doctor at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, said the March shutdown worked over time.
“It definitely flattened the curve over time. Right now the curve is not flat, it’s a spike straight up towards the ceiling,” he said.
Supervisors also hit on a key criticism of the state order — the mixed message it sends, prohibiting outdoor dining but permitting indoor malls and department stores to remain open.
The regional order, which went into effect late Sunday, closes nonessential businesses like barbers and beauty parlors. It also shut down outdoor dining, but restaurants can still do take out and delivery.
It shutdown outdoor playgrounds and nixed overnight camping, although hiking is allowed and outdoor recreational facilities remain open.
Unlike March’s stay home order, the new regional shut down didn’t close department stores or malls — shops considered nonessential by state guidelines.
At a Tuesday news conference, secretary of state Health and Human Services Agency, Dr. Mark Ghaly, said the decision to keep malls and retailers open stems from the need “to not do what we did the first time, which really was to isolate the experience to just a few retailers where we saw large numbers of people gathering indoors.”
Under this new order, “we tried to a create a system that allows a variety of retailers to be open and operating so that customers, consumers, the public could go to places where we weren’t seeing such densely populated stores,” Ghaly said, adding: “And our hope is that that’s what we’ll see over what is a critical period for retailers.”
Asked about the outdoor dining closure, Ghaly said the state’s decision stems more from the need to keep people at home than it is a comment on the relative safety or lack thereof of business’ outdoor operations.
“We’re seeing such high levels of transmission, that almost any activity that can be done differently and keep us at our homes and is safer … those are going to be the tools that help us get under control,” he said, adding it “really has to do with the goal of trying to keep people at home, not a comment on the relative safety of outdoor dining.”
Shin said malls and other nonessential retail should’ve been closed.
“Absolutely. To be honest, I think some of the specific guidelines and it’s hard to know where the justification is coming from. I haven’t seen any data that suggests that smaller businesses are at higher risk of having transmission events compared to these larger stores,” Shin said.
Although Newsom announced $25,000 grants for small businesses and sales tax deferrals last week, Shin said more needs to be done, especially for low-income workers, for the regional shutdown to be effective.
“I think there needs to be sufficient support for small businesses and for essential workers provided with sufficient support to stay home if they are sick,” he said. “There are a number of things that can be done and needs to be done in order to really put a stop to this surge as well as to bring the transmission rates, the infection rates to a level that is manageable.”
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