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It’s been one of the deadliest weeks yet for the Coronavirus pandemic in Orange County, with 219 residents reported dead, according to the daily fatality reports released by local health officials Monday.
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The daily death numbers reported by the county Health Care Agency, like the 29 new deaths reported Monday, can stretch back several weeks due to reporting delays. Fatalities are reported in daily batches that often go back for weeks.
Nonetheless, the most recent tallies of deaths are the largest ever.
Orange County public health officials are now pushing to increase coronavirus vaccinations after a slow start statewide, and officials are scrambling to set up five supersites to begin vaccinating waves of people.
Isabel Becerra, CEO of the Coalition of OC Community Health Centers, said she’s pushing for community health organizations, like Latino Health Access, to be able to also set up vaccination clinics.
“To not only vaccinate our own patients, because we provide care to over 400,000 individuals in this county, which the majority are communities of color who have been affected disproportionately. We can also serve as vaccination sites for the population at large,” Becerra said in a Monday phone interview.
Becerra, who also sits on the county vaccine task force, said the logistics behind the vaccinations are tricky.
“The Moderna vaccine comes in trays of 100, they cannot break those trays up. So an entity or a pod (vaccination center) needs to commit and distribute at least 100,” Becerra said.
She also said residents seeing community leaders vaccinated, like CEO of the nonprofit Latino Health Access, America Bracho, helps ease vaccine fears.
“Contrary to initial beliefs that there would be a slow uptake, there’s been a tremendous uptake on vaccines,” Becerra said. “I think seeing the providers to roll up their sleeves to get the vaccine encourages anyone around them who might have had apprehension about the vaccine.”
Last week, county Health Care Agency officials announced they would be creating five vaccination supersites around the county, which they call “pods.”
Yet it’s still unclear when the sites will be up and running, or where the sites will be.
“The location of the County Super POD sites are in development, and will be announced as they are finalized. Once finalized, the County Super POD sites will be opened in a phased approach and will be located regionally throughout Orange County,” reads a Thursday news release.
While officials are trying to vaccinate more health care workers and vulnerable seniors, no appointments were available through the website as of Monday.
The website urges people to “check back regularly.”
The Orange County Fire Authority headquarters in Irvine has been vaccinating doctors and medical workers.
The OC Health Care Agency is also looking to recruit medically trained volunteers to bolster its vaccination efforts at the five planned supersites.
Meanwhile, scores of readers have been emailing Voice of OC expressing concerns of vaccination delays and question when they’ll get the vaccine.
County health officer Dr. Clayton Chau hasn’t held a news conference or given a public update about the overall virus situation from the Health Care Agency since Dec. 16 — nearly a month ago.
Gov. Gavin Newsom also set a goal of 1 million additional vaccinations by the end of this week.
“I’ll remind you that the current focus of the vaccinations is health care workers, those frontline essential health care workers,” Newsom said at a Monday news conference. “Then those residents that are most vulnerable in congregate facilities.”
There’s been a renewed effort by state public health officials to vaccinate more people by allowing local health departments to jump between phases in the vaccination priority tiers.
“If there’s a dose that’s sitting there and there’s nobody queued up in line … we want to move to other priority groups,” Newsom said.
The state recommendations come after some confusion in vaccine guidelines — the state vaccination guidelines put primary care doctors in the second tier of the first phase, while guidelines the county used seemingly had private practice staff at a higher priority.
OC Health Care Agency officials also updated the county’s vaccination plan last Wednesday.
According to the updated guidelines, OC officials are now aiming to vaccinate paramedics, nursing home staff and residents, lab workers, dental offices, primary care providers, community health workers and specialty clinics, like dialysis centers.
Meanwhile, county hospitalizations are holding steady, with 2,221 people hospitalized, including 544 in intensive care units as of Monday.
State public health officials are watching hospitalization data closely to see if there’s more spikes from the holiday season.
“We’re hopeful that we’re seeing the surge now and it isn’t significant as we anticipate. But we still have a few more days before we can confidently say it isn’t as high as we have feared,” said Secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, Dr. Mark Ghaly, at the Monday news conference.
OC saw an additional 3,259 positive cases reported Monday.
State public health officials estimate roughly 12% of all newly infected people end up hospitalized within three weeks.
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has now killed 2,120 people out of 191,861 confirmed cases, including 29 new deaths reported Monday, according to the county Health Care Agency.
Daily new deaths reported by the agency can stretch back for weeks because of reporting delays.
The county surpassed 2,000 deaths Saturday when it reported 43 new deaths, which was a daily record.
The record was broken the next day.
On Sunday, the agency reported 50 new deaths.
The virus has 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 the 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.
Late last month, roughly 120 homeless people tested positive for the virus at 16 different shelters. A total of 635 homeless people have tested positive for the virus, including four dead, so far.
The coronavirus is also spreading like wildfire in OC jails.
Over 2,200 inmates are infected — more than a 2,800% increase from about a month ago when 74 inmates were infected.
So far, the virus has killed one inmate.
OC Sheriff Don Barnes faced hard questions in court Friday about his handling of the jail outbreaks.
Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson is looking to appoint a moderator who will decide which medically vulnerable inmates get transferred from jail into a different type of custody.
Wilson also pushed back on Barnes’ position that the transfers pose a threat to the community.
“Throughout this discussion, I used ‘release’ the way I used it the first time – which is I don’t mean get-out-of-jail-free card, I mean either moving to a different facility or being placed under supervised release – electronic monitoring, etcetera,” Wilson said at the Friday court hearing.
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.
Ghaly said the state is in the beginning of the long-feared holiday surge.
“I think we’re in the early parts of that holiday surge. It looks encouraging at the moment, but we’ll keep watching those numbers in the coming days.”
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio