While Orange County’s coronavirus vaccine rollout has stumbled into roadblocks, preventing vulnerable people from getting shots, hospitalizations have been slightly decreasing.
But local experts warn the trends could reverse.
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“From the health center side, I think it’s too early to say it’s a complete regression, but there’s definitely a u-turn we’re seeing,” said Dr. Shruti Gohil, an infectious disease and critical care doctor at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange.
“Make no mistake, we are still at high COVID levels, we are in a surge,” Gohil said. “We would expect the surge to fully continue until enough people are immune naturally or through the vaccine,” Gohil said, adding natural herd immunity would drive deaths even higher.
Since January began, the Health Care Agency reported 674 people killed by the virus.
Those deaths could stretch back weeks due to reporting delays.
“What we’ve seen through previous pandemics, if you have enough virus circulating around, even though it might get better for a period of time, it comes back,” Gohil said.
Another inmate died in the jails, bringing the total to two deaths, according to a news release from OC Sheriff spokeswoman Carrie Braun.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, 2,270 Orange County Jail inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. Currently, there are 61 COVID-19 positive inmates,” states a Thursday news release.
UCI epidemiologist Andrew Noymer also warned the virus could spike again.
“I’m cautiously optimistic, but with a very heavy emphasis on the ‘cautiously,’” Noymer said. “I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves in terms of what it means.”
As of Friday, 1,896 people were hospitalized, including 516 in intensive care units.
That’s down from the peak when 2,259 people were hospitalized Jan. 7.
Meanwhile, Orange County, along with California, has been struggling trying to navigate fractured vaccination efforts.
Last week, OC officials rolled out a website and mobile phone application to register people for the vaccine.
Numerous outages and glitches have plagued the registration service, Othena.
It’s also not available in other languages.
Gov. Gavin Newsom quietly launched a statewide vaccine registration service as residents across the state faced the same struggles as many in OC.
So far the state registration website only works for Los Angeles County and it’s not clear if it will replace Orange County’s vaccine registration process or how the two could work together.
State public health officials still aren’t sure when enough vaccines will come to the state for mass vaccination efforts, like Orange County’s.
OC health officer Dr. Clayton Chau has set a goal to reach herd immunity — at least 70% of the county’s 3.2 million people vaccinated — by July 4.
Gohil said massive vaccinations are a major logistical challenge, which limits who can administer them.
“There are complications with the vaccine, you have to store it on cold storage … we had a small army of individuals to make this happen (at UCI). To expect that from a small clinic is very difficult,” Gohil said, adding the freezers required are very expensive.
She also said the vaccination efforts are hamstrung by a lack of federal leadership.
“I think of this as an unnecessary complication, we should be — the arm of the government essentially — should be involved with obtaining enough vaccines. Fine, it could be in phases, but it should be distributed in a way that’s clear — here’s who we’re going to vaccinate,” Gohil said.
Over 55,000 people have been vaccinated and more than 400,000 people have registered for a vaccine appointment, according to the Othena website.
A major problem OC faces is the small supplies of vaccines coming into California, which is a complicated process.
County’s place orders with the state Department of Public Health, which are then sent to the CDC for review. From there, theCDC approves the request and vaccines are shipped from manufacturers.
At a Wednesday state-level Vaccine Advisory Meeting, CA health officer Dr. Erica Pan said the state’s being shipped nearly 500,000 vaccines a week.
“It may increase slightly,” she said. “I think the most might be another 100,000 a week. It’s a very small amount at least for the next several weeks.”
The virus has now killed 2,547 people out of 218,741 confirmed cases, according to the county Health Care Agency.
The virus has already killed more than four 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.
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.
Gohil said the nation’s vaccination production should mirror World War II production efforts, when automakers switched from building cars to tanks and a host of other production lines began rolling out airplanes, munitions and other material needed for the war effort.
“With all of the resources we now have to bear, we should be able to guarantee enough vaccines that we’re really able to get it out to our communities,” Gohils said. “I have to say I’m not sure why we’re not in a better place on this, we should be.. Every week we don’t know how much vaccine we’re going to get.”
For more details on the COVID-19 vaccine in Orange County view our Voice of OC information page: http://bit.ly/occovidvaccine.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio