Local epidemiologists worry that new coronavirus strains could spread easier and produce another surge, with one strain potentially resistant to vaccines.
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UC Irvine epidemiologist Sanghyuk Shin said he’s concerned about the variants originally discovered in the United Kingdom and South Africa.
Shin said the UK variant “basically just took over in a very short period of time. It appeared to have some kind of advantage from an evolutionary perspective.”
He said researchers had to be careful drawing conclusions at first.
But once it started popping up in other places, the findings started becoming more concrete, Shin said.
“When it was introduced to Denmark, Switzerland, Ireland — again the same rapid patterns took over. So those are the big red flags that there is something about this particular variant that is causing it to be more transmissible than other variants,” Shin said.
The UK variant, known as B1.1.7, was first discovered in December in Southern California.
Shin’s colleague, UC Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer echoed similar concerns about the new strain.
“There’s a lot that we still don’t know about the variants. I mean b117 has been detected in San Diego County and Los Angeles County. So I think it’s a pretty good bet that it’s here,” Noymer said.
County public health officials haven’t announced any local cases of the new strains.
The county’s hospitalizations have been declining after seeing skyrocketing increases in December and early January.
As of Monday, 1,362 people were hospitalized, including 384 in intensive care units.
A month ago, 2,057 people were hospitalized, including 506 in ICUs.
“Orange County is really in an improvement trend right now. And I’m worried that these new strains could interrupt that. But I have no evidence to suggest that is the case. I just worry that it could be the case,” Noymer said.
Deaths have been rolling in as hospitals have been decompressing.
The virus has now killed 3,109, including 47 new deaths reported Monday, according to the county Health Care Agency.
Newly reported deaths can stretch back weeks due to reporting delays.
A month ago, there were 1,901 people dead.
It’s already killed more than five times as many people than 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.
Shin said viruses naturally mutate and most mutations aren’t worrisome.
The UK variant could mean a person carries more of the virus, which poses more problems, Shin said.
“It’s a concern. If you can imagine if you get infected with this particular variant, you may or may not have more severe disease. Even if it didn’t increase severity, if it is transmitting at a more rapid rate,” he said.
Although the vaccines look to be effective against the UK variant, Shin is concerned about the coronavirus variant found in South Africa, which he said could reduce vaccine efficacy to around 60%.
But, the vaccines can be changed relatively quickly, he said.
“They can be engineered and changed very easily and very fast,” Shin said. “They’re all looking into modifying their vaccines so that it is appropriately recognizing the new variants. So that work is ongoing right now.”
Noymer said the variants are still being studied by experts.
“The amount that we don’t know about the new variants far outweighs the amount that we do know.”
Meanwhile, efforts to reduce vaccination disparities with some of the most vulnerable groups are underway.
Orange County public health officials are teaming up with CalOptima in an effort to vaccinate more Latinos and seniors, following a vaccination program that’s been plagued by glitches, outages and language barriers.
CalOptima, which administers health plans for the county’s poorest residents, is looking to vaccinate more than 96,000 people 65 and older.
Most of those people live in North and Central Orange County, which have been severely impacted by the virus over the past year.
County Supervisors Andrew Do and Doug Chaffee brought the Vaccine Equity Pilot Program to their colleagues at last Tuesday’s meeting.
The program calls for the county Health Care Agency to vaccinate 1,000 CalOptima members a day.
According to data provided to the Board of Supervisors, 45% of CalOptima’s members are latino, 21% Asian, 18% White and 2% are Black.
Latinos, while making up roughly 35% of OC’s residents, account for 44% of all virus cases and 38% of the nearly 3,000 people killed by the virus.
Yet only 11% of the roughly 178,000 vaccinations have gone to the Latino community, according to a vaccine tracker from the county Health Care Agency, which is updated weekly.
That’s about 19,500 vaccines.
The vaccination registration website and app, called Othena, still isn’t available in different languages as of Monday.
“What we see from many communities of color is a hesitancy that is rooted in historical reality,” Do said in a news release last week. “Providing accurately and culturally appropriate information is crucial as we aim to achieve herd immunity.”
Chaffee said more resources will be leveled at the vaccination efforts.
“Our trusted community messengers will help us develop culturally responsive interventions and direct resources to ensure the equitable distribution of the vaccine across a diverse number of racial and ethnic groups in Orange County,” Chaffee said in the news release.
OC’s efforts mirror those set by state officials in a fractured vaccine rollout effort.
Last week, state public health officials partnered with Blue Shield to oversee statewide distribution in hopes of streamlining the rollout.
“The first thing is the simplification of the eligibility framework. Californians were understandably confused about mixed messages,” said Secretary of Government Operations, Yolanda Richardson, at a news conference last Tuesday.
She said the new statewide vaccination registration program, known as MyTurn, is hoping to start booking vaccine appointments for all Californians soon.
The statewide vaccination registration is only available in English and Spanish as of Monday.
It’s currently being tested in Los Angeles and San Diego counties.
“We really want to focus on eligibility requirements so people across the state understand when it’s their turn,” Richardson said. “If it’s not your turn, you can get notified when it is.”
But unlike OC, the state hasn’t released any demographic data on vaccines, like shots broken down by race or age.
“Granular data is a key priority for us in the next few weeks,” Richardson said. “We will continue to post information over time as we receive it.”
For more details on the COVID-19 vaccine in Orange County view our Voice of OC information page: http://bit.ly/occovidvaccine.
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