More people have died in the field after a 9-1-1 call for ambulance and emergency services in recent months — during the Coronavirus pandemic — than in previous years, according to county emergency services officials.

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.

January this year saw the sharpest uptick: up to 516 people died in the field following a 9-1-1 call for service, a statistic that comes from a Feb. 3 daily report by the county’s Medical Health Operational Area Coordination (MHOAC).

That number was 463 in December — during a wave of new Coronavirus hospitalizations, and strained medical emergency response systems in the winter months — and was a far cry above deaths in the field during the same month from previous years.

County officials for weeks haven’t responded to Voice of OC questions over whether they attribute that sharp increase in 9-1-1 field deaths to the pandemic and ambulance delays. 

They also haven’t responded to questions asking how the data is collected and whether the December and January field death numbers were the highest in Orange County’s history.  

Care Ambulance Service CEO Troy Hagen — whose company provides emergency medical transport services to local jurisdictions across the county — also didn’t respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the tone is cautious optimism among local health leaders and experts in Orange County today, amid the opening of a new vaccination supersite in Santa Ana as progress has been slow in narrowing vaccination gaps for the county’s nonwhite and vulnerable populations.

The hope is to eventually administer 1,000 vaccination doses a day at the Santa Ana College site which opened Wednesday, said Santa Ana City Manager Kristine Ridge during a briefing to City Council members on the site’s logistics at their Tuesday meeting.

The new “point of dispensing” or POD site has been a long time coming — even long overdue, in the eyes of local city officials and activists who have been calling on the county for a site in one of the hardest-hit and predominantly Latino cities.

It also isn’t quite on the scale of the county’s other “super” POD sites at Soka University or Disneyland.

Still, Latino Health Access Executive Director America Bracho — who has led advocacy around Covid-19 response in the county’s Latino communities — said “having the site there in Santa Ana College is going to help with access for many communities that are impacted.” 

“But only if the design is right,” she said, adding there’s a need to reserve access to that site to people who actually come from the communities it’s targeted at helping.

Bracho said that when her group was setting up testing sites across the county’s vulnerable neighborhoods, they received calls from people all over Orange County — even as far as “Corona and Riverside.” 

But Bracho said it helped when her group explained to those people that the testing sites were for Anaheim and Santa Ana residents to access.

“People are desperate, but we want to be protective (of this new site) if we truly want to close the gap for people in the county’s most impacted zip codes,” Bracho added.

County spokeswoman Molly Nichelson in a Wednesday text message said “those who are in certain zip codes that are the most impacted are being targeted for (the Santa Ana College site).”

“There will be more outreach occurring,” Nichelson added.

The “immediate strategy” will be inviting those that qualify in the current vaccine priority tier “who identify themselves as Hispanic living in or near low census zip codes that align with Santa Ana, Anaheim, and Garden Grove,” said county Health Care Agency Director and Acting Public Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau in a Wednesday text message.

Chau also said the county will soon be working with the Multi-Ethnic Collaborative of Community Agencies (MECCA) “to promote working ethnic communities in the low (socioeconomic status areas) to help them directly schedule.”

Additionally, he said the county is working with local nonprofit Abrazar, Inc. and the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) to provide residents with “transportation support” to the site.

“People need to be able to access the site in their language, there needs to be assistance with registration, calming the fears some people may have,” Bracho said.

Coalition of Orange County Community Clinics CEO Isabel Becerra added that the super POD sites at Soka University and Disneyland do serve a purpose from an equity standpoint: “There are vulnerable seniors all over the county.”

And a study that Santa Ana officials paid for with federal funding and conducted with the University of California, Irvine largely affirmed what many locals have long suspected: 

Santa Ana — and its Latino residents — had higher rates of Covid-19 prevalence than the rest of the county overall. 

The study was conducted across the city’s mobile testing sites, and city officials presenting the findings at the City Council’s Tuesday meeting say the results will be used for vaccine outreach and education targeted at those hesitant to get the vaccine. 

A graphic illustrating zip codes in Santa Ana hit hardest by Covid-19.

Becerra said a multi-pronged approach — the combined efforts of the new Santa Ana POD site, community clinics’ vaccine operations, and targeted outreach — “will make real headway in closing the equity gap.”

As of Wednesday, the number of people reported in the hospital with the virus continues to go down, now at 719 hospitalizations. 

Meanwhile, deaths continue to rise, standing now at 3,644 since the start of the pandemic with 27 new deaths reported today.

To date, there have been 243,329 confirmed cases. 

For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths from other causes 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 23,883 people dead as of December, according to the latest available state data.

Coronavirus deaths, meanwhile, have now surpassed the flu, heart diseases, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes as a cause of death in Orange County. Presently, only cancer has killed more residents on an annual basis than the virus. 

Staff writer Nick Gerda contributed reporting.

Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:

Infections | Hospitalizations & Deaths | City-by-City Data | Demographics

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.