A year ago today, Orange County saw its first death from coronavirus – a man in his 70s whose identity has never been released.

The ensuing year would prove to be the deadliest on record in recent times.

The Year in Coronavirus

Voice of OC is dedicated to telling the full story of Coronavirus — public health, deaths, policies and government spending.

So far, 4,522 people – mostly seniors – have died from Covid-19 in Orange County, according to county data based on local death certificates. 

That’s more than how many people died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Coronavirus was the leading cause of death in Orange County this past December and January, killing more than five times as many people as the second-biggest cause, according to a previously unpublished report Voice of OC obtained from health officials.

“COVID-19 deaths were overwhelmingly the most common final cause of deaths for the months of December and January 2021,” Orange County health officials wrote in the internal report Voice of OC obtained through a public records request.

“At 1,017 COVID-19 deaths in December and 1,261 COVID-19 deaths in January 2021, COVID-19 caused 5.4 and and 8 times the amount of deaths (respectively) as the second most common single-diagnosis final cause of death for those two months,” the report added. The second most common cause was Alzheimer’s.

Covid drastically increased total deaths in OC during December and January to more than 150% of their usual levels, according to the county data.

Source: OC Health Care Agency report obtained by Voice of OC

The scale of the spike in overall deaths in December and January – driven by Covid being the No. 1 cause of death – has not been previously reported, and was obtained by Voice of OC through a public records request.

“It’s a staggering and depressing statistic,” Supervisor Don Wagner said when contacted by Voice of OC.

“It certainly is a sad reminder of the scale and scope of the Covid pandemic,” adding that OC is not alone in suffering from coronavirus.

“I am certainly hopeful we are on the other side of it,” Wagner said, noting lower hospitalizations and ongoing vaccinations. “From what I’m hearing we are.”

Dr. Sanghyuk Shin, a UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, said the deaths chart is “sobering” and “an important reminder of the truly horrible and devastating disease that COVID-19 is.

“Deaths are just the most severe manifestation,” he added.

“The short and longer term illnesses caused by this virus exact a huge toll among individuals, families, and their communities. Some of the communities that have been disproportionately affected are devastated from the many losses and ongoing illness,” Shin said.

“As a society, we should make sure that resources are provided to them to reduce illnesses and deaths as much as possible while vaccinations continue to get rolled out.”

Dr. Shruti Gohil, an infectious disease and critical care doctor at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, said pandemics “are very well known to increase overall [deaths],”

“A new respiratory pathogen plus no community immunity (natural or vaccine) equals high risk for overall increase in mortality.  This is similar to flu pandemics of times past – H1N1, Spanish Flu, Measles before the vaccine, Chicken pox before the vaccine, the list goes on,” she added.

“This finding of high COVID [deaths] is precisely why vaccinations exist for other infectious diseases that we all get and now gratefully we have one for COVID.”

While the county internally noted the virus was the top cause of death in these months, OC supervisors and the health director, Dr. Clayton Chau, have not noted it publicly during their coronavirus updates at public meetings.

Just as the suge was worsening in mid-December – with cases skyrocketing and waves of virus patients hitting hospitals – OC officials shut down their weekly news conferences about the pandemic.

Asked yesterday about the winter surge in deaths, Chau told Voice of OC the vast majority of people in hospital intensive care for Covid were seniors.

“Over the winter surge we looked at our hospital data and death data. I found out that 70% of the folks in the hospital including ICU were Seniors and 75% of death cases were Seniors over 65,” Chau said via text message.

He said that’s the reason OC was the first county in California that decided to vaccinate seniors over age 65.

The deaths in December and January resulted mainly from infections in November and December as the virus surged, according to medical leaders.

“Last November and December were historic and they took significant tolls on life expectancy and the health of our population,” said Dr. Jason Cord, president of the Orange County Medical Association, which represents medical doctors across the county.

“We hope and strive to never repeat such a disastrous wave by actively vaccinating and encouraging vaccination across our entire population.”

The situation has improved significantly since January, with weekly Covid deaths dropping as the virus’ spread slows down across the county and state.

December and January are where most of the deaths from Covid are actually concentrated, said Dr. Andrew Noymer, an infectious disease researcher at UC Irvine.

“So this is not going to be the new normal. February is already going to have fewer deaths than January, and March will have fewer than February,” he added.

“The genie’s out of the bottle. We’re going to be dealing with Covid in one shape or form” in the years to come, Noymer added, noting a likelihood the virus will continue to circulate at a lower level.

“We may well have seen the worst of the [deaths], however,” he said, largely thanks to the ongoing vaccinations, with at least half a million people vaccinated so far in OC.

While reduced, deaths from Covid are continuing, with 11 new deaths reported yesterday in Orange County.

As for the county ending its coronavirus news conferences, an incoming county supervisor wants to see the county return to making health officials like Chau available to the press for regular question and answer sessions.

“I’m not afraid of Q&A because my whole goal is for people to get information so they can make decisions for their lives,” said Katrina Foley, who could take office as soon as next week after winning election this month, in an interview with Voice of OC.

“I think more transparency, more communication, more engagement with the community and with the press will lead to better trust of the system.”

Medical leaders say the surge in overall deaths in December and January shows as false the conspiracy theory that Covid deaths were actually deaths from other causes like the flu that were falsely marked as being from the coronavirus.

“I know much of the medical community still actively test for Covid in order to differentiate treatment regimens. This contradicts the concept that flu is being [miscoded],” Cord said.

“Additionally flu had a relatively low incidence this year compared to prior years mostly due to the presence of increased social distancing, maintaining good hand hygiene, and the presence of facemasks,” he added.

“Much of the same things that we do to battle Covid apply to flu as well.”

Asked about the surge in deaths, county Supervisor Doug Chaffee echoed Chau’s point about seniors bearing the brunt of the virus attack.

“Orange County has half a million seniors, and the deaths have been mostly among seniors. So, [I’m] sorry that that’s been happening,” said Chaffee, who represents a district that includes one of the hardest-hit communities in the pandemic, West Anaheim.

“Hopefully we’ll get the rest of our seniors vaccinated,” Chaffee said. “That’s the goal. It sort of centers around, are we gonna get enough vaccine to do it.”

About three quarters of those who’ve died were aged 65 and older, though younger people have not been spared.

In Orange County, the virus has claimed 628 lives between age 55-64, another 283 people between age 45-54, 98 lives between age 35-44, 44 lives between age 25-34, 9 lives between 18-24, and one minor.

What’s still largely unknown is exactly who has died from Covid. County health officials have declined to release data on who died from the pandemic and how old they were, citing privacy.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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