Doctors and epidemiologists are seeing some light on the horizon in Orange County as coronavirus vaccinations are ramping up and cases are down, after going through a year of unprecedented deaths and hospitalizations.

“I’m incredibly optimistic right now. The numbers have dropped off the map. We know there’s variants out there, we’re heading into a warmer season. I’d like to think we get a prolonged break here and the vaccines are ramping up, so that’s great — a lot of positives,” said Dr. Todd Newton, who treats patients in the emergency room at Kaiser Permanente. 

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Although, worries still linger over another virus surge.

“It’s quite clear that we’re dropping. However, we shouldn’t count our chickens at least until we see the next four weeks, six weeks,” said Dr. Shruti Gohil, an infectious disease doctor who treats intensive care unit patients at the UC Irvine Medical Center.

She said public health measures, like wearing masks, need to still be followed as vaccinations increase and more businesses reopen. 

“So I think that’s what’s on all of our minds — what can we do safely with masks,” Gohil said. “And how can we get the vaccine uptick to maximize. Every month that we get more and more vaccines, we stand a chance to not have another summer peak or a fall peak.” 

This week, Voice of OC hosted some of the region’s top virus experts to talk about where the county currently sits and what residents can expect in the coming weeks. 

Watch: Some of Orange County’s Top Public Health Experts Discuss What Residents Can Expect in Coming Weeks

Newton, who is also Kaiser’s medical director for the area, said hospitals now have a playbook to respond to surges.

“The good news is that we have a playbook and other organizations do too and we can respond rapidly if another surge occurs,” Newton said “I think the variants are probably going to be the big worry.”

The previous waves, especially the winter surge when over 900 people died in December, have taken a mental toll on frontline medical workers.

“One of the biggest challenges for us is quite frankly the emotional state of the caretakers. Not just the doctors but the nurses and the staff. People are not used to seeing this amount of death,” Newton said. “We have some very tired and, in some cases, frazzled individuals and now that the adrenaline has died down, I need to keep an eye on it.” 

Read: Coronavirus Triggered Orange County’s Deadliest Year in Recent Times

Newton, the Kaiser’s medical director for the area, said the hospital is offering support and mental health resources to the employees. 

“It leaves a mark on the physicians and staff and it’s something that I think people are still processing. So we’re spending a lot of time talking about it in private. We’re spending a lot of time debriefing. We’re offering various levels of support to our teams, both psychologically and emotionally,” Newton said.

Gohil also said the waves of patients and deaths have taken a toll on her, but she’s also grown from it. 

“At the same time with anything horrible that happens, when you come out of it and assess the scene. I personally feel more capable, competent and confident that we can tackle the next thing because there have been so many learning lessons,” she said.

Read: Families Face Delays in Burying Dead as State Urges OC Officials to Distribute More Coronavirus Vaccines

“There were dark moments and there were difficult times that really stretched my capabilities, but at the end when you look back, it’s all quite remarkable where I am now compared to before,” Gohil said.

UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, Andrew Noymer, said there will be another surge, but it’s impossible to forecast how bad it could be. 

“There will be a third wave in Orange County, I guarantee it. But there’s terms and conditions this time,” Noymer said, adding it depends on how many people are vaccinated and if people begin dropping their guard. 

“I don’t know when and I don’t know how severe it will be. It could be this Spring, it’s not looking that way but I won’t rule it out.

Hospitalizations continue to drop throughout OC. 

As of Wednesday, 172 people were hospitalized, including 36 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.

Deaths continue increasing because of delays in reporting from the county to the state, then the certified deaths are sent back to the OC health officials before they can report them.

The virus has now killed 4,646 people, including 11 new deaths reported today. 

That’s more than eight times the flu kills on a yearly average. 

Virus deaths have now surpassed average yearly cancer deaths in OC. 

It’s also killed more than heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes do on a yearly average, respectively. 

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

Meanwhile, Orange County’s community health clinics have been pushing vaccinations into hardest hit neighborhoods. 

Dr. Jose Mayorga, executive director of the UCI Health Family Health Centers, said the center in West Anaheim has been vaccinating frontline grocery workers and seniors all last week. 

“We’ve been vaccinating about 100 people a day,” Mayorga said Friday. 

A steady stream of people were coming into the clinic for vaccination appointments Friday, set 10 minutes apart.

Mayorga said various school districts, the Orange County Coalition of Community Health Centers, community organizations and some employers, like Northgate Markets, have been key in getting information to people.

He also said the clinics get an additional allocation of vaccines directly from the federal government, on top of the state supply.

Read: Community Efforts to Bring COVID Vaccines to OC’s Hardest Hit Neighborhoods Are Paying Off

LIke others in the community clinic field, Mayorga said he’s seen a dramatic uptick in new patients. 

“We’ve increased by 2,000 patients, just in the calendar year 2020,” he said. 

Isabel Becerra, CEO of the Coalition of Orange County Community Health Centers, also said health clinics across the county have netted a wave of new patients because of their presence testing and vaccinating people. 

“Everyone is saying the same thing — we didn’t know you were here. I wish I would’ve known about this sooner and are so thankful they got individualized care and they got phone calls to come in and get their vaccines,” Becerra said. 

Mayorga, along with many other community health leaders, said vaccination and testing efforts have led to a renewed focus to address various health disparities in working class communities that existed before the pandemic. 

OC Health Care Agency Director County and health officer, Dr. Clayton Chau, created a new position at the agency last year aimed at working with all of Orange County’s community health clinics in an effort to close some of the health gaps. 

“The community has my commitment and of course [Orange County] CEO [Frank] Kim’s and the Board [of Supervisors’] commitment that we will really address the issue of health equity moving forward beyond the pandemic,” Chau said last October. 

He echoed what many of the clinic leaders said.

“The pandemic truly brings and pushes the issue of health equity to the forefront and these issues existed way before the pandemic,” Chau said. “Not only in Orange County, but all over our state and country.” 

But county Supervisors haven’t publicly discussed the position or Chau’s focus on addressing health disparities beyond the pandemic. 

Read: Will Orange County Supervisors Back Health Officer’s Focus on Health Inequities During the Pandemic?

UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert Sanghyuk Shin said the clinics have proven themselves to be a vital part of the overall community health and the work needs to continue beyond the pandemic. 

“The community clinics have been amazing,” Shin said. Other departments have been actively engaged in conversation with community clinics and organizations. So that I feel is something very positive and that is something we can build on. We can make sure that these types of efforts are supported and they are made stronger and expanded.” 

He said the pandemic should be a big lesson to state and local public health officials, who have been increasingly speaking about addressing health gaps. 

“I feel that we need to learn from this pandemic and going back to pre-pandemic business as usual is not enough. We need to do a lot better to make sure that public health efforts, social service efforts are bolstered and that they are equitable and accessible to our communities that are in need,” Shin said.

Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Infections | Hospitalizations & Deaths | City-by-City Data

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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