More than 822,000 people have been fully vaccinated for the Coronavirus in Orange County, as hospitalizations and the virus’ positivity rate among residents tested for it have been trending downward. 

Yet there are some concerns about the obstacles that vaccine hesitancy can pose to that progress, already held back by the county’s Latino vaccination gaps that have only bridged gradually.

As one health expert pointed out to Voice of OC, not all the county’s tiers of eligible groups (age ranges, labor sectors by industry) to get the shot have been “saturated.”

“First, we haven’t fully achieved full vaccination in any of the tiers,” said Bernadette Boden-Albala, an epidemiologist and founding dean for the University of California, Irvine public health program, in a Thursday interview. 

“We’re hovering in all of those tiers somewhere around 65% to 70% so we still have to focus efforts on that,” Boden-Albala said. “Vaccine hesitancy in OC remains a significant concern.”

One indication of the urgency to vaccinate as many people possible: 

“Right now, there’s a very low prevalence of the South African Covid-19 variation — the worst variation associated with Covid-19 — and now is the time to get vaccinated so we don’t start seeing this variant become more prevalent,” Boden-Albala said, adding: 

“We’re in this really critical time crunch now. We have very low rates of Covid-19 in Orange County, a low prevalence of the worst variant, and a surplus of vaccines. This is the opportunity, if we do not get coverage in the next two months we are going to be vulnerable to other things and possibly see more deaths.”

But there are things to be hopeful about, said Dr. Regina Chinso-Kwong — the county Health Care Agency’s Deputy Health Officer — in an interview the same day:

“Our first priority is people 65 and older, because we know they are the individuals who are at higher risk of hospitalization and death, and as of April 11 we actually vaccinated 79.4 percent of people 65 and older — again, that was in April — so we’re probably above 80% currently. 

That number is “much higher” than the results of a survey of that population that county officials, weary that vaccine hesitancy would be a problem down the road, conducted in the Fall of last year. 

That survey showed that more than half of county residents on average were willing to take the vaccine. But that meant, “in a group of 10 people, six want it and four don’t.”

People wait their turn for a Coronavirus vaccine at the OC Fairgrounds. April 7, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

There has also been a vaccine appointment no-show rate of 5%, Chinslo-Kwong said: 

“I can’t speak to the no-show rate indicating hesitancy, but if we do start seeing a higher no-show rate, that means the demand for vaccines is waning and that’s when we hit against a wall of trying to get people vaccinated.”

Though Chinslo-Kwong said last-minute schedule changes or people finding the vaccine closer or at a different clinic could also be driving the current appointment no-show rates, adding:

“We don’t know how much of that is gonna play out in real life, especially after all that we’ve been through since the Fall, but what we do know is when we asked hospitals in December and November how they were doing with hesitancy, a lot of them were telling us they had a high acceptance rate of 90% or above, but that’s hospitals.” 

“We’re hopeful that there’s less hesitancy than the Fall survey results showed,” Chinslo-Kwong said. 

Chinslo-Kwong noted that the survey had forecasted lower acceptance rates among the county’s “Hispanic” or “non-Hispanic Black” community. On that end, Chinslo-Kwong said, the county has conducted outreach to faith-based community hubs like churches, where they believe they can reach those populations and encourage them to get the vaccine. 

Boden-Albala said “access to vaccinations remains a concern.” 

“And what I mean by that is I’m still concerned that low income communities, especially communities of color, have not been able to access these super POD sites and local pharmacies well.” 

Boden-Albala said in underserved communities, “it’s not that there’s hesitancy per se, but there needs to be some better info, clarification of that info and the process of getting someone vaccinated. It’s not just ‘register here,’ it often takes someone to answer questions — especially in light of all the confusing information about vaccines like the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.” 

The administering of that vaccine was put on pause out of caution after a few cases where people experienced blood clots after getting the shot, though health experts have said such cases are extremely rare and marginal in the wider scope of how many people received the shot and experienced no health difficulties at all. 

“What we don’t hear about is the millions and tens of millions of successful vaccinations that are administered. What we do hear about, unfortunately, are there very few people with significant side effects,” Boden-Albala said. 

“What I’m more concerned about is larger mistrust of science and vaccine development and putting some kind of political spin on our mass vaccination campaign — it’s not a matter of politics, but lives,” Boden-Albala said. 

Meanwhile, Orange County’s hospitalizations stayed the same since Wednesday.

As of Thursday, 110 people were hospitalized, with 22 in intensive care units — a decrease by one since the day before — according to the county Health Care Agency. 

The virus has now killed 4,910 people — nine times as many residents than the flu kills on a yearly average.

COVID deaths 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.

Last year, more than 24,400 OC residents died, according to the latest 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.

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