Coronavirus cases are rising throughout Orange County and the surrounding region due to a combination of stalled vaccination rates, the Delta variant and an abrupt statewide reopening, local experts say. 

While the increases aren’t as severe as the waves last Summer or Winter, the daily cases and positivity rate has been steadily increasing over the past month. 

Yet the increase in positive case rates aren’t seen in the same light as previous waves, especially because at least 54% of Orange County’s residents are vaccinated, said Dr. Shruti Gohil, an infectious disease physician who treats patients in the critical care unit at UC Irvine Medical Center.

“So it should be half of the impact of the first time around we had,” Gohil said in a Thursday phone interview. “The main places we’re seeing surges is in the unvaccinated pockets of our country and that’s just no surprise.”  

As of Thursday, Orange County’s positivity rate was 3.9%, according to state public health data — the latest data available.

That’s a 1.4% increase to the rate since last week. 

The positivity rate is also more than double what Orange County Health Care Agency shows on its dashboard because the agency switched to weekly reporting a couple weeks ago — meaning it hasn’t been updated since Tuesday.

State public health officials reported 247 new confirmed virus cases Friday. 

While the metrics have increased, they’re still far below the roughly 17% positivity rate and an average of 3,400 new daily cases in December during the Winter wave.

Yet experts are still concerned about the rise because of the new, more contagious Delta variant that could rip through unvaccinated segments of residents. 

“Estimates are somewhere between 40 to 50%, even as high as 60% that the Delta variant is more transmissible than previous variants,” said Sanghyuk Shin, a UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert. 

Despite those spikes, fully vaccinated people shouldn’t worry too much, Shin said in a Tuesday phone interview. 

“For the data that I’ve seen for fully vaccinated, it still looks like it’s very effective. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact vaccine efficacy percentage because we’re not doing clinical trials. That said, it looks like it’s in the range of high 80%, low 90%. So it seems — roughly — fully vaccinated people are as protected against the Delta variant as with the prior variant.”

Sanghyuk Shin, a UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert. 

Gohil echoed Shin’s assessment.

“Of course everything that’s true for COVID regardless of vaccine status — all those things still apply,” She said in a Thursday phone interview. “You’re still at risk for transmitting the disease if you’re asymptomatic, but if you’re vaccinated it’s much much lower.” 

The two infectious disease experts also said vaccinations have largely stalled out and public health officials should put more efforts into the vaccine campaign.

Now, the case increases are starting to show up in a slow rise of hospitalizations — something that usually happens about two weeks out from case increases.

The trend also comes roughly a month after the June 15 statewide reopening, which saw an end to most pandemic restrictions like limiting how many people can go inside businesses and no more masks for fully vaccinated people in most settings — something that businesses and the County of Orange have been struggling with.

[Read about mask enforcement struggles here & here]

As of Friday, there were 117 people hospitalized, including 34 in intensive care units, according to statewide hospital data.

When the state reopened and shrugged off nearly all pandemic restrictions June 15, there were 54 people hospitalized, including 13 in intensive care units throughout OC.

Gohil said an overwhelming majority of Orange County’s hospitalized residents are unvaccinated.

“The vaccine works really, really well for the original strain and it’s working really well for the Delta strain right now. The majority of people getting super sick in the hospital right now, they’re the ones who are unvaccinated.”

Dr. Shruti Gohil, an infectious disease physician at UC Irvine Medical Center.

Like the other experts, Gohil doesn’t expect the recent increases to resemble anything like the past two waves. 

She also noted the cases have been steadily increasing “like clockwork” since the July 4 weekend.

“The dismissal of masks and partially vaccinated communities — it just couldn’t be less than a perfect recipe for resurgence,” Gohil said. “If we’re unvaccinated and we don’t mask, then we’re going to see transmission. After all this time, that shouldn’t be surprising news to anybody.”

Gohil and Shin said it’s time policymakers take a hard look at reinstating some of the pandemic restrictions. 

“The people getting COVID at the highest rates are people who don’t really have the option of working from home. I think there needs to be more done to support these workers,” Shin said. 

Frontline workers — like retail, food and agriculture workers — have been hit hardest during the pandemic, especially those living in overcrowded housing

Locally, the Latino community has taken the brunt of the virus. 

Latinos make up 35% of Orange County’s residents, but have 47% of cases and 38% of deaths, according to the OC Health Care Agency.

In comparison, white people make up nearly 37% of residents, have almost 25% of cases and nearly 38% of deaths. 

Vladimir Minin, a biostatistician at UC Irvine who’s been closely tracking Orange County’s case metrics since the pandemic began, said it’s nearly impossible to tell where the numbers could lead because of a combination of vaccines and natural immunity in the community.

“I don’t think I can kind of forecast the same way we did in the Fall,” Minin said in a Tuesday interview. “We will definitely see an increase for the next, I would say at least four weeks — that’s my guess … human behavior in the next couple of weeks will play a huge role.” 

Meanwhile, Shin said the abrupt end to most pandemic restrictions last month and OC Health Care Agency’s switch from daily reporting to weekly reporting of virus metrics sends the wrong message to people.

“That’s been a failure of public health and leaders — that we’re giving the people the wrong message that the pandemic is over. Nobody is actually saying that, per se, but that’s the message given when you say the mask mandate is lifted, you don’t have to report daily cases, you don’t have to socially distance — we’re not giving people the information that they need.” 

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

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