Coronavirus cases across Orange County’s coastal cities are surging, with some areas sitting at more than twice the positivity rate of Santa Ana or Anaheim — which were major hotspots during the last two waves. 

“Basically northern and central Orange County is below 5% but if you look at Costa Mesa and all beach cities — with no exceptions — they are surging,” said Vladimir Minin, a UC Irvine biostatistician who’s been tracking local virus trends since the pandemic began.

He added, “Now all of them are in the same bad place — all along the coast.”

But, the increases are more pronounced in coastal areas, Minin said.

“There’s something like 50% more transmission in beach cities,” Minin said in a Tuesday phone interview, “which kind of surprised me this week — it’s striking.” 

For example, the positivity rate in Newport Beach is 11%, Dana Point sits at 9.1% and Laguna Beach has an 8.5% rate, according to data from the county Health Care Agency.

In comparison, West Anaheim sits at a 4.9% positivity rate and most of Santa Ana sits below a 5% rate. 

Just before the June 15 statewide reopening, the countywide rate was hovering around 1%. 

Now, the countywide rate is 4.9%, according to the county Health Care Agency.

But state data pegs Orange County at a 6.9% positivity rate.

Minin also found that inland cities throughout South Orange County are seeing an uptick in positivity rates. He tweets daily updated graphs on the trends.

The increases  also comes as the rest of OC — along with the state — is seeing an uptick in virus transmission, which experts largely attribute to the Delta variant

Some counties, like LA, have reinstituted mask mandates, while the state is requiring all of its employees and all health care workers to prove they’re vaccinated or submit to a weekly testing program.

On Monday, the Orange County Superior Court mandated masks for everyone for at least two weeks.

UCI epidemiologist and public health expert, Andrew Noymer, said asymptomatic cases could be driving some of the positivity rate increases, but hospitalizations are the telling metric of the county’s overall situation.

“Hospitalizations are really kind of the lodestar and it shows you that we have an infection that’s serious enough,” Noymer said in a Wednesday interview. 

As of Wednesday, 215 people were hospitalized, including 56 intensive care units, according to both the county Health Care Agency and state data.

A month ago, 56 people were hospitalized — a nearly four-fold increase. 

Noymer said coastal cities’ infection rates may stem from residents not taking the pandemic seriously enough. 

A view from Newport Beach Pier on July 28, 2021. Credit: LUPITA HERRERA, Voice of OC

“Especially in Huntington Beach,” Noymer said. “Do you think that restaurant would be doing that if there wasn’t a market for it?” 

Noymer was referring to Basilico’s Pasta e Vino, which has been in virtually constant defiance of public health orders during the pandemic. 

Most recently, the Huntington Beach restaurant announced it is requiring that customers prove they are unvaccinated — on top of prohibiting masks — according to the OC Register.

One San Clemente bar and grill defied public health orders last year when all bars and restaurants were ordered closed by state public health officials.

Minin said the increase in OC’s coastal cities — and Costa Mesa — could stem from the nightlife scene and tourism. 

“It’s also human activity — restaurants and people going out in these places more and congregating indoors more because of its tourist attractions. The beaches are there, the bars are there,” he said. 

Minin also noted that there could be vaccination gaps between the surging coastal communities and North and Central OC cities.

But, he said the county’s data on geographical vaccination rates is too unreliable to paint a clear picture.

“The vaccination data on the zip code level is not totally reliable, unfortunately. Every time I look at it, I find a definite example of the denominator being incorrect,” he said. “So I don’t know how much to trust the fine grain spatial data.”

Meanwhile, the same increasing virus trends have been playing out across the state. 

“It’s the Delta variant, pure and simple. It’s more transmissible,” Noymer said. 

Because of that, coupled with vaccine efforts stalling out over the past few weeks, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday that 246,000 state workers and more than 2 million health care workers will be required to either show proof of vaccination status at work or undergo a weekly testing program. 

[Read: Health Care Workers and State Employees Will Have to Prove COVID Vaccine Status]

The mandate is expected to take effect by mid-August.

It could mark the start of more businesses requiring the same thing of their employees. 

“We hope this … will lead others to replicate this example in the private sector,” Newsom said at a Monday news conference. “You’re seeing that  in private businesses and enterprises … we encourage that — encourage that — in the private sector across the spectrum.” 

A restaurant places signs at the entrance of their establishment instructing patrons to wear a mask. July 27. 2021. Credit: LUPITA HERRERA, Voice of OC

On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also implemented a vaccine and testing mandate for city employees.

Some California cities began following suit shortly after Newsom’s announcement.

The cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach will also require their employees to prove they’re vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. 

On Tuesday, the California State University system announced all students and faculty will have to be vaccinated before returning to campus. 

“The current surge in COVID cases due to the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant is an alarming new factor that we must consider as we look to maintain the health and well-being of students, employees and visitors to our campuses this fall,” CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro said in a Tuesday news release.

And the California Department of Public Health issued new guidelines Wednesday, urging everyone to wear masks indoors — regardless of vaccination status. 

[Read: State Health Department Recommends Masks for Everyone Indoors]

A couple weeks ago, Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health mandated all the countys’ residents wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. 

“Community transmission of COVID-19 has increased in LA County. The risk for COVID-19 exposure and infection will continue until more people are vaccinated. It is important for everyone to help slow the spread of the virus by wearing masks indoors,” states the department on its website.

Minin — along with local epidemiologists — says it’s difficult to make a projection on the trend because a combination of natural immunity, fully vaccinated residents and the Delta variant has thrown nearly all previous calculation formulas off.

Noymer’s unsure of what type of surge Orange County will see. 

“I don’t want to say it will be like the peak we had in January, because the peak will be less because we have vaccination now. But this could be the start of a substantial wave or this could be a little wavelet like we had last July and there will be a Fall wave that will be significant. I don’t know, honestly, which of the two it is going to be. I don’t think anybody does,” he said.

During the Winter wave — when over 2,200 were eventually hospitalized  at one point — the county’s positivity rate was as high as 20% and one in four people were testing positive in the poorest pockets of Anaheim, Garden Grove, Westminster and Santa Ana.

Noymer and his epidemiological colleagues say the increasing vaccine uptake is the best ticket out of the current Delta variant situation. 

It’s a sentiment echoed by Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state’s Health and Human Services Department. 

“I’m certain that people who were saying, ‘Ah I’m going to wait a little longer to get vaccinated,’” Ghaly said at a Monday news conference. 

“The Delta variant has really changed the game of it. This is not — as somebody said — your grandmother’s COVID any more. It’s not the COVID we dealt with a year ago. This is a very different beast.”  

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

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