Orange County saw 1,213 new coronavirus cases Wednesday — a reversal of relatively lower daily increases over the past week — just as schools reopen and the Delta variant is fueling a surge.
That kind of spike hasn’t been seen since late January, when the county was coming out of the deadly Winter surge that saw more than 2,000 people die from the virus.
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But that number could stem from a backlog of test results, said UC Irvine biostatistician Vladimir Minin.
“It does look like there’s been more delays in processing testing results,” Minin said in a Wednesday phone interview.
He said last week there was a jam up in test reporting from the state, causing a backlog of positive tests to flood in.
Something similar could be happening with Wednesday’s new cases, Minin said.
“The positivity looked better before this batch of testing that was dumped on us — but it still looks okay, looks like it’s declining, or at least plateauing.
At a Wednesday news conference, deputy OC health officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong also said the jump in new cases could be from delays in either reporting or lab processing.
After tracking the local trends since the pandemic kicked off last March, Chinsio-Kwong said officials will have to monitor data over the coming days before determining if there’s an increasing trend or not.
“We see ebbs and flows — so you have to wait and see if it’s really a pattern or just a day to day ebb and flow,” she said.
UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, Sanghyuk Shin, said he doesn’t see a noticeable decline in trends soon.
“I don’t foresee that we’ll see a significant decline in trends anytime soon, especially with the schools opening up,” Shin said in a Wednesday phone interview.
He also said the Delta variant could be making unvaccinated people sicker than previous variants.
“I have seen a few epidemiological studies suggest that on average, it tends to be more severe disease,” Shin said, adding that more research needs to be done on the issue.
“Comparing people who have COVID due to Delta versus Alpha or prior variants, we’re seeing that there’s a higher risk of hospitalization and more severe outcomes for people who are infected with Delta. It’s still kind of a work in progress,” he said.
As of Wednesday, Orange County’s positivity rate was 7.9%, down from 8.2% at the beginning of the month, according to state data.
Wednesday also saw 568 people hospitalized, including 125 in intensive care units, according to the OC Health Care Agency.
Public health officials say more than 90% of hospitalized people are unvaccinated.
Chinsio-Kwong said there’s nuances when looking at fully vaccinated people who are hospitalized.
“It doesn’t mean all of those hospitalizations are from COVID illness,” she said, adding that hospital officials may have detected the virus through routine testing in a patient who was there for a different procedure.
County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau previously told Voice of OC that many of the fully vaccinated people who are hospitalized with coronavirus symptoms have weakened immune systems stemming from an array of chronic illnesses, like diabetes or cancer.
The recent case increases and rise in hospitalizations also come as schools throughout OC are either reopening their classrooms or getting ready to bring students back on campuses.
Shin said the universal indoor mask mandates at schools — coupled with vaccine and testing requirements for staff — should help mitigate some risks.
But, Shin said, he still expects to see cases from school reopenings.
“All of those measures will help for sure. We just don’t know to what extent with Delta being as transmissible as it,” Shin said. “My hunch is that it will not be sufficient and we will definitely see outbreaks in schools.”
Meanwhile, vaccine verifications are becoming more commonplace through a series of state mandates.
Beginning Sept. 20, people have to show they’re either fully vaccinated or tested negative for the virus within the past three days before going into large indoor events with more than 1,000 people.
It essentially lowers the threshold on an existing mandate that requires proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test before people can go to large indoor events with more than 5,000 people.
Hospital and health care workers throughout the state will need to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30.
School staff and state employees will have to either prove they’re fully vaccinated, or undergo a weekly testing regiment.
Most recently, Orange Countys’ largest police and fire unions raised concerns about such requirements being imposed on Sheriff Deputies and firefighters.
The vaccine and testing mandate would apply to roughly 1,500 of the OC Sheriff Department’s 3,800 employees.
The mandate currently doesn’t apply to firefighters.
Since the pandemic began, the virus has killed 5,165 OC residents, according to the county Health Care Agency.
That’s almost five times more people than the flu kills in two years, on average.
Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio