Ambulance wait times outside hospitals are rising to levels not seen since the worst of the Winter coronavirus surge, county officials are warning as coronavirus cases continue increasing from the more contagious Delta variant.

A dozen hospitals closed themselves off to new patients at various points during a 24-hour period, a trend that’s worsening, county health officials wrote in a message to first responders this week.

“This is not sustainable. We have not witnessed increases in ambulance related numbers of this magnitude since the worst days of the second surge in December of 2020 and January of 2021,” wrote Dr. Carl Schultz, the county’s medical director for emergency services, on Aug. 4.

During the Winter wave, many hospitals had to cancel surgeries — leading to a delay in health care for non-virus patients.

[Read: OC Hospitals Urged to Trigger Surge Plans, Halt Elective Surgeries as Coronavirus Hospitalizations Soar]

Now, it could threaten emergency room admittance. 

“Should this situation persist, it potentially puts the health and safety of those seeking ambulance transport to [emergency rooms] at risk,” Schultz wrote.

He also said “taking no action is not an option,” and he might consider forcing hospitals to take patients — regardless of how full they are.

“Should these times persist at their current level or get worse, I will consider additional directives, including eliminating ambulance diversion and requesting action by the Orange County Public Health Officer,” he wrote.

[Click here to read the warning from county emergency medical officials.]

In an abrupt press conference Friday afternoon convened by County Supervisor Katrina Foley, OC’s deputy health officer, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, said 90% of people hospitalized for coronavirus in Orange County are unvaccinated.

“The majority of the hospitalizations are among those who are unvaccinated,” Chinsio-Kwong said.

State public health officials are urging all people — regardless of vaccination status — to wear masks in public indoor places. 

Some counties, like Los Angeles, took it a step further and mandated indoor masks for everyone.

OC public health officials aren’t considering a mask mandate at this time.

“There is no mandate when it comes to masking or closures. Right now we are closely monitoring our hospital capacities and our numbers,” she added, urging people to get vaccinated.

In the last week alone, the number of average daily confirmed cases has nearly doubled, Chinsio-Kwong said.

Orange County, along with the state, has seen a major increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations since the state lifted nearly all remaining pandemic on June 15.

“We are seeing a rise [in daily vaccinations], but when we actually look at the overall numbers [across] the county, we are plateaued,” Chinsio-Kwong said.

Orange County sits at an 8.6% positivity rate as of Friday, up from about 1% when the reopening took effect in mid June.

There are 454 people currently hospitalized – up from 55 people hospitalized as of mid June – with 71 Covid patients currently in intensive care units, according to hospital data reported to the state.

That’s more people hospitalized than all nearby counties except for Los Angeles. 

Positivity rates across the state have steadily been increasing since the June 15 statewide reopening, when nearly all pandemic restrictions were lifted. 

“Vaccines are very effective,” Chinsio-Kwong said at Friday’s news conference. “That’s why we’re not experiencing as high a hospitalization rate as we were expecting, although it’s very high.” 

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

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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