A nurse preps a dose of the Moderna Vaccine during a community clinic in Santa Ana. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

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Orange County’s COVID vaccination rates have been slowly climbing — while new virus cases have stabilized — but county public health officials warn it’s too early to tell if the surge is over yet.

“So technically it looks like we’re at a peak, but we don’t want to make a mistake and get all excited,” said OC Deputy Health Officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong at a Wednesday news conference convened by county Supervisor Katrina Foley. 

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Foley displayed a graph at the news conference showing that more than half of people 12 and older in OC have had at least one dose of the vaccine so far. 

The graph showed Irvine with some of the highest vaccination rates in the county, while San Clemente has some of the lowest rates.

According to two different data maps from the OC Health Care Agency, less than half of San Clemente’s residents younger than 65 have been vaccinated, while an overwhelming majority of seniors have been vaccinated

Those same maps show roughly more than 60% of Irvine residents less than 65 years old have been vaccinated, while an overwhelming majority of the city’s seniors have been vaccinated.

More than 1.9 million people throughout OC have been fully vaccinated, according to the county Health Care Agency.

Despite the increased vaccinations and relatively stable virus trends, Chinsio-Kwong said people still need to wear masks.

“We need to take this with a grain of salt and just be more precautious”

OC Deputy Health Officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong

As of Wednesday, the county’s overall positivity rate still sat at 8%, according to the OC Health Care Agency.

Hospitalizations have somewhat leveled off over the past week, with 573 people hospitalized, including 129 in intensive care units. 

That’s up from 322 people hospitalized when the month began. 

“Even though there’s a steadying of numbers, our hospitals are challenged to care for people,” Chinsio-Kwong said. 

She also noted there’s been an uptick in daily vaccinations in recent weeks. 

Despite the vaccines, case rates and hospitalizations mirror the wave from last Summer. 

But it’s a different environment now, Chinsio-Kwong said. 

“The difference here though is we were on lockdown (last year). Everybody was at home. Even though we didn’t have a vaccine, the transmission rates were reduced,” she said. “We are dealing with a more highly transmissible Delta variant … what we are dealing with everybody is out about … so that’s what I see as a difference between the surges.” 

She also said those numbers could go back up because students began going back to classrooms this month. 

[Read: OC COVID-19 Cases Rising Just as Students Head Back to Classrooms]

County health officials have said more than 90% of the people hospitalized were unvaccinated and some of the vaccinated patients — known as breakthrough infections — have existing chronic health conditions the virus exacerbates. 

At a news conference convened by Foley earlier this month, UC Irvine public health expert and epidemiologist, Andrew Noymer, said breakthrough infections need to be discussed more. 

“I think it’s really unfortunate that breakthrough cases have been downplayed as much as they have been. Because everyone knows that there are breakthrough cases happening and instead of pretending they’re not, we should just be candid and say breakthrough cases happen and they’re overwhelmingly much midler than an infection in a non-vaccinated person”

Andrew Noymer, UC Irvine public health expert and epidemiologist

National, state and local data shows the virus spreading throughout unvaccinated people far more commonly than fully vaccinated people. 

Locally, nearly 49 virus cases are being detected out of 100,000 people, according to the county Health Care Agency.

In comparison, fully vaccinated people are catching the virus at 7.8 cases per 100,000 people.

Chinsio-Kwong said there’s been 41 virus deaths from June 1 to Aug. 23. 

“These deaths could have been prevented with vaccination,” she said. “41 lives could’ve been saved is what I’m interpreting … my understanding is that these were likely all unvaccinated.” 

The virus has now killed a total of 5,190 people. 

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.

Meanwhile, vaccine verification requirements are becoming commonplace in some areas, like the entertainment industry. 

[Read: Major Orange County Arts Orgs to Require Masks and Full COVID-19 Vaccination for the Foreseeable Future]

Last week, state Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragón, issued a health order requiring proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test for people wanting to go to indoor large events with 1,000 people or more.

“The Delta variant has proven to be highly transmissible, making it easier to spread in large crowds where people are near each other for long periods of time,” Aragón said in a news release last week.

Numerous colleges and universities are also requiring students and staff to be fully vaccinated for the Fall semester. 

Foley said the mixture of mandates — some from the state and from colleges — could boost the vaccination rates.

“We’re going to start to see a lot more young people get vaccinated because of the colleges opening up and mandating vaccinations,” Foley said,. “I think that the mandates regarding universities and colleges, as well as health care workers, social workers, all of the medical providers — that’s going to get us to where we need to go.”

Chinsio-Kwong said businesses and employers who do require proof of vaccinations should use digital verification as much as possible to avoid the counterfeit CDC vaccine cards that are being sold online. 

“I think the best way, honestly, is a digital version of a validation. Which is usually a QR code and is easily accessed by anyone who received a vaccination here in California,” she said, adding that medical provider apps could also provide the same type of verification. 

The virus could be here for a long time, Chinsio-Kwong said. 

“All scientific information is pointing to COVID, coronavirus is here to stay,” she said. 

She also said the vaccine numbers need to keep increasing and safety measures followed to buy scientists more time to study the virus and develop more safeguards against outbreaks. 

“Hopefully we don’t have a new emerging variant that is more dangerous than what we’ve seen.” 

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

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