Orange County’s spiking coronavirus trends are beginning to resemble the wave last Summer, due to the more contagious Delta variant, county public health officials say.
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“We’re already mirroring what we saw in the first surge. The hope is that we don’t mirror what we saw in the Winter,” said deputy OC Health Officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong at a Tuesday news conference.
The trends also come as OC officials grapple with virus outbreaks and increasing cases throughout the county workforce — including pushback from sheriff and firefighter unions on vaccine mandates.
Chinsio-Kwong said she expects hospitalizations to peak in early September.
OC Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau said he thinks the daily new virus cases have peaked and might start dropping in the coming days.
“So I think we’re pretty stable now,” Chau said during Tuesday’s news conference. “I am confident to say that [we’re] probably reaching our peak now — that plateau — and hopefully we’ll begin to drop.”
Chau and Chinsio-Kwong both said the Delta variant has been sending people to hospitals faster than the previous strains due to the new mutation’s higher viral load.
“The Delta variant is very virulent. So people ended up getting more severe (symptoms) quicker,” Chau said.
As of Tuesday, 549 people were hospitalized, including 126 in intensive care units, according to the OC Health Care Agency.
That’s the most number of people hospitalized since late February, when the county was coming out of the Winter wave that slammed OC and put roughly 2,200 people in hospitals at its January peak.
Last Summer’s peak saw roughly 725 people hospitalized in late July.
But the virus trends noted by public health officials Tuesday come just as classrooms throughout OC are reopening.
Chau said he expects a case uptick in children as schools reopen.
“I’m predicting that we’ll probably see a surge in the younger kids — the 0 to 18 years,” Chau said.“We’re not out of the woods for children because we’re bringing children back into school settings now.”
Children’s cases have already exceeded last Summer’s counts, Chau said, pointing to the June 15 statewide reopening that saw an end to nearly all pandemic mandates.
“We already surpassed the number last Summer and I think it’s because June 15 happened,” he said, adding that the reopening gave children more chances to get out of the house.
At least 1.94 million county residents have been fully vaccinated, according to the county Health Care Agency.
Roughly 90% of the people hospitalized are unvaccinated, county public health officials say.
Chau said the vaccinated residents who are hospitalized have weakened immune systems or a host of other health issues.
There’s a stark gap in case rates between vaccinated and unvaccinated residents.
Fully vaccinated residents are catching the virus at 7.4 cases per 100,000 people.
But unvaccinated people are catching the virus more than five times that rate.
The case rate for unvaccinated people is 40.1 per 100,000 residents.
OC Officials Wrestle With Vaccinating County Workforce
At a Monday news conference, Supervisor Katrina Foley said about 50% of the county’s 18,000 employees have self-attested that they’ve been vaccinated.
There are also numerous outbreaks at county workplaces.
The OC Social Services Agency continues to grapple with COVID outbreaks and a steady rise in cases amongst its employees.
“So we do have a long way to go,” Foley said.
Current state public health orders mandate state employees and medical workers prove they’re fully vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.
Teachers and other school employees fall under the same vaccine and testing mandates.
Some OC Sheriff’s deputies working in jails and the courts also fall under those mandates.
But the union representing deputies, the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, is pushing back some aspects of the health order.
“Both the OCSD and the County have made it clear that failure to comply with the Order will result in discipline, up to and including termination. AOCDS strongly opposes discipline, especially termination, for failure to comply with these forced measures,” AOCDS President Juan Viramontes said in an Aug. 11 email to union members.
The union is also considering a lawsuit.
“Our legal team is contacting and working with other organizations to determine the viability of filing a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of the Order. We will continue to gather information in order to determine the best path for our members going forward,” Viramontes said.
And the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, which represents OC Fire Authority employees, also pushed back against vaccine mandates.
“At this time, the Orange County Fire Authority does not have a mandatory vaccination policy in place. As President of the Orange County Professional Firefighters, I want to make it very clear the position … is that we do not support the violation of your personal freedom of choice by requiring vaccinations to our firefighters,” reads an Aug. 12 letter from union president Todd Baldridge to union members.
In a Tuesday phone interview, Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun said the vaccine and testing mandate would apply to roughly 1,500 of the department’s 3,800 employees.
She also said the department doesn’t have information on how many sheriff’s deputies and employees are fully vaccinated, noting that information is held at a subdivision of the county Health Care Agency.
County officials apparently don’t have data on how many employees in each department have been vaccinated, according to answers to a Voice of OC record request earlier this month.
OC officials haven’t said much about the unions’ push back.
At a Monday news conference, Charles Barfield, general manager for the Orange County Employees Association, raised concerns about sharp rises in cases at both the OC Social Services Agency and the Sheriff’s Department.
“About 31% of the cases are in SSA,” Barfield said. “But the Sheriff’s Department, which is smaller, has 43% of the positive cases over the past month and a half.”
County officials have struggled with the masking issue and vaccine self attestation concerns for months.
State guidelines let local governments and businesses implement self attestation practices, a vaccine verification system or simply requiring everyone to wear masks.
County officials use the self attestation process on residents visiting county buildings and the county workforce.
Basically, if someone enters a county building without a mask, county officials consider that a self attestation the person is fully vaccinated.
County employees have to fill out a form saying they’re fully vaccinated if they want to drop their masks indoors.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Chau said all public employees should consider the communities around them.
“I strongly believe that people who do public services need to put the health and wellness of the community first.”
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio