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Coronavirus hospitalizations in Orange County are starting to trend younger, experts say, due to the more contagious Delta variant and lower vaccination rates amongst younger residents.

“In the peak of the pandmeic in January, our average age of the COVID admission was 64 years of age. Currently our average age is 46 years of age,” said Dr. Timothy Korber, medical director of emergency medical services at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital.

Korber, during a Thursday news conference convened by county Supervisor Katrina Foley, largely attributed the age shift in hospitalizations to the vaccine.

“I think the main reason that occurred is that early on we pushed as a country to try to vaccinate people who are older,” he said. 

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Yet there’s still no official breakdown of hospitalizations by age from either state or county public health officials.

There’s sizeable vaccination rate gaps between seniors and younger people, according to shot distribution data from the county Health Care Agency. 

For example, 18 to 24 year olds make up a little over 9% of OC’s residents, but have 6.3% of the overall shots. 

While 25 to 34 year olds make up over 14% of the population, the group only has 9.2% of vaccinations — the largest unvaccinated portion of residents in the county except for kids younger than 12, all of whom are ineligible for the shot.

The 25 to 34 year olds also have the largest share of overall cases at roughly 20% of OC’s total infections.

“What’s happening now is we’re seeing a more aggressive Delta variant that is hitting some of these younger people harder than the original variant was,” Korber said. “The vast majority of the cases we’re admitting to the hospital are unvaccinated, younger.”

People 35 to 44 years old make up 13% of residents, while receiving 9.4% of OC’s shots.

The gap is much smaller for older age groups. 

For instance, 65 to 74 year olds make up nearly 9% of OC’s population, and received almost 8% of the overall vaccines.

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“What’s happening is that we’ve done an excellent job of vaccinating seniors and even if they get a breakthrough case, they tend to not die,” said UC Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer in a Monday phone interview. 

Noymer, a public health expert, said the cases in younger people stem from lower vaccination rates coupled with the more contagious Delta variant. 

“I don’t think it’s necessarily more deadly at younger ages, I just think that more younger people are getting it and some of them will die, sadly,” he said.

It’s a trend Los Angeles County public health officials have also noticed.

According to data presented during a Thursday public update, Los Angeles County’s average age of hospitalization for unvaccinated people is 51, while fully vaccinated people are averaging 66 years old. 

“You can see that the median age of fully vaccinated people who are hospitalized is 15 years older than hospitalized people who are not fully vaccinated,” said LA County Health Officer Dr. Barbara Ferrer during the Thursday public briefing on pandemic trends

Like OC public health officials and local experts, Ferrer noted fully vaccinated people in hospitals are much more chronically ill than unvaccinated people.

“Those fully vaccinated people who were sick enough to require hospitalization were much more likely to … have chronic diseases,” Ferrer said. 

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Korber said vaccines significantly reduce chances of hospitalization and death. 

“You are 25 times less likely to be hospitalized if you get the vaccine. You’re 28 times less likely to die if you get the vaccine. We don’t have any treatment that matches anywhere near those numbers.”

Dr. Timothy Korber, medical director of emergency medical services at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital

Hospitalizations dipped on Monday, with 546 people hospitalized, including 139 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.

The virus has now killed 5,220 people, including 18 new deaths reported Monday. 

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.

Kober said there are a host of chronic health issues that complicate breakthrough infections, like type 2 diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and neurological issues.

Orange County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau said younger people are being hospitalized for the virus across the state.

“Most hospitals not only in Orange County, but across the state, have seen that there’s an age shift,” Chau said at a Friday news briefing.  “I think my colleague at Fountain Valley hospital is correct. It is generally people in their mid 30s to mid 40s — those are the age of the majority of people coming to the hospital.” 

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The new hospitalization trends are surfacing before the expected case bump from school reopenings. 

“I have a suspicion that we will see a rise in cases in our children before there is a plateau because really it is the community transmission that puts them at risk and when they come to school they’re going to take the virus with them,” Chau said.

A new CDC-funded study released earlier this month — which hasn’t been peer reviewed yet — found sending students to classrooms without masks and other safety measures could drastically increase odds of kids catching the virus.

“Without masking and testing, more than 75% of susceptible students become … infected within three months in all settings. With masking, this [value] decreases to 50% for “low” incoming protection settings,” reads the study.

Masking, layered with other measures like testing, significantly reduces chances of transmission to 22%, the study found. 

“Without interventions in place, the vast majority of susceptible students will become infected through the semester. Universal masking can reduce student infections by 26-78%, and biweekly testing along with masking reduces infections by another 50%,” the study concludes.

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Meanwhile, the county has seen an uptick in people getting vaccinated. 

[Read: OC Sees Increased COVID Vaccination Rates, But Danger Still Lingers]

The third wave might be plateauing, Chau said. 

But, he added, public health officials are still waiting to see if there’s a case bump from classroom reopenings.

OC’s deputy health officer, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, warned against jumping to any preliminary conclusions on the new cases and hospitalizations trends.

“It appears to be a flattening — because I don’t want to jump to that conclusion yet,” Chinsio-Kwong said at a news conference last Wednesday. “Schools also reopened and that can impact numbers in a week or two.” 

Noymer also voiced concerns about interpreting the new data without giving it more time to play out in the overall picture — especially as things have reopened, many activities require regular testing, which could be finding more asymptomatic cases.

“You also have to be a little bit careful in interpreting the test numbers and new cases,” Noymer said “Becauses some people may have to get tested for work or school, so the tests might skew younger.” 

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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