Local public health experts say they expect a winter surge in Orange County, especially following what one considers troubling new data on the new variant, Omicron, from the United Kingdom and South Africa.

“The more data that I see, the more troubling it is,” said Sanghyuk Shin, a UC Irvine epidemiologist who’s been tracking Omicron spread in Europe and South Africa. 

“Every indication suggests that we could be headed into a very bad COVID winter. First, driven by Delta and then Omicron, I think, is going to take over very rapidly and potentially create a huge surge across the US,” he said in a Friday phone interview.

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Shin said epidemiological data from the UK suggests the new variant spreads much faster than Delta. 

“The data that I’m seeing from the UK suggests that Omicron is doubling every maybe two or three days, which is a really, really exceptionally fast level of spread. For example, the initial doubling time for Delta was 11 days. But it looks like with Omicron, it’s spreading much faster.”

Sanghyuk Shin, a UC Irvine epidemiologist

Researchers just found Omicron in virus cases from South Africa in late November.

Shin’s colleague, epidemiologist Andrew Noymer said Omicron has cemented an upcoming winter surge.

“These predictions are never a lock. The thing I think Omicron does is it kind of removes a lot of the doubt — there will be a winter wave. I was saying there was going to be a winter wave before, but if there was any doubt, that doubt is now gone,” Noymer said in a brief Friday phone interview.

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After some slight increases in late November, Orange County’s positivity rate seems to have plateaued at the moment.

As of Friday, OC’s virus positivity rate was 3.2%, according to state data. 

Last December and January, thousands of people were testing positive daily, the county’s positivity rate was over 20% and more than 2,200 people were hospitalized at one point.

Hospitalizations have been holding steady at around 200 since the summer surge earlier this year.

As of Friday, 194 people were hospitalized, including 60 residents in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.

But the agency has consistently been reporting new deaths. 

The virus has now killed 5,814 people — more than five times the flu kills on a two-year average.

​​Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.

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Yet the pandemic landscape in OC and the state is much different this upcoming winter compared to last year, now that people have access to vaccines.

Many of the state’s pandemic protocols are now gone, like universal mask wearing, limiting the number of people inside businesses — coupled with the reopening of bars, restaurants, concert halls, conventions, nightclubs and a host of other businesses.

Shin said all that contributes to fueling a potentially large winter surge.  

“I do think that we need to take this seriously, starting now. If anything we have learned on how this virus operates — it’s that any kind of mitigation, the earlier the better. There is really no evidence that suggests that Omicron is going to be mild, there’s no evidence that it is less virulent.”

Sanghyuk Shin, a UC Irvine epidemiologist

Orange County’s deputy Health Officer, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, said Omicron hasn’t yet been detected in the county.

Cases have been found in San Francisco and Los Angeles County. 

Wastewater testing in Merced found Omicron Nov. 25, the day after the variant was first discovered in South Africa.

Chinsio-Kwong said hospitals can expect an increase of COVID patients soon. 

“I think it’s in everybody’s best interest to take this seriously … the biggest question is how this will impact our hospitals. I would expect at minimum we’re going to see the same rise in hospitalizations as we did in August,” she said during a Friday news briefing.

“Unfortunately our hospitals are going to have to brace themselves for a very busy season.” 

Orange County’s deputy Health Officer, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong

Yet county public health officials apparently aren’t thinking about issuing any types of mandates on masks or business limitations soon. 

“In terms of mandates, I can’t say right now if we’re going into a mandate,” said Chinsio-Kwong, emphasizing the official preference in Orange County for education and outreach as opposed to mandates. 

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Shin said the winter surge has the potential to be as bad as last year’s winter wave because just under 20% of OC’s 3.2 million residents have received a booster, coupled with questions on how Omicron can impact vaccinated people. 

“There’s multiple studies that suggest our vaccines are going to be less effective in preventing infection. So we’re seeing evidence that our neutralizing antibodies that the vaccines produce are less able in preventing infections,” he said, adding that booster shots can help stem severe cases that send people to hospitals.

“Compared to previous variants, most likely Omicron is more likely to cause infection for those who have received the vaccine,” he said, adding that new data suggests three doses of Pfizer vaccine seem to be around 70% effective against a COVID infection.

Public health experts like Shin are urging residents to wear masks indoors and to avoid large, indoor crowds as much as possible. 

“Everybody’s sick of public health measures, but unfortunately the virus doesn’t really care about that. I think that we really need to put all options on the table to flatten the curve,” he said.

Chinsio-Kwong also called on residents to start masking up again. 

“We all need to take precautions,” she said.

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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