Another COVID-19 winter wave has hit Orange County in the middle of the holiday season, with positivity rates quickly increasing and hospitalizations doubling in roughly a week. 

“Omicron is clearly here. And the kind of rapid increase that we’re seeing, it’s unprecedented. In fact, I’ve been doing infectious disease research for over 20 years now and I haven’t seen any infection spread as rapidly as the Omicron variant is spreading now,” said UC Irvine epidemiologist Sanghyuk Shin in a Thursday phone interview.

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The sudden surge in people being hospitalized for the virus forced the OC Health Care Agency’s Emergency Medical Services to suspend ambulance diversion beginning Thursday morning.

That means hospitals largely can’t redirect ambulances and will be forced to take ambulance patients, regardless of how full they are. 

“In the last 8 days, COVID hospitalizations have doubled from 188 to 376 in-patients. Diversion hours have increased to over 200 per day … Should this continue, the capabilities of [emergency services] providers to rapidly respond to emergencies could be placed in jeopardy,” reads a Wednesday order from Dr. Carl Schultz, medical director for the county’s emergency services division.

The order stipulates only one ambulance can be held at a hospital for more than an hour, waiting to offload a patient. If a second ambulance arrives during that time and is waiting for more than 15 minutes, the crew can put the patient on a cot in the emergency room or drive them to another hospital.

“This action will be repeated each time an ambulance crew is held in the [emergency department] for more than 60 minutes and a second crew is held for more than 15 minutes. With this action in place, no [emergency room] should be holding more than one ambulance for more than 60 minutes,” reads the order.

Hospitals throughout OC were forced to take ambulance patients during the last winter wave.

[Read: Coronavirus Spikes Force OC Emergency Services To Continue Making Hospitals Take Ambulance Patients]

As of Thursday, 420 people were hospitalized, including 86 in intensive care units, according to the OC Health Care Agency.

That’s more than double the number of people hospitalized compared to last week.

Data from the county Health Care Agency shows 87% of people hospitalized are unvaccinated.

Shin said that while some data shows Omicron may cause milder illness, he cautioned that it could stem from an array of factors. 

“I think it’s primarily because it’s been spreading among younger people, people who are vaccinated,” Shin said, adding that Omicron “might cause less severe disease compared to Delta, but not dramatically … Omicron is clearly capable of causing severe illness or death.”

Shin also said there’s mounting data showing that fully vaccinated people – including booster shots – are well protected against severe illness.

But, they can still spread the disease, he said, adding that Omicron can still severely impact people with underlying medical conditions and seniors. 

“We need to start thinking that we ourselves can be part of the chain of transmission that leads to somebody else eventually getting infected and having really terrible outcomes. The risk should always be not just the risk to me, but people who could get infected through me,” Shin said.

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Orange County’s positivity rate is also spiking to levels seen during last year’s winter wave. 

While the county Health Care Agency clocks the COVID positivity rate at 6.5%, state data  shows the rate is 17.1%.

UC Irvine biostatistician, Vladimir Minin, calculated the positivity rate at 12%.

In a Wednesday tweet, Minin noted the positivity rate doubled between Dec. 20 and 24 “almost at full Omicron speed.” 

Shin said he’s unsure exactly what’s causing the positivity rate discrepancies, but expects that “in the near future they’ll converge to similar rates.” 

The virus has now killed 5,890 people in OC, according to the county Health Care Agency.

That’s 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.

“Close to 6,000 people died in Orange County – every death happened because they were infected by somebody, who was infected by somebody, who was infected by somebody else. So it’s this chain of infections that eventually leads to vulnerable people, who wind up dying.”

UC Irvine epidemiologist Sanghyuk Shin

County health officials found OC’s first Omicron case roughly two weeks ago, according to a Dec. 17 news release.

“The Omicron variant is highly transmissible and has already been identified in the United States and many countries around the world,” said Dr. Matthew Zahn, deputy county health officer in the news release. 

Zahn, who leads the county’s Communicable Disease Control department, noted it was only a matter of time before Omicron hit OC. 

“We had anticipated that Omicron would arrive here in Orange County. It’s important that we all do our part by following public health guidance to protect our loved ones and neighbors, especially those who are most vulnerable, during the holiday season,” he said in the news release.

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Meanwhile, county officials are offering residents free at-home test kits that can be ordered online. 

The tests aren’t the rapid tests, with OC health officials noting a nationwide shortage of such kits in a Thursday news release.

In the news release, OC Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau said the county currently faces a risky virus situation. 

“The risk of catching and spreading COVID-19 is extremely high during this time as more people are in close contact with one another. We ask that you please continue to exercise precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including limiting or avoid gathering with others if possible.”

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


Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Infections | Hospitalizations & Deaths | City-by-City Data

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