Orange County’s COVID-19 hospitalizations are steadily rising as the county’s hit it’s highest positivity rate of the pandemic so far, with one in four tests coming back positive for the virus. 

When asked during an abrupt Wednesday news conference on where the trends can take OC, county deputy Health Officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong offered reporters a stark assessment of the weeks to come. 

“All bets are off now,” she said. 

“There’s a potential that we’re going to at least hit the amount of hospitalizations and ICU admissions that we experienced with the most recent surge (last summer),” Chinsio-Kwong said.

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She also told reporters during the news conference, which was broadcast on Facebook Live by Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley, the new variant, Omicron, has the potential to put as many people in the hospital as last year’s winter wave, when nearly 2,200 people were hospitalized in OC. 

People have been increasingly going to the hospital since Christmas, with hospitalizations doubling between Christmas and New Years.

[Read: Orange County’s COVID Hospitalizations Double in a Week]

As of Thursday, 724 people were hospitalized, including 109 in intensive care units, according to state data

Chinsio-Kwong urged residents to stay away from hospitals if they don’t have severe COVID symptoms or other life-threatening illnesses, like stroke symptoms. 

“If the symptoms are not severe … first start with a virtual visit – save the emergency rooms, save the hospitals. Our hospitals and our ERs are full and they really need to focus their efforts on people who need to be seen in person.” 

County deputy health officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong

Orange County’s positivity rate is also the highest it’s been during the pandemic, so far. 

According to state data, the county sits at a 26.6% positivity rate as of Thursday.

On Thursday, OC Health Care Agency officials announced the county’s third pediatric COVID death.

“This is yet another somber reminder that we must continue to do everything we can to protect our loved ones, especially our little ones under 5 years of age who are not able to be vaccinated,” county Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau said in a Thursday news release.

In a phone interview last week, Dr. Lance Brunner, director of patient safety and quality at Kaiser OC, said hospitals are being stretched thin.

“There’s no doubt that our systems are stretched tightly right now. Kaiser Permanente has experienced much the same as our sister hospitals are in the county. Our COVID census has doubled also just within the last 7 to 10 days,” said Brunner, who also helps direct Kaiser OC’s pandemic response.

He said estimates show OC could be in for a rough couple months. 

“What some initial projections are is that we’re going to be very, very impacted through the month of January and into February. We hope for the best, but we’ve also planned for the worst,” Brunner said, adding that they haven’t had to cancel elective procedures.

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During Wednesday’s news conference, Chinsio-Kwong said no hospital has had to cancel elective surgeries yet – meaning people can still get treatment for ailments that aren’t immediately life threatening.

Brunner said hospital staff are constantly evaluating the situation surrounding elective procedures. 

“When our hospital census gets much higher than it is now for COVID patients, that will absolutely be on the table and we will need to pull that lever in alignment for what the need is,” he said. 

Hospitals in general, Brunner said, are in a much better spot compared to when the pandemic first hit two years ago, adding that there’s enough personal protective equipment, drug treatments and better infection control measures.

“We’re in a much better position where we can take on this particular surge without disrupting normal operation, or keeping any sort of normal operation changes to a minimum – again that’s predicated on hospital census,” he said. 

Vladimir Minin, a biostatician at UC Irvine who’s been tracking case rates and hospital trends, said he expects more than 1,000 people hospitalized in OC at some point. 

“What I’m thinking, just informally kind of expecting, is we will see hospitalizations in the thousands for sure in January. Maybe even exceeding our records from last December and January,” Minin said in a phone interview last week.

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The virus has now killed 5,903 people in OC as of Thursday, 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.

Meanwhile, residents throughout Orange County are struggling to get tested for the virus during the surge.

[Read: School Absences, Anger in OC as Hunt for COVID-19 Tests Turns Up Fruitless For Many]

Alana LeBrón, a UCI public health professor who researches public health inequities, said the testing crisis is going to hit poor and minority communities hard. 

“If it’s taking hours to actually be tested, we know those are critical barriers,” LeBrón said in a phone interview last week. The current system is really set up to continue to escalate the inequities that we’re seeing in COVID cases.”

[Read: OC’s Latino Community Remains Behind on COVID-19 Vaccines One Year Later]

She said because testing is so difficult to get, many working class residents won’t have the time to get tested due to work and taking care of families.

“It’s incredibly hard to get an appointment and when people do get an appointment they’re waiting hours … and it’s taking multiple days to get the results. And that is not helpful for stopping the spread of the virus. So we really need to be thinking through how we strengthen our access to testing resources,” LeBrón said. 

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During Wednesday’s news conference, Chinsio-Kwong said the county isn’t planning to reopen the testing supersites anytime soon.

She noted there’s enough tests in OC, but just not enough people to distribute them.

Doctors and public health experts are urging people to get vaccinated and boosted because the shots reduce the chances of severe symptoms that can land people in the hospital. 

“Predominately the patients that are hospitalized fall into two categories. Most of them are unvaxxed and then we have another cohort of patients who have either been not fully vaccinated or not boosted … that’s the vast majority of people that we’re seeing hospitalized and that we’re seeing in our ICU.”

Dr. Lance Brunner, director of patient safety and quality at Kaiser OC

He said data is “very clear” that vaccines are “exceedingly effective in decreasing the risk of hospitalization, ICU stays and death.

LeBrón said public health officials should be doubling down efforts to vaccinate and booster residents in the hardest hit communities throughout OC, including Anaheim, Garden Grove, Westminster and Santa Ana.

She also said new medical treatments for COVID need to be accessible to all residents.

“We know that getting the vaccine will certainly help with stemming the tide of the pandemic – and in terms of the next few weeks, what we need to be doing is also concentrating treatments amongst communities who’ve been hardest hit by COVID,” LeBrón said. “We need to make sure those are available to people, regardless of income.” 

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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