The COVID-19 pandemic is now entering its trickiest spot in places like Orange County, becoming more challenging for some residents to navigate because public health messaging has largely disappeared.

And while Orange County now finds itself in the midst of a current Covid surge, the current wave isn’t as severe as previous ones, some public health experts say. 

All this comes amidst a push to go back to life before the pandemic, which has largely ended mask-wearing and other pandemic interventions.

This latest twist is perplexing one local public health expert. 

UC Riverside public health scientist and sociologist, Richard Carpiano, said many people are going back to their pre-pandemic lives  because much of the public messaging has largely disappeared, while there’s also been calls by pundits to “return to normal.”

“There was a big emphasis, this big push –I should say a sort of narrative – on returning to normal. First off, what is normal? Acting like things that are pre-pandemic, but that time’s gone – barring some sort of major discoveries or much more effective vaccines,” Carpiano said in a phone interview last week. 

He also said people like Dr. Leana Wen – who regularly appeared on CNN’s pandemic segments – picked up some of the “urgency of normal” messaging. 

“It was the idea that the unintended consequences of our COVID measures were really doing the harm,” Carpiano said “Unfortunately some of that messaging kind of got picked up by people who were viewed as mainstream, such as Leana Wen.” 

He also noted that public health measures – like mask mandates and limiting the number of people indoors – helped curb the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 to the Black and Latino communities throughout the state. 

The pandemic has largely faded into a distant memory for many people, he said, including policymakers.

“The question,” Carpiano asks himself aloud is, “So where does this leave us? 

The answer?

“I don’t know,” Carpiano said. 

UC Irvine public health expert, Alana LeBron, also said it’s a confusing time for many people since outreach efforts and public health interventions have curbed significantly.

“An important environmental factor is that we’ve lost mask mandates and we’re doing so much indoors again these days – at full capacity,” LeBron said in a phone interview. 

“We know that isolation and shelter in place is not the way to get through the pandemic and we’ve also lost a lot of the support needed to be in the community in a safe way,” she said. “I think we missed the mark in terms of communicating masks as a tool in protecting communities more broadly.”

Meanwhile, UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, Andrew Noymer, said Orange County’s COVID wave could be receding.

“Basically, we appear to have found the peak of the mini wave,” Noymer said.

In a phone interview last week, Noymer said the current wave’s impact on hospitals has been relatively light compared to the previous summer waves.

He attributed it to a combination of increased vaccinations and boosters, along with immunity through infections of the previous winter wave. 

“We’re much more vaccinated now – vaccinations prevent severity, they don’t prevent infection. And the other thing is that previous infections likely confer some immune memory, so it’s really a combination of all those things,” Noymer said. 

But, he warned, the fall and winter could see a significant COVID wave. 

“I’m worried about the next wave, which will probably be in the fall. But there’s no guarantees with COVID,” Noymer said. “We’re in a really kind of squirrely period as far as predicting what’s going to come.” 

Hospitalizations aren’t as high as last summer’s wave.

As of Friday, 213 OC residents were hospitalized for the virus, including 23 in intensive care units, according to state data. That’s up from 179 hospitalizations on Friday.

Yet the positivity rate remains high. 

OC’s current coronavirus wave is not as severe as last summer’s wave, but the positivity rate sat at 15.6% on Tuesday, according to state data.

During the peak of earlier surges, case positivity rates were over 20%. 

Since the start of the pandemic, the virus has now killed 7,097 people, according to the county Health Care Agency.

Despite those numbers, Noymer warned against considering the new Omicron sub variants as less severe compared to previous COVID strains. 

“The evidence is pretty thin that we can treat each successive variant as definitely less severe as the previous one. I wouldn’t endorse that. So we need to remain vigilant basically. So far, the Omicron variants have been milder, but as your stock broker will tell you, past performance is no guarantee of the future,” he said. 

He also urged residents to wear masks when going indoors with other people. 

“Here in Orange County I don’t see a mask order coming back unless it’s a statewide one and I don’t see state mask orders coming back,” Noymer said. Your reader would still do well to mask themselves.” 

Another key to combating transmission without mask mandates could be revamping air systems in buildings. 

“Anything to increase the air exchange rate would be good. People can do a very simple thing, for example if you invite people to your house, just open the window – that’s going to increase the air exchange rate,” said UCI air quality expert Manabu Shiraiwa. “I’d recommend meeting outside if possible.” 

Shiraiwa, a chemistry professor, said refreshing a building’s air on a regular basis can help cut virus transmission down, but coupling increased air flow with masks would be the best bet.

“There are plenty of studies showing that basically the higher the air exchange rate can definitely reduce the transmission because it can reduce the number of particles in the air,” he said in a phone interview. “Many people aren’t willing to wear masks anymore, so having good ventilation will definitely help.” 

Improving indoor air quality could also help cut down on other health impacts, he said. 

“Increasing air ventilation and indoor air quality, not just reduces transmission of viruses, but also other pollutants that can trigger asthma and allergies,” he said. 

UCI’s public health expert, LeBron said the positivity rate is likely higher than what’s being displayed by government agencies since at-home tests don’t require people to report them and many of the state and county-run test sites have scaled back. 

“My hunch is we don’t have a good handle on what the actual cases are right now because we have lost public resources for testing. Cases might get picked up with at home tests and those aren’t getting reported,” LeBron.

And the at-home COVID tests don’t look to be as effective as definitively letting people know they don’t have the virus compared to PCR tests, Noymer said. 

“The false positives are rare, if you light up positive that means you have COVID. It’s the negatives you have to be aware of,” Noymer said. 

Regarding test accuracy, Noymer added that, “They’re pretty accurate when you’re showing major symptoms.” 

But, if “you’re feeling a little under the weather,” Noymer said the at-home tests might not “catch it until too late in many cases.” 

LeBron, who’s an assistant professor in public health and researches health inequities, said the current approach to the pandemic could again hit working-class, often Latino and Black communities hard. 

“We have losts all of our public health interventions – masks are no longer required indoors, required on flights, etc. so that leaves communities and workers extremely vulnerable,” she said. 

In Orange County, the Latino community has historically been hit the hardest by the pandemic. 

Throughout most of the pandemic, Latinos saw a disproportionate impact in COVID cases and deaths, but it has since balanced out, according to data from the OC Health Care Agency.

There could be a reason for that. 

According to state data, 36% of Orange County’s tests and 33% of cases are missing race and ethnicity data – roughly 10% higher than the statewide average. 

It’s still unclear how the Latino community’s virus death gap shrank, which now falls nearly in-line with the community percentage of OC residents at 35%. 

And while a majority of OC residents of all income levels have completed the initial series of vaccinations, boosters are still lagging behind. 

According to state data, just over half of the county’s poorest residents have had a booster shot, while 62% of the wealthier communities have.  

LeBron said these types of health gaps could have a considerable impact on working-class families. 

“The lack of requirements in terms of masking and the lack of support for testing and vaccination from an equity lens that are most concerning for me in terms of thinking about worker health and the wellbeing of low-income communities and communities of color.” 

 This story was updated to include the most recent virus hospitalization numbers and positivity rate.

Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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