Orange County is facing another winter COVID-19 wave as positivity rates have steadily increased and hospitalizations tripled throughout November.

“I think it will be worse than the little wave we had in the summertime,” said Andrew Noymer, a UC Irvine public health expert and epidemiologist. 

In a Wednesday phone interview, Noymer said it’s nearly impossible to predict just how bad the current wave can get. 

“I don’t know. The second answer is I think it won’t be as bad as last winter – so it won’t be as bad as the Omicron wave that peaked in early January this year. It’s hard to predict these waves,” he said. 

It comes as residents throughout one of California’s largest counties prepare for the holiday season – a pattern seen in 2021 and 2020. 

“We have seen case rates increase pretty significantly and we know that continues to be an underreport because we don’t have an indication in all of the over the counter testing,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state’s Health and Human Services Agency, at an abrupt Tuesday news briefing.

Statewide, Ghaly said, there’s been a doubling of the positivity rate. 

While the Golden State sat at a 10.8% positivity rate, Orange County was higher at 12% as of Nov. 29 – the latest available data from the state.

At the beginning of November, OC had a 5% positivity rate. 

COVID hospitalizations are also increasing throughout the county, which nearly tripled throughout November. 

As of Tuesday, 359 people were hospitalized, including 48 residents in intensive care units, according to state data. 

That’s a significant increase from 125 people hospitalized, including 19 in ICUs on Nov. 1. 

Noymer said intensive care unit numbers are a benchmark of how bad the current wave is getting. 

Ghaly said California could be on track for a tough winter, noting trends are “fast approaching what we saw earlier this year with Omicron …. Roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of what we saw with the end of the year 2020 and beginning of 2021.” 

He also urged people to get the bivalent COVID vaccine, noting it helps prevent severe infection.

It comes as OC and California face a viral triple threat: steep rises in COVID, flu and RSV cases. 

RSV, or Respiratory Syncytial Virus, impacts children the most. 

Last month, the county’s Health Care Agency declared a state of emergency of RSV in an effort to allow the Children’s Hospital of Orange County to staff up quicker and access critical medications faster. 

The virus is a common respiratory virus that’s the most common cause of bronchitis and pneumonia for children less than a year old, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Ghaly said the multiple viruses floating around are weakening people’s immune systems and increasing their chances of severe illness because many are getting back-to-back infections. 

“The immune system is an amazing thing and it needs to recover itself and it can’t take on so many fights at the same time,” Ghaly said. 

He also noted that public health officials are seeing people with a combination of two or more viruses. 

“We’re seeing more and more people who are coinfected with more than one infection and they are indeed sicker and needing more care and stretched a little bit thinner than any of us would like,” Ghaly said. 

Noymer seconded Ghaly’s statement. 

“We’re seeing patterns that are consistent with that phenomenon, so yes,” he said. 

The 2020 winter wave was the deadliest COVID spike yet for OC and California. 

From Nov. 1, 2020 through March 31, 2021, nearly 3,600 Orange County residents were killed by COVID. 

The death impact was less during the same time from last year to earlier this year: 1,256 people died. 

Ghaly’s Tuesday media briefing marks a rare occurrence lately – public health officials hosting question sessions with the press corps. 

Locally, the Orange County Health Care Agency hasn’t held one since early August. 

Meanwhile, Ghaly noted the strain on hospital staffing. 

“We still are often stretched on staff. So the conversations we have with facilities is largely how we support having the staff needed to take care of individuals and that means finding ways to bring more staff in.”

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

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