Orange County Continues To Smash COVID-19 Hospitalization Records


SANTA ANA (CNS) - Orange County continued its daily record-setting pace of COVID-19 hospitalizations, but there are signs that the Thanksgiving-related surge is beginning to plateau, health experts said today.

The county added 75 more coronavirus patients since Monday, including 20 more in intensive care. The  number of hospitalized patients rose from 2,031 on Monday to 2,106, with intensive care unit patients rising from 453 to 473.

The county's state-adjusted ICU bed availability remained at zero, and the unadjusted figure increased from 5.9% Monday to 8.9% Tuesday. The state created the adjusted metric to reflect the difference in beds available for COVID-19 patients and non-coronavirus patients.

The Southern California region is at zero ICU capacity.

The county reported 2,453 more COVID-19 cases, raising the cumulative to 152,059. One additional fatality -- an assisted living facility resident -- increased the death toll to 1,847.

All of the county's metrics continue to remain within the state's most-restrictive, purple tier of the state's four-tier coronavirus monitoring system.

Orange County's adjusted daily case rate per 100,000 increased on Tuesday from 51.8 last week to 53.5 this week. The positivity rate increased from 15.2% to 16.9%.

The county's Health Equity Quartile Positivity Rate, which measures the cases in highly affected, needier parts of the county, rose from 22.7% last week to 24.2%.

Orange County CEO Frank Kim said for the past couple of days the county's positivity rate has dropped two-tenths of a point. And the county's testing volume reached an all-time high of 703.6 per 100,000, Kim said.

“What it looks like is it seems our data correlates with what (California Health and Human Services Dr. Mark Ghaly) was saying the other day that there are signs of minor levels of plateauing,'' Kim said. “But I don't think going from 17% to 16.7% is a resounding victory I want to scream from the mountain tops about, but the positive take away is at least it's two days that we have not seen the acceleration in terms of positive tests, so hopefully it is an indication we're through the Thanksgiving surge.''

Andrew Noymer, a UC Irvine associate professor of population health and disease prevention, said it's hard to say if the county has reached its peak from Thanksgiving, but even so it's likely a Christmas surge is coming. Noymer noted that Tuesday marked five days from Christmas Eve, and a surge in cases is likely to be seen five to 10 days from an event.

“We saw with Thanksgiving it took awhile to build,'' Noymer said. “I'm expecting January to be severe. We haven't seen the worst yet. But nobody can predict the future of this.''

Noymer noted that the county's positivity rate has been “highly volatile.''

Kim said state officials believe we're seeing a “lull before the Christmas surge.''

With hospitalizations at such a high level officials want to make use of the Fairview Developmental Center, but only seven patients are being treated there now. A total of 21 have been treated at the state facility. Kim said county officials believe the criteria for admittance at Fairview is so strict it is limiting its access for hospital overflow and they are working with the state on the issue.

Outbreaks at the county's skilled nursing facilities and elderly assisted living facilities -- defined as two or more cases within 14 days -- are an ongoing problem for the county. As of Monday, 43 skilled nursing facilities have outbreaks and 52 elderly assisted living facilities have outbreaks.

“We need to hurry up and inoculate those individuals and staff working with those individuals,'' Kim said. “The virus is coming in through the employees so we need to get those employees vaccinated quickly.''

Transportation Security Administration figures for security screenings nationally reflect more traveling over Christmas than Thanksgiving. On the day before Christmas Eve, nearly 1.2 million screenings were done at U.S. airports, compared with 1.9 million on the same date in 2019.

Noymer said he is not as concerned about travelers contracting coronavirus at the airport or on a plane.

“More people pass through South Coast Plaza than the TSA checkpoint at John Wayne,'' Noymer said. “But we're churning the whole country, moving people around from college kids from Overland, Ohio, going back to home and people going to see in-laws or grandmothers, or whatever. That's moving the virus around, increasing the motion and commotion of people and therefore of the virus and it's not what the doctor ordered.''

While it is generally understood that COVID-19 poses the greatest risk of fatality to elderly patients, Noymer pointed out that in Orange County 25% of the deaths are residents younger than 65. Most of those deaths are in the 55 to 64 age group, he added.

Meanwhile, the outbreak in the county's jails continued its upward trend with 1,099 inmates infected Monday rising to 1,246 on Tuesday. The county is awaiting results of 46 tests.

On Saturday, the OCHCA issued new guidance for paramedics dropping off patients as wait times at some hospitals were getting so long there was a fear there would be no ambulances available for 911 calls.

When it takes more than an hour to drop off a patient, paramedics are able to drop them in a waiting room under certain conditions so the ambulance can be free to attend to another call, according to the memo from Dr. Carl Schultz, EMS medical director for the OCHCA.

“This directive is necessary as delays in off-loading ambulance patients at Orange County emergency receiving centers is now becoming very serious,'' Schultz wrote. “So many ambulances are being held at hospital emergency departments that Orange County EMS risks receiving calls asking for guidance as paramedics are not able to obtain ambulances to transport patients who have called 911.''

The county has three mobile field hospitals operating, with 50 beds at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange and 25 each at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Los Alamitos Medical Center. UCI plans to use 40 of the 50 beds, Kim said.

The county has four more mobile field hospitals left that have 25 beds apiece, Kim said.

A planned news conference for Tuesday regarding a new county app that would feature all five county supervisors was scrapped, Kim said.

The new app was created to help doctors and nurses track recipients of vaccines to ensure they get a booster shot and to monitor for side effects.

Officials want to continue its soft rollout with a couple of hospitals to work out any more bugs before expanding its use to the rest of the county's health care providers, Kim said.

The app will be called Othena, which is an homage to Athena, the goddess of war, Orange County Supervisor Doug Chaffee said.

The county recorded another 14,038 COVID-19 tests taken on Tuesday, for a total of 2,010,289.

Photo: Getty Images

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