Delta Variant Drives Uptick in OC COVID-19 Cases

Covid-19 Delta Variant concept with graphics

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SANTA ANA (CNS) - Orange County's COVID-19 hospitalizations today have zoomed up to mid-March levels as vaccination rates have correspondingly flattened, a county official said today.

More than 95% of those currently hospitalized in the county for coronavirus are unvaccinated, Orange County CEO Frank Kim said.

Last Monday, there were 119 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in Orange County, with 25 of those in intensive care. A week later, that number has shot up to 140 hospitalized, with 59 in intensive care units, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

The state Department of Public Health, however, reported there were 148 COVID-19 patients in Orange County, with 61 in intensive care, as of Sunday.

The last time there were that many patients in intensive care was March 16.

The state will release weekly averages on Tuesday.

The county, meanwhile, had recently been reporting coronavirus statistics once a week, but switched Monday to a more frequent schedule of releasing numbers every weekday in light of the increasing number of infections.

As of Monday, the case rate per 100,000 residents was 4.9 and the test positivity rate was 3.3%, with the rate at 3.4% for residents in the lower health equity quartile, which measures the rate among underprivileged residents in neighborhoods hardest hit by the pandemic.

Last Tuesday, the county's average daily new case rate per 100,000 residents jumped up from 1.5 the previous week to 2.6, while the overall test positivity rate ticked up from 1.2% to 1.8%. The county's Health Equity Quartile rate climbed from 1.4% to 1.9%.

The county also reported two new COVID-19 fatalities since last week, upping thecumulative total to 5,135. One fatality was in April and the other in January.

The death toll for this month is one so far. The death toll for June is 14; 22 for May; 43 for April; 198 for March; 610 for February; 1,563 for January, the deadliest month of the pandemic so far; and 967 for December, the next deadliest.

“The hope is that we don't see much more of an accelerated pace of COVID than we saw before vaccines were widely available,” Kim told City News Service. “At our peak we had 79 cases per 100,000, with a 19.7% positivity rate... We're hoping we don't see those types of numbers again.”

The high number of unvaccinated patients is “hopefully a reminder to the public that when they seek the risk of COVID, they would ask questions, get educated and consider the voluntary vaccine,” Kim said.

Orange County officials have not discussed any sort of new mask order, he said.

Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, previously said that lifting the mask mandate for the vaccinated made sense to serve as an incentive for residents to get inoculated. But on Monday he said the new, more contagious Delta varient “is changing things rapidly.”

Noymer also said it was a “good question” whether the mask mandate would make a difference since the unvaccinated were unlikely to adhere to it.

“The people who need to adhere to the order the most are not adhering to it,” Noymer said, “and the ones adhering to it are the ones who need it less.”

“I really have my doubts whether Americans will mask for 36 months uninterrupted and I stick by that,” Noymer added.  ”There was a period where it really looked like we could get away with it and I didn't see what was wrong with giving people a break. But that kind of presupposes that if you made them mask 36 months unabated that they wouldn't revolt eventually. It's a battle of counterfactuals.”

But now, “we're really between a rock and a hard place,” he said.

“I'm still unmasking at the grocery store because I'm vaccinated. But I'm not that far off from donning the mask again. But I've also always been clear I follow the posted orders. If I lived in L.A. I would mask, but for right now I haven't been masking because I've been vaccinated.”

For now, the vaccines have proven effective against breakthrough infections of the vaccinated and severe illness in that population, as well, Noymer said.

“The thing that worries me a little bit is that both are trending upward,” Noymer said of infections among vaccinated and unvaccinated. “So even the line for new cases among the vaccinated is trending upward, as well, and that concerns me a little bit. It's trending up a lot less fast than the trend among the unvaccinated.”

Studies in Israel are showing the two-dose vaccines are 64% effective against infections for the Delta variant, Noymer said.

“We're definitely in for a wild ride, I'm afraid,” he said. Noymer said he wouldn't be so concerned about current the level of COVID-19 hospitalizations as a raw number.

“If it was stuck at that I'd say we'd have to live with it, but it's not stuck at that. It's moved up in quite a striking fashion,” he said. “My message is get vaccinated.”

The University of California system is requiring vaccinations for students before the fall quarter, but it's unclear how effective it will be with in-person learning.

“There will be a vaccine mandate (at UC campuses),” Noymer said.

“The question is, is that enough in face of these breakthrough infections. The average age of the faculty is much higher than the students, so it's a higher stakes question for us faculty members.”

Noymer said it would make more sense to continue virtual learning instead of masking up in the classroom.

“I'm not teaching in a mask,” he said. “I'm sorry. If i have to teach in a mask, I'd teach by Zoom.”

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