SANTA ANA (CNS) - Propelled by the more contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus, Orange County's weekly COVID-19 averages saw significant increases as hospitalizations crept up, according to the latest data.
Weekly averages released on Tuesdays showed the county's average daily case rate per 100,000 residents increased from 12.7 last week to 19, while the test positivity rate jumped from 6.9% to 8.3%.
The county's Health Equity Quartile rate, which measures the impact on disadvantaged communities, increased from 6.6% to 8.5%
Hospitalizations in Orange County due to the virus increased from 453 on Monday to 461 Tuesday, and the intensive care unit number increased from 84 to 89.
Hospitalizations are the most important metric public health experts are watching, because infection rates could be driven by a higher demand in testing or breakthrough infections of vaccinated people who usually experience little to no symptoms.
Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, told City News Service there were encouraging signs in the statistics.
“The numbers actually look pretty good,'' Noymer said. “Small increases in hospitalizations and ICU. I'd rather see decreases obviously, but we're not seeing the huge increases we saw last week.''
Noymer said the daily test positivity rate was about 5.5%, but, he added, “That number is very volatile and it's still above 5%, so it's still very high.''
As for the weekly averages, Noymer said, “We're still in the midst of a summer wave that is making me anxious.''
The last time Orange County had this many COVID-19 patients in intensive care was March 7. The last time hospitalizations were this was high was Feb. 25.
The county has 23.2% of its ICU beds available and 72% of its ventilators.
Orange County CEO Frank Kim told City News Service on Tuesday that his staff has indicated to him “we're seeing some leveling, which is a positive sign.''
However, there are other more pessimistic models speculating “it will continue to get worse and we'll be in a difficult position 30 days from now,'' Kim said.
“It is worth noting, if you look over the last 14 days, our hospital numbers have more than doubled,'' Dr. Matthew Zahn, medical director of the Orange County Health Care Agency's communicable disease control division, said Monday.
“While the numbers are stable, we have seen an increase in the number of people in ICU,'' Zahn added in a media briefing with Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley.
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett told CNS on Monday that COVID-19 numbers are “creeping up'' everywhere in the state, but added, “We still have a lot of excess capacity in our health care system.''
That could change as temperatures drop this fall and winter.
“As time goes on and we get toward flu season again people are going to get nervous,'' Bartlett said.
Kim said “testing volume has been getting more robust,'' rising to 284.2 per 100,000 residents, “which we haven't been at since May 5.''
The county reported 11,618 tests on Tuesday, raising the cumulative total to 4,429,776. The higher demand for COVID-19 testing might be driven by requirements from the state and employers, Kim said.
Kim said he saw about 80% of shoppers masking up this weekend.
Many students are returning to classes this week, but Kim said he does not believe that will fuel the case rates.
“I don't think it will make a significant difference,'' Kim said. “When I look at the parks, at retail stores, kids are already interacting with each other, so going to a school setting, I don't know how it's different than anything else that's occurring.''
Kim said he hopes more parents get vaccinated, because children younger than 12 are not eligible to get inoculated. The rates of children hospitalized for COVID-19 are “still quite low,'' but are increasing, he said.
Children's Hospital of Orange County admitted 27 child COVID-19 patients in July, Zahn said. He pointed out that last year contact tracers found that students were “not a driver of infections.''
The county logged two more COVID-19 fatalities Tuesday, one which occurred in June and the other in July.
The death toll for July is 12; 16 for June; 22 for May; 43 for April; 199 for March; 612 for February; 1,563 for January -- the deadliest month of the pandemic -- and 968 for December, the next deadliest.
The county's cumulative death toll is 5,152.
The county's vaccination rates “are very good in terms of statewide or national comparisons, but as a staff we had a mission to get above 80% and we haven't reached that point yet,'' Kim said.
The county will continue using its mobile pods to reach “any pockets in Orange County'' where there are disadvantaged neighborhoods of residents or those who just need more information about the shots before accepting one, Kim said.
Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved a $4.5 million grant from the state to help the county offer administrative support for community groups who want to host standup vaccination clinics.
Board Vice Chairman Doug Chaffee wanted to expand the program to offer $50 incentives to residents with an economic hardship such as no sick time or sick pay in case they get symptoms from a vaccination. Chaffee said that is one reason for vaccine hesitancy.
Board Chairman Andrew Do said, “I support the intent'' of Chaffee's proposal, but said staff should work up a separate item for the board to consider to ensure that the incentives were going to people who truly have an economic hardship claim.
Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the Orange County Health Care Agency and the county's chief public health officer, said he would work with staff on a proposal for the board.
The county has 1,796,967 fully vaccinated residents who received Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, which require two shots, and 125,729 who have received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to data from last week.
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