SANTA ANA (CNS) - Orange County's COVID-19 hospitalizations have dropped to levels not seen since mid-December, but newly reported deaths indicate fatalities for February will reach summer-surge levels.
The number of COVID-positive patients in Orange County hospitals dropped from 206 Wednesday to 202 Thursday, while the number of those patients in intensive care ticked down from 34 to 33.
``The trend on that has been amazing,'' Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, told City News Service Friday. ``The deaths keep coming, which is unbelievable.''
County officials reported 453 new positive COVID tests and 15 additional deaths Friday, raising the cumulative totals to 540,116 and 6,658 respectively.
Of the deaths logged Friday, 14 occurred in February, raising the month's death toll to 170. One happened in January, raising that month's death toll to 502. December's death toll stands at 108.
The new case rate per 100,000 people decreased from 10.7 Wednesday to 9.8 Friday. The testing positivity rate ticked up from 3.9% to 4%, and ticked up from 3.9% to 5% in the health equity quartile, which measures underserved communities hardest hit by the pandemic, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.
``For me, that's noise,'' Noymer said the positivity rates, adding it was not anything to be concerned about.
``Things are looking good -- I'm loving it,'' Noymer said. February's death toll ``should easily eclipse 200,'' Noymer said.
``You can take that to the bank, unfortunately,'' Noymer said. While the proportion of infected people died more frequently with the Delta variant, the more contagious Omicron variant infected a higher number of people, and, therefore, led to more deaths, Noymer said.
Meanwhile, Noymer supports the relaxation of masking requirements.
``We're in such a great patch right now everyone ditching their masks isn't going to cause any problems, but I wish people would understand -- some people do -- but I wish more people would understand this isn't the end of COVID,'' Noymer said.
``I'm fine with people putting their masks away, but don't burn them. Put them in a drawer, metaphorically speaking.''
Noymer said another surge could come at any time, just as has happened previously the past two summers. He anticipates another surge in the fall as temperatures drop and more people head indoors.
The county had 24.3% of its ICU beds available and 64.4% of its ventilators as of Friday. Local health officials become concerned when the level of ICU beds falls below 20%.
There were no fatalities logged for a six-day period in February, so it is likely the death toll could rise above the height of the Delta-variant surge in September when 200 people died.
November's death toll stands at 112, October's at 136, September's at 200 and August's at 186.
In contrast, the death toll before the Delta variant fueled a late- summer surge was 31 in July, 20 in June, 26 in May, 47 in April, 202 in March 2021 and 620 for February.
January 2021 remains the deadliest month of the pandemic, with a death toll of 1,600, ahead of December 2020, the next-deadliest with 986 people lost to the virus.
Of those hospitalized, 83% are unvaccinated and 86% of those being treated in ICU are not inoculated, according to the OCHCA.
The case rate per 100,000 people decreased from 8.9 Feb. 19 to 7.1 Feb. 26 for those fully vaccinated with a booster shot; from 14.9 to 5.8 for those fully vaccinated with no booster; and 18.7 to 12 for those not fully vaccinated.
The number of fully vaccinated residents in Orange County rose from 2,430,510 last week to 2,437,965, according to data released Thursday. That number includes an increase from 2,275,663 to 2,281,901 of residents who have received the two-dose regimen of vaccines from Pfizer or Moderna.
The number of residents receiving the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine increased from 154,847 to 156,064. Booster shots increased from 1,194,500 to 1,207,236.
In the most recently eligible age group of 5 to 11 years old, the number of children vaccinated increased from 79,858 to 82,166 versus 186,414, who have not been vaccinated. It's the least vaccinated age group in Orange County. The next-worst vaccinated eligible age group is 25 to 34, with 323,894 inoculated and 135,507 who have not received a shot.
The age group that has received the most booster shots is 55 to 64.