SANTA ANA, Calif. (CNS) — Orange County saw 34 more people hospitalized for COVID-19 Wednesday and seven more patients in intensive care since Tuesday, officials said.
Hospitalizations due to the virus increased from 461 Tuesday to 495, and the intensive care unit number increased from 89 to 96, the Orange County Health Care Agency reported.
Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, called the rising level of patients "concerning."
Noymer noted there were 375 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in the county a week ago.
"That's significant," Noymer told City News Service. "Yesterday, we were holding steady, but things today slipped again... It's more of the same, but it's going in the wrong direction."
The last time Orange County had this many COVID-19 patients in intensive care was March 3. The last time hospitalizations were this was high was Feb. 25.
The county has 20.5% of its ICU beds available and 70% of its ventilators.
The summer peak last year was 722 hospitalized patients, Noymer said.
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.
The county also reported 612 new infections Wednesday, raising the cumulative total to 272,449 since the pandemic began.
There were no new fatalities logged on Wednesday.
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.
Noymer supports Gov. Gavin Newsom's announcement Wednesday that all school employees must be vaccinated by mid-October, or face weekly testing for COVID-19.
"The big picture is that what Newsom announced I support, but I think it should be stricter," Noymer said.
Weekly testing will catch most people who are infected, but "it leaves the door open a crack for transmission," Noymer said.
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%
Noymer said Tuesday that the 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."
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.
On Wednesday, Noymer said "Any day could be the last day of increases. Nobody knows." Most importantly, residents should understand "They need to be careful and mask in public places," he added.
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 8,693 tests on Wednesday, raising the cumulative total to 4,438,469. 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 last 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.
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.