SANTA ANA, Calif. (CNS) — There were more signs Friday that Orange County has reached a peak in the delta variant-fueled COVID-19 surge, but as students return to classrooms, officials are bracing for another potential wave.
"It looks like we're finding a peak now," Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, told City News Service. "But schools will have been open a week starting this time next week. I'm concerned we're going to begin a new surge."
Noymer pointed to that phenomena in Scotland recently.
"It's kind of spooky how it rose," Noymer said.
Dr. Clayton Chau, the county's chief health officer and director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, said he was hopeful based on anecdotal information from local school officials that students were adhering to mask-wearing requirements.
Chau said he was concerned before classes resumed because of a vocal group of residents who oppose mask wearing and how that would influence the students. But principals and superintendents have been sending him text messages and emails saying the children have been adhering to the guidance to wear a mask indoors with some continuing to wear the face coverings even outdoors, though it is not required.
"There have been very few incidents," Chau said on a weekly media call with reporters. "They're having no big deal wearing masks at all ... kids are resilient and kids are really following what their peers are doing, so I'm hopeful but cautiously hopeful."
Chau advised parents to not bring their children to campus if there is any hint they do not feel well.
"I know it's hard to find a babysitter, but, really, you have to assess your child's condition every morning. Don't bring your child who doesn't feel well into the school setting."
Chau said he was also concerned that young children especially like to hug their classmates and are prone to boisterous greetings.
"When they see each other, they scream and yell, they spit, and their saliva could project further even though they're little people," Chau said. "And kids by nature want to hug and touch their friends. So it's going to be difficult to control that outdoors."
But Health Care Agency officials have been frequently meeting with school administrators to hammer home to teachers the importance of emphasizing mask usage, hand washing and social distancing, Chau said.
Orange County CEO Frank Kim said Thursday that he has seen signs of a slowdown in case rates.
"I look at the positivity rate of infections, and those numbers seem to indicate that the larger numbers were 10 days behind us, so I'm hoping that indicates we've plateaued and are coming off of it — but, obviously, we won't know until we're at the lower end of the slope," Kim said. "But we seemed to have peaked about a week ago."
But while the rate of infections may have peaked, there will still be increases in hospitalizations for the time being, Kim said.
"It takes 10 days after infection for people to have symptoms to require hospitalization," he said. "We're still seeing big numbers, but we're having discussions with our hospitals and they don't seem overwhelmed."
Hospitalizations remained at 571, the same as on Thursday, with the number of intensive care unit patients rising from 133 to 137, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency, which reported the county has 20.7% of its ICU beds and 69% of its ventilators available.
Experts say hospitalizations are a more important statistic than case numbers because any surge can be exacerbated by an overburdened health care system, and case numbers are expected to rise as schools and businesses require more people to get tested.
The county logged 820 new infections Friday, bringing the total to 279,237 since the pandemic began.
Seven more COVID-related fatalities were also recorded, raising the overall death toll to 5,176.
Three of the deaths were this month and three last month with one in January.
"Six recent deaths — that's not good," Noymer said. "That's high."
Fatalities have decreased in recent months because of the high vaccination rates of seniors who are most vulnerable to the virus, according to experts.
Chau said 91.5% of residents 65 and older received at least one dose of vaccine with nearly 81% fully vaccinated. He said his 85-year-old mother just got the authorized third dose for the immunocompromised at CVS on Monday.
The death toll for August so far is nine. The death toll for July is 15; 16 for June; 23 for May; 43 for April; 199 for March; 613 for February; 1,570 for January — the deadliest month of the pandemic — and 969 for December, the next deadliest.
There were 12 infected people in Orange County's jails as of Thursday, down from 14 on Tuesday, but officials say they are all newly booked inmates.
The county reported 12,458 tests Friday, raising the cumulative total to 4,547,428.
Of those eligible to get a shot 12 years old and older, 76.2% have received at least one dose, Chau said. Of the eligible population, 66.6% were fully vaccinated, he added.
Vaccinations are back on the rise, Chau said. The daily average over the last few weeks is in the high 8,000s, as opposed to the low 4,000s previously, Chau said.
The county is also seeing an increase in interest for a third shot of the two-dose vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna that have already been authorized for immunocompromised people, Chau said. That population includes organ transplant recipients and individuals undergoing therapies that suppress their immune system.