SANTA ANA, Calif. (CNS) — Orange County's weekly COVID-19 statistics show a significant decline over last week, but hospitalizations are back on the rise, according to data released Tuesday.
According to weekly averages released on Tuesdays, the county's average daily case rate per 100,000 residents dropped from 22.2 last week to 18.6, while the test positivity rate fell from 8% to 6.8%.
"Those are all moving in the right direction," Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, told City News Service. "But those levels are still high enough that you can see a rebound. I want to see much lower numbers."
Noymer said it is difficult for epidemiologists at this point to predict the next waves.
"It reminds me a lot of Easter 2020 when this was all kind of unknown and everyone was kind of like there'll be a huge explosion after Easter because people are not taking it seriously, but there wasn't. That first wave didn't crest until July," Noymer said.
"I'm getting that same vibe and the vibe is uncertainty," he said. "Even COVID scientists don't really know where this is going exactly, and I would say that a wave that is kicked off by school reopening could start now, but maybe it'll fizzle. We're not out of the woods, but it's encouraging that we're not seeing huge increases in the wake of school openings."
Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, deputy health officer for the Orange County Health Care Agency, told reporters that with college students now returning to classes, there could be another surge in cases in the cards.
"I'm assuming we'll see a rise after Sept. 6," Chinsio-Kwong said.
Hospitalizations bumped up from 546 on Monday to 556 on Tuesday, according to the HCA. The number of patients in intensive care increased from 139 to 150.
Noymer was not overly concerned.
"Hospitalizations are really steady," he told CNS. "I know they went up by 10, but that's really holding steady. The ICU is basically steady, as well."
The day-to-day positivity rates are "more of the same," Noymer said. "The percentage of test positivity was down, which is a good thing. More of that please ... It is really good news the percentage positive is moving down."
The HCA reported 355 new positive COVID infections over the weekend, bringing the county's cumulative case count to 285,453.
Orange County's coronavirus death toll for August continues to rise. Three of five deaths logged Tuesday occurred in August, with the most recent on Aug. 22. Two occurred in December. It is not uncommon for lengthy delays in death reports.
The newly logged fatalities put the county's cumulative coronavirus death toll at 5,225, with 48 of those fatalities occurring in August. The death toll for July was 17.
This marks the first time since the winter surge that there was been a month-to-month increase in fatalities.
The deadliest day for the month is Aug. 17, when six patients died. The last time there were more deaths in a month was March 14, when seven died.
The death toll for June was 15, with 23 fatalities in May, 44 in April, 199 in March, 615 in February, 1,574 in January — the deadliest month of the pandemic — and 971 in December, the next-deadliest.
Death is the final lagging indicator, experts say, so it reflects the ultimate toll from this summer's surge.
What's also unusual about the deaths of late are the number of younger people succumbing to the virus. Another resident in the 25-34 age group has died since Friday, along with a few more in the 35 to 44 age range, according to HCA statistics. But of the five deaths logged on Tuesday, all were 65 or older, according to HCA data.
Vaccinations have steeply driven down the death toll each month since records were set in December and January, but it now appears they are trending back upward due to the more contagious delta variant of the virus.
Chinsio-Kwong said that vaccinations are back on the rise in the county, with about 11,000 shots dispensed one day recently.
Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley, who hosted the media call with Chinsio-Kwong on Tuesday, asked the doctor about a recent study making the rounds that indicates natural immunity is stronger than the protection vaccines offer.
Chinsio-Kwong said data indicates that people who were previously infected with COVID-19 were two times more likely to get infected by the delta variant than those who were fully vaccinated.
"It's still in everybody's best interests to get the vaccine," Chinsio-Kwong said. "I don't think you want to play Russian roulette with COVID-19."
Chinsio-Kwong said: "If you've had COVID and you're fully vaccinated, you're probably more protected than if you're just fully vaccinated ... It's to everybody's benefit to not get COVID again or to not get it at all, and since we have three successful vaccines, just get a shot."
Noymer told CNS that the data on the natural immunity versus vaccination is still up for debate.
"I've seen studies that say natural infection is superior to vaccination and I've seen studies that say it is inferior to vaccination," Noymer said. "There's still a lot we don't know. I think a lot of these studies were done in good faith. It's a new science and the numbers are still bouncing around."
With Labor Day weekend upcoming, Chinsio-Kwong recommended avoiding any long-distance traveling that requires a plane ride.
"Travel is not a good idea at this point," she said. "When you get to the airport you're exposed to a whole lot of people."
Chinsio-Kwong said "your immune system takes a hit" because sleep gets disrupted during a trip, as well.
"Traveling is not a great idea, especially to countries with a higher (COVID-19) rate. It's probably safer staying at home or traveling closer to home," she said.
As for get-togethers over the holiday weekend, Chinsio-Kwong recommended against gathering with large crowds indoors.
"The last place you want to be is in an indoor room with no ventilation," Chinsio-Kwong said. "Even if there's only one person with an infection and they move their mask to drink or to eat or to shout ... all those respiratory droplets linger in the air and the longer you stay in that room, the odds increase you'll be exposed."
Chinsio-Kwong recommended anyone who is unvaccinated make an appointment to get a shot. "And take good care of yourself," she said. "Exercise is still important during this time period. Eating healthy foods is important."
Residents should also be mindful of reducing stress as that can weaken the immune system, as well, she said.
"We know how important socialization is," she said. "It really helps with mental health so it's really good to socialize."
Chau on Friday said hospitalized COVID-19 patients are "generally in their mid-30s to mid-40s."
The HCA released updated vaccination numbers Thursday, showing 1,989,131 fully vaccinated residents. That includes 1,857,185 who received the two-dose Moderna or Pfizer vaccines and 131,946 who received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.
The case rate per 100,000 residents as of Aug. 21 was 35.9 for unvaccinated residents, but 6.5 for the fully vaccinated.
Health experts note that many of the infections being logged are due to an increase in testing and many are among vaccinated residents so the symptoms are not leading to serious illness requiring hospitalization. Some are being caught as patients are admitted to hospitals for unrelated reasons.