SANTA ANA, Calif. (CNS) — Orange County's COVID-19 hospitalizations continued a downward trend Thursday, offering more potential evidence of a slowing of this summer's delta variant-fueled surge, while the county's vaccination efforts reached a milestone with more than two million inoculated.
But the county also logged seven more fatalities, increasing August's death toll to levels not seen since March.
The number of COVID-19 patients dropped from 534 on Wednesday to 521, with the number of intensive care unit patients dipping from 149 to 143.
The county has 19.8% of its ICU beds available and 67% of its ventilators.
"The numbers are looking good," Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, told City News Service. "The hospitalizations are down, the percent positive is down and there's nothing to complain about."
Noymer said he was "a little nervous" about the ICU numbers, "but they're a little difficult to interpret. They used to predict mortality, but I'm not sure that holds up now."
The average age of COVID-19 patients are skewing younger compared with the winter surge, so that could be contributing to a higher survival rate, Noymer said.
Public health experts consider hospitalizations the key metric to gauge the efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19. The three available vaccines get high marks in keeping recipients out of a hospital or experiencing serious illness.
The Orange County Health Care Agency reported Thursday that the county now has 2,019,321 fully vaccinated residents. Of those, 1,885,583 received the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines and 133,738 received the one-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine.
Since 455,696 of the county's residents are children up to 11 years old who are ineligible to receive a vaccine, that leaves about 725,000 residents to go. The county also reported that 233,539 residents have received at least one dose of Pfizer or Moderna.
"It's great. I love to see it," Noymer said. "There's plenty of bad news nationally about COVID, and I hope that will spur people to get vaccinated — everywhere, including Orange County."
Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley cheered the news.
"I think the increase in vaccination is our only way out and it is great to see we've overcome the two million mark," she said.
The OCHCA also reported 437 new COVID-19 cases Thursday along with the seven additional deaths, bringing the county's cumulative totals to 286,536 cases and 5,236 fatalities.
All seven of those fatalities occurred in August, raising the death toll for the month to 61, which stands in contrast with July's 17 deaths. It is the first time since the winter surge that there has been a month-to-month increase in fatalities in Orange County.
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.
Deaths are the final lagging indicator, experts say, so it reflects the ultimate toll from this summer's surge.
"Deaths are going in the wrong direction, but we'll have to see what happens," Noymer said.
Noymer does not expect fatalities to reach the levels seen during the winter surge because of the level of vaccinations.
Of the fatalities logged on Thursday, one was in the 35 to 44 age range, one was 45 to 54 and two were in the 55 to 64 category.
According to weekly numbers 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 testing positivity rate fell from 8% to 6.8%.
The county's Health Equity Quartile rate, which measures the impact of the pandemic on disadvantaged communities, dropped from 8.4% to 7.3%.
Meanwhile, infighting between members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors spilled into public view with word that Chairman Andrew Do and Vice Chairman Doug Chaffee have directed that OCHCA staff not participate in Supervisor Katrina Foley's near-daily updates on COVID-19.
Foley has said she started holding the calls with media to fill in a gap during the delta variant surge at a time when county officials had scaled back updates on statistics to once a week and were not offering updates at board meetings.
"We started doing this to sound the alarm about the delta variant and how it is really attacking the unvaccinated, and it worked because we started seeing an amazing increase in vaccinations throughout Orange County. So that was the motivation and also we were getting all kinds of calls from people, questions, emails," Foley told CNS.
But Do said county officials are holding weekly updates with reporters on Fridays and returned to providing new statistics on weekdays.
He told City News Service that he had no issue with Foley offering updates with a staffer from the OCHCA "once in a while," but now views the Zoom meetings with reporters as "publicity events" for the supervisor, who is running for re-election.
"If information is what people need, we have plenty of opportunities and sources to go to for information," Do said.
The OCHCA staff has more important priorities, he said, adding that he would bring up the subject at next week's board meeting.
"The concern here is the proper use of county staff," Do said.
"The county health officer has to respond to 34 cities and how many school districts while dealing with employee-related health issues with the county workforce and advising different industries as to how they should follow proper protocol, and in the meantime is dealing with the state and (the Centers for Disease Control) and the latest developments — that's a handful," Do said. "When you have two or three people that can operate at that executive level and to have their time taken away for these publicity events is unconscionable."