SANTA ANA, Calif. (CNS) — Orange County's COVID-19 hospitalizations and positivity rates continued gliding down as death reports for last month and this month keep rolling in, according to data released Wednesday.
Hospitalizations declined from 431 Tuesday to 415 Wednesday, with the number of intensive care patients increasing from 77 to 79, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency. The county has not seen patient counts at this level since the end of December.
The county had 26.5% of its ICU beds available and 62.1% of its ventilators as of Wednesday. Local health officials become concerned when the level of ICU beds falls below 20%.
"I'm really loving the direction the numbers are going," Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, told City News Service. "They're moving in the right direction and moving as quickly as anyone can reasonably hope."
Pediatric hospitalizations as of Tuesday stood at 22 with three in an intensive care unit, according to Dr. Clayton Chau, the county's health officer, who is also the director of the Orange County Health Care Agency.
Of those hospitalized, 84% are unvaccinated and 86% in an intensive care unit are not inoculated, the Orange County Health Care Agency reported.
The agency Wednesday also reported 633 new positive COVID tests and 19 additional deaths associated with the virus, bringing its cumulative totals to 534,132 cases and 6,395 fatalities.
The fatalities occurred this month and last. February's death toll increased to 33, while January's death toll rose to 379.
Chau said 99.9% of the county's seniors 65 and older have received at least one shot. Seniors in the county are 93% fully vaccinated, he added.
December's death toll stands at 107; November's at 113, October's at 136, September's at 199, 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 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.
Outbreaks — defined as three or more infected residents — decreased from 23 to 13 at assisted living facilities from Feb. 9-14, the most recent data available, and dropped from 20 to 15 for skilled nursing facilities.
The county's jails had 54 infected inmates Wednesday, up one from Tuesday, with the results of 373 tests pending.
The case rate per 100,000 people decreased from 29.1 Tuesday to 26.4 Wednesday. The testing positivity rate dropped from 7.2% to 6.5%, and fell from 7.3% to 4.7% in the health equity quartile, which measures underserved communities hardest hit by the pandemic.
The case rate per 100,000 people decreased from 39.3 on Jan. 29 to 17.5 on Feb. 5 for those fully vaccinated with a booster shot; from 63.7 to 21 for those fully vaccinated with no booster; and 101.2 to 62.2 for those not fully vaccinated.
Chau said despite the new mask policy statewide, he "strongly recommended" that fully vaccinated residents continue to use face coverings for indoor settings.
"You should continue to assess your own risk," Chau said.
Fully vaccinated residents should also consider using face coverings for indoor or congregant outdoor settings if they live with someone who is immunocompromised, Chau said.
Noymer said he agreed with the move to relax the mask policy because it will be difficult to ask residents to continue to use face coverings indefinitely.
"Take it easy for now and bring it back in the fall," he said. "I do know some people in the public health business who are saying no, don't do this — if you take your foot off the gas now you'll never get people to mask again, but if you make people mask all summer long they also won't do it ever again come fall. It's between a rock and a hard place, but I think it's OK now to give people the signal to take off their mask. Masking is voluntary now anyway. There's no enforcement. I am still masking and I hope (everyone else) will too."
Noymer added, "If I had my druthers, I would do it a few weeks later. I wouldn't do it now. I'd do it March 1."
The county receives about 10 complaints a day regarding non-compliance with the mask policy from the state, Chau said. The county cannot enforce mask usage, but officials contact the restaurant or business where there is a failure to ensure customers use a mask and remind them of the policy, he added.
Most of the complaints about non-compliance in the schools are with private, not public, ones, Chau said. The county had to report one private school to the state, and state officials "immediately responded and sent a pretty strong letter of warning to the school," Chau said.