Orange County has surpassed a grime milestone in the pandemic: 500,000 recorded COVID-19 cases since the first was reported on Jan. 22, 2020.
Another 2,592 cases reported on Wednesday, Jan. 26, by the OC Health Care Agency pushed the county to 501,510 since tracking began locally.
But while daily new cases have been high again amid a surge fueled by the omicron variant, the proportion of adults getting sick enough to require hospitalization is lower than this time last year, the agency’s Deputy Health Officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong said.
Health officials believe that vaccines are to thank, she said, “and this just reinforces the idea that in order to protect ourselves from COVID or the future variants, vaccination still remains a priority, as well as continuing daily preventive measures to continue to protect ourselves.”
That includes masking, especially indoors, with a high-quality face covering, and taking precautions when gathering with others.
After several weeks of surging cases, here are some things to know as Orange County tallies its 500,000th case.
1. Cases are ‘stabilizing’
Orange County is no longer continuously seeing higher and higher daily case numbers, Chinsio-Kwong said, adding that “it’s stabilizing, meaning it’s either staying the same or a little bit less in terms of the new reported cases.”
Cases do seem to have peaked in the county for this surge, she said. “What we do know from previous surges is that once we’ve hit a peak of cases, in the days or weeks following, usually that’s where we start to see a rise of hospitalizations that continues to occur.
“And so we’re in that phase of, we expect hospitalizations, unfortunately, to remain at their level that we currently see,” she said.
That is putting a “huge strain” on hospitals and healthcare workers, she said, who are also dealing members of their workforce falling ill or needing to quarantine.
“I think we all need to do our best to minimize our risk of getting infected, so we can also minimize the continued strain on the health care force,” Chinsio-Kwong said.
2.Unvaccinated in hospitals
This time last year, vaccines against COVID-19 were just rolling out for people 65 and older, and just 56,000 people had gotten the jab in Orange County by early January 2021.
Despite high case numbers right now, hospitalizations are less, proportionally, than they were last year, Chinsio-Kwong said.
“We suspect that the reason that we have less severe illness, less hospitalization in the adult population, as well as ICU cases, is because of the immunity gained by a larger portion of our population from vaccination efforts,” she said.
On Tuesday, 1,086 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 and 179 were in the ICU. Among those hospitalized, 85% were unvaccinated. Those who haven’t gotten the shot made up 87% of people in the ICU, according to county data.
Still, the omicron variant is “stealthy,” Chinsio-Kwong said, different from other strains of the virus because of its “immune escape,” which allows it to evade some immunity gained from either a previous COVID-19 infection or vaccination.
“The difference with the vaccination is that we do see it does prevent severe illness and it does prevent hospitalizations and deaths.”
Getting residents vaccinated “still remains a priority,” Chinsio-Kwong said, along with masking indoors and making “adjustments,” like being mindful of distancing and disinfecting common spaces when possible.
3. More children hospitalized
While the proportion of hospitalizations compared to total cases are generally lower, Orange County during this surge has seen its largest number of pediatric patients hospitalized for COVID-related illness than at any other point in the pandemic, Chinsio-Kwong said.
The county reached its peak on Jan. 13, when 69 kids were in the hospital. On Jan. 18, 17 children were in the ICU, the most recorded during this current surge and previous ones.
During the winter 2020-21 surge, pediatric hospitalizations peaked at 29 and ICU admissions at 11. The OC HCA recorded 28 children in the hospital in August during the fall 2021 surge, with nine in the ICU at its worst point, according to data provided by the health care agency.
“Kids are still at risk of getting infected with COVID, and there’s a lot more now that are getting hospitalized,” Chinsio-Kwong said. “We’re not so sure if it’s just that there’s just such a high number of cases that this is what we were going to expect, or if it’s just the variant itself, but I think parents and the community needs to be more cautious around kids and protecting the pediatric population.”
4. A strain on schools
During this latest surge, staffing shortages at some schools around the county has resulted in a scramble to find substitute teachers and other workers.
Absenteeism among many staffers, due to quarantine or because they’re sick or taking care of someone else who is, has led to an “all hands on deck” situation, superintendents have said. Last week, the Orange County Department of Education planned to send roughly 100 managers to various schools to supplement the workforce.
Students absences also remained high last week amid elevated case numbers. In some schools, 20% of students, or nearly that, were out of class.
5. ‘Good supply’ available
For those wanting to test themselves or others for COVID-19, Chinsio-Kwong noted a number of options, including rapid kits that appear to now be better stocked at retail pharmacies and are available at some schools for students and staff, as well as ones that can be ordered from the federal government through a portal that opened last week.
The roll out of testing kits at schools across Southern California earlier this month was marred by delays, however. In its initial shipment, the Orange County Department of Education only received about 42% of what officials were expecting. More shipments later arrived, as did supplies of N95 masks that were to be distributed to schools.
Chinsio-Kwong said the OC Health Care Agency also still has a “good supply” of self collection PCR test kits available. They’re free, and can be shipped to Orange County residents with a prepaid return. There has been a lot of recent demand, officials said, so there may be a little delay in the 24 to 48 hours it usually takes the tests to arrive.
Residents should be watchful for scams when searching for places to get tested, Chinsio-Kwong said. Lists of legitimate testing sites are on the state and federal COVID-testing websites.