SANTA ANA, Calif. (CNS) — Orange County's COVID-19 hospitalizations remained about the same Thursday as they were Wednesday, but the intensive care unit saw 30 more patients.
The Orange County Health Care Agency reported that hospitalizations due to the virus increased from 495 Wednesday to 497, while the ICU total shot up from 96 to 126.
Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, said it was encouraging that hospitalizations overall did not go up.
"Hospitalizations are the same as yesterday and that's very good news," Noymer told City News Service. "The ICU is up, but those numbers are difficult to interpret."
There are many factors that contribute to a doctor's decision to move a patient to intensive care, Noymer said. It doesn't mean that the patients in ICU are in critical condition or fighting for their lives.
"What constitutes an ICU bed is kind of a judgment call inside the hospital," Noymer said. "If the overall hospitalization hasn't changed, then that's good because it means the severity of the county level hasn't changed and hopefully will be going down soon. What gives me the heebie jeebies is overall hospitalization. I'm not saying the ICU is good news, it's clearly not good news. But I really am pleased we didn't see another increase in hospitalization."
Orange County CEO Frank Kim told City News Service that the trend has been that at least 20% of those hospitalized will end up in ICU. Officials believe they will "have more clarity in the next two weeks," Kim said.
If hospitalizations level off, then the surge will recede, but if they keep increasing, then "it's something more difficult to manage," Kim said.
Overall, the county's hospitals have enough staff and beds to handle this summer surge so far, Kim said.
The last time Orange County had this many COVID-19 patients in intensive care was the end of February. The last time hospitalizations were this was high was Feb. 25.
The county has 18.9% of its ICU beds available and 71% of its ventilators.
The summer peak last year was 722 hospitalized patients, Noymer said.
Hospitalizations are the most important metric public health experts are watching, because infection rates could be driven by a higher demand in testing or breakthrough infections of vaccinated people who usually experience little to no symptoms.
The county also reported 465 new infections Thursday, raising the cumulative total to 272,914 since the pandemic began.
Two deaths were logged with one happening July 22 and the other on Aug. 1, the first death for this month so far.
The death toll for July is 13; 16 for June; 22 for May; 43 for April; 199 for March; 612 for February; 1,563 for January — the deadliest month of the pandemic — and 968 for December, the next deadliest.
The county's cumulative death toll is 5,154.
Experts expect less deaths because the demographic of patients is skewing younger than the winter surge. Now, there are vaccines available to every age group over the age of 12, and the vast majority of the county's seniors — the most vulnerable to COVID-19 — are vaccinated.
The county on Thursday updated its vaccination numbers. The county now has 1,941,560 fully vaccinated residents out of a population of about 3.2 million. That includes 127,665 who have received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.
The number of residents who have received at least one shot of the two-dose vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna is at 232,057, and a majority of them will get their second shot, experts say.
The case rate for fully vaccinated residents is significantly lower than the case rate for not fully vaccinated residents, according to the HCA. According to an update on Thursday, the seven-day case rate is 7.4 per 100,000 for fully vaccinated, but 40.1 for not fully vaccinated.
Noymer said he supported Gov. Gavin Newsom's announcement Wednesday that all school employees must be vaccinated by mid-October, or face weekly testing for COVID-19.
"The big picture is that what Newsom announced I support, but I think it should be stricter," Noymer said.
Weekly testing will catch most people who are infected, but "it leaves the door open a crack for transmission," Noymer said.
Weekly averages released on Tuesdays showed the county's average daily case rate per 100,000 residents increased from 12.7 last week to 19, while the test positivity rate jumped from 6.9% to 8.3%.
The county's Health Equity Quartile rate, which measures the impact on disadvantaged communities, increased from 6.6% to 8.5%.
Kim said "testing volume has been getting more robust," rising to 284.2 per 100,000 residents, "which we haven't been at since May 5."
The county reported 15,431 tests on Thursday, raising the cumulative total to 4,453,900. The higher demand for COVID-19 testing might be driven by requirements from the state and employers, Kim said.
Kim said he saw about 80% of shoppers masking up last weekend. Many students are returning to classes this week, but Kim said he does not believe that will fuel the case rates.
"I don't think it will make a significant difference," Kim said. "When I look at the parks, at retail stores, kids are already interacting with each other, so going to a school setting, I don't know how it's different than anything else that's occurring."
Kim said he hopes more parents get vaccinated, because children younger than 12 are not eligible to get inoculated. The rates of children hospitalized for COVID-19 are "still quite low," but are increasing, he said.
The county's vaccination rates "are very good in terms of statewide or national comparisons, but as a staff, we had a mission to get above 80% and we haven't reached that point yet," Kim said.
The county will continue using its mobile pods to reach "any pockets in Orange County" where there are disadvantaged neighborhoods of residents or those who just need more information about the shots before accepting one, Kim said.
Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved a $4.5 million grant from the state to help the county offer administrative support for community groups who want to host standup vaccination clinics.