Orange County has an unwelcome visitor for the holidays: another coronavirus wave that may soon match the summer’s.
The county’s rate of new coronavirus cases has tripled over the past two weeks in a buildup that public health officials suspect is fueled by “COVID fatigue.” And it is happening at the confluence of flu season and end-of-year holidays.
Gov. Gavin Newsom already pulled a public health “emergency brake” in the state last week, putting Orange County and most others in California into the most-restrictive purple tier of the state’s monitoring system, which forces many business and public sectors – restaurants, gyms, houses of worship – to go outdoors-only once again.
But there was no slowing the slide into trouble territory: Orange County is now seeing about 17 new cases of the virus each day for every 100,000 residents – up from a rate of 10.8 last week and well above a rate of 5.6 two weeks ago.
The share of swab tests coming back positive – the testing positivity rate – also rose sharply to 6.8% in updated stats released by the state’s Department of Public Health on Tuesday, Nov. 24. Testing positivity was 4.6% last week.
On July 9, at the height of the summer surge, Orange County’s case rate peaked at about 27 cases per 100,000 residents and, within a week, testing positivity topped out at 12.7%.
“It’s just sort of the inevitable fall wave,” Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and professor of public health at UC Irvine, said. “On the county level it’s a little hard to call exactly where the peak will be.”
Tier assignments and metrics, which state officials had released each Tuesday since the four-tier system was introduced in late August, will be announced at least once a week going forward, officials said.
Most recently, Orange County has averaged 354 tests per day per 100,000 residents, beating the state average of 272 tests per 100,000.
The county hosts two testing “super-sites,” in Anaheim and Costa Mesa. Together the two are swabbing about 6,000 nostrils per day, said Tim Shirata, director of strategy at 360 Clinic, which operates the sites. Most patients get their swab test results back in two or three days, he said, and testing is free to everyone, whether or not they have health insurance.
Shirata said 360 Clinic is hiring up to 400 workers to meet growing testing demand – he’d especially like to hire people who might have been laid off in the local hospitality industry. The drive-thru line at the fairgrounds Tuesday morning took about 15 minutes to get through, he said.
“As you know there has been an uptick in coronavirus, and with the holidays coming up such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, we anticipate that there’s going to be a lot more testing,” Shirata said.
County leaders this week launched free, do-it-yourself saliva test kits, available to Anaheim and Santa Ana residents first – where hot spots of the virus are still being tamped down – in another push to make widespread testing faster and easier.
Dr. Clayton Chau, OC Health Care Agency director and county health officer, has said local drivers of recent new cases included Halloween parties, voting during the election and other reasons for people to gather, even in relatively small groups.
“We are truly in the midst of a surge here in California,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s Health and Human Services secretary, during a news conference Tuesday. “The cases are concerning in part because they really foreshadow what the impact is going to be on our hospitals.”
Predictably, the sickest residents over the past month are ending up hospitalized; Ghaly said generally about 12% of COVID-19 patients need hospitalization two-to-three weeks after infection.
Coronavirus-related hospitalizations at Orange County’s 33 hospitals have tripled over the past month to 463 people by Tuesday.
“Statewide, I don’t believe we’ve ever seen as many hospital admissions … like we did in the past 24 hours, and I hope, but don’t expect, that it will be the highest we’ve ever had,” Ghaly said.
Orange County’s emergency rooms are better prepared for the expected flood of coronavirus patients than they were earlier in the pandemic, hospital officials have said, because they have proven surge plans and stockpiles of equipment.
Recent Health Care Agency reports have shown stable overall bed occupancy across the county’s hospitals, despite the increase in coronavirus patients, indicating that hospitals are adding and subtracting beds – and staff – as needed.
Nursing homes and other group living facilities, which were caught off guard early in the pandemic, also have adjusted to protect residents and have not seen a large uptick in cases compared to the summer.
During Tuesday’s news conference, Ghaly again asked Californians to celebrate Thanksgiving only with members of their own households and virtually with others.
A statewide travel advisory is still in effect, Ghaly said, with a strong recommendation that people arriving from other states and countries self-quarantine for two weeks and limit interactions with people they’re staying with.
“Make sure to drop off Thanksgiving meals to older loved ones and those with underlying (medical) conditions so they can stay home,” he said. “Remind yourselves, remind others around you, that these are the things we have to do to protect our families and friends, because we love them.”
As always, Ghaly said, wear a mask, wash hands frequently and avoid mixing with other households.