Orange County is experiencing its third surge in COVID-19 cases since the onset of the pandemic nearly two years ago. This time around, however, the surge appears not as severe, with local data serving as evidence for optimistic predictions that the new, highly contagious omicron variant is a much milder one than its predecessors.
That, coupled with higher vaccination rates in OC, is causing fewer ICU patients and deaths.
“Omicron is proving to be the most contagious of the variants, but there’s also evidence that it is a milder disease,” said Bernadette Boden-Albala, dean of the public health school at the University of California, Irvine.
“We won’t see as many people on ventilators, or dying.”
According to research and as reported by the New York Times, COVID-19 increases in death rates typically trail case rates by about three weeks. That has yet to be the case across the county, and especially in Orange County, where just one death was reported each day on average during the past two weeks, according to data from the Orange County Health Care Agency and analyzed by the Business Journal.
Cases, meanwhile, are surging at a rapid clip.
As of last Wednesday, Orange County had an average positive test rate of 13.2%, with 1,646 cases reported each day on average. That’s more than double the high of 800 cases seen last summer during the August surge, but is still behind the all-time high of nearly 3,700 cases seen during the first COVID-19 surge in January 2021.
During those prior case increases, an increase in deaths was not far behind.
Following the case jump in August, there were about six deaths reported each day on average by the end of the month; by the end of January, north of 70 deaths were reported each day on average.
Cases kicked off their recent surge at the end of November; by the next week, cases had jumped more than 50%.
Now, about six weeks into the omicron surge, there has yet to be a notable increase in deaths.
“This variant is less likely to attack the lungs, which means we aren’t going to see the same rate of deaths as we did with prior variants,” Boden-Albala said. “Ultimately, this trend is suggesting that these variants are expected to continue to evolve into something more similar to a typical cold or flu.”
Still, the contagious nature of the variant is leading to an increase in hospitalizations, Boden-Albala notes, putting a strain on resources and increasing the likelihood that workers will be forced to isolate.
There were 614 COVID-19 hospitalizations in OC as of Jan. 3, nearly four times the amount from the month prior. That’s ahead of the high seen during the summer, when there were 570 hospitalizations, but is still a far cry from the nearly 2,300 cases seen a year ago.
While hospitalizations are increasing at a fast clip, there are relatively fewer ICU patients, or patients in need of ventilators or other life-saving devices.
There were 110 ICU patients on Jan. 3, up from a recent low of 50 patients seen last month, representing a slower increase in severe cases when compared with the two prior surges. The summer surge prompted ICU patients to jump north of 300%; last winter’s surge resulted in an all-time high of nearly 550 ICU patients, almost five times the amount from two months prior.
This lower proportion of severe cases appears to not be just a result of the more mild omicron variant; those with immunity—either through prior infection or vaccination—have a better chance at experiencing mild, or no, symptoms.
Virus transmission, though more likely with the omicron variant, has also shown to be less prevalent among vaccinated residents.
The case rate for vaccinated individuals was less than 22 per 100,000 residents in the week ending Dec. 25; that figure rose to 83 cases per 100,000 residents among unvaccinated individuals.
“The delta and omicron variants are direct results of people not getting vaccinated,” Boden-Albala said. “Everyone should get vaccinated and boosted, which will help significantly in decreasing deaths and severe or acute illnesses like pneumonia.”
As was proven with prior surges, suburban markets with less density, like Orange County, may fare better than other Southern California counterparts.
“We are very lucky to be in Orange County, where risk mitigation is easier,” Boden-Albala said.