SANTA ANA (CBSLA) - Orange County's COVID-19 hospitalizations and positivity rates continued a downward trend even as death reports for last month and this month keep rolling in, according to the latest data released Thursday.
The number of COVID-positive patients at county hospitals declined from 415 on Wednesday to 399, while the number of those patients in intensive care ticked down from 79 to 76, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.
OC has not seen patient counts at this level since the end of December.
The county had 23.5% of its ICU beds available and 63.3% of its ventilators as of Thursday. 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 on Wednesday. "They're moving in the right direction and moving as quickly as anyone can reasonably hope."
Of those hospitalized, 84% are unvaccinated and 86% in an intensive care unit are not inoculated, according to the OCHCA.
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 OCHCA.
Also Thursday, the agency reported 476 new positive COVID tests and 24 additional deaths associated with the virus, bringing its cumulative totals to 534,608 cases and 6,419 fatalities.
The fatalities occurred this month and last. February's death toll increased to 38, while January's death toll rose to 398.
December's death toll stands at 107, November's at 113, October's at 136, September's at 199 and 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.
Of the fatalities logged Thursday, five were assisted living facility residents, raising the cumulative death toll in that category to 665. The number of skilled nursing facility residents who have succumbed to COVID-19 stands at 1,265.
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.
The number of fully vaccinated residents in Orange County rose from 2,412,117 last week to 2,422,759, according to data released Thursday. That number includes an increase from 2,257,774 last week to 2,268,168 of residents who have received the two-dose regimen of vaccines from Pfizer or Moderna.
The number of residents receiving the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine increased from 154,343 to 154,591. Booster shots increased from 1,162,927 to 1,180,353.
In the most recently eligible age group of 5 to 11 years old, the number of children vaccinated increased from 72,982 to 77,055 versus 191,525, who have not been vaccinated. It's the least vaccinated age group in Orange County. The next-worst vaccinated eligible age group is 25 to 34, with 322,230 inoculated and 137,171 who have not gotten a shot.
The age group that has gotten the most booster shots is 55 to 64.
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 56 infected inmates Thursday, up two from Wednesday, with the results of 170 tests pending.
The case rate per 100,000 people decreased from 26.4 Wednesday to 24 on Thursday. The testing positivity rate dropped from 6.5% to 5.9%, and fell from 4.7% to 4.5% in the health equity quartile, which measures underserved communities hardest hit by the pandemic.
The case rate per 100,000 people decreased from 23.7 on Feb. 5 to 14.3 on Feb. 12 for those fully vaccinated with a booster shot; from 29.7 to 17.2 for those fully vaccinated with no booster; and 50.6 to 29.4 for those not fully vaccinated.
Chau said despite the state lifting its indoor mask mandate for vaccinated people, 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.
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