Despite the millions of vaccine doses distributed across Orange County within the last year, the county is battling another steep COVID-19 increase, with more than 15,000 cases reported following New Year’s Eve weekend.

Nationally, the United States surpassed one million cases in a single day on January 3, setting the national record for the most single-day cases since the pandemic began. In Orange County, between Thursday, Dec. 28 and Tuesday, Jan. 4, the Orange County Health Agency reported 25,508 new COVID-19 cases. HCA also reported five COVID-19 related deaths.

On Wednesday, Jan. 5, the trend of high case counts continued as HCA reported 4,646 new COVID-19 cases, with four new deaths. In total, there have been 5,901 COVID-19 deaths to date.

Along with an increase in daily COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations have surpassed 600 for the first time since July. Since Christmas, hospitalizations have more than doubled, rising from 256 on December 25, to 673 as of Wednesday, Jan 5.

The county’s number of adult ICU beds is currently listed at 22.1% capacity with 116 people requiring intensive care.

Dr. Andrew Noymer, professor of epidemiology at UC Irvine, said he is less concerned with positive tests than he is with the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19.

“Omicron, in general, is a mild syndrome. What’s really key is hospitalizations — those are up,” he said. “It’s ensnaring so many people and it’s hospitalizing a lot of them. It’s tripled since mid-December. Not only is [Omicron] here, but it’s more contagious than Delta, which was already more contagious than Alpha.”

While milder in nature, Omicron carries a shorter incubation period. From Noymer’s perspective, this has introduced some epidemiological challenges, considering the steep trajectory of the latest surge.

“We have some epidemic curves – that are just unbelievable,” he said. “You see these rocket-like increases and it’s because of not only the transmissibility but the shorter incubation period, which means more people can get it more quickly in the population.”

Locally in Irvine, trends are mimicking Noymer’s sentiment.

Between December 21 and December 28, the city reported 902 cases, adding that 112 of the cases were among children under 17.

Cases more than doubled the following week. Between December 28 and January 4, Irvine reported a dramatic jump with 2,545 cases, with 401 among children.

Within the Irvine Unified School District, students returned to class on January 3, but the district has asked parents to keep children home if the child is sick or displaying COVID-19 symptoms.

To help combat the spread of COVID-19 between school children, the district is offering several testing options including free COVID-19 test kits for IUSD students and staff. Test kits are available in nasal or saliva swabs. 

The district has also suggested that families with access to health insurance contact the family health care provider to locate COVID-19 tests. 

As of December 30, the Orange County Health Agency reported that more than 2 million people are considered fully vaccinated. However, despite the high percentage of vaccinated individuals, less than 1 million individuals have received a booster shot with the county.

The post-holiday increase in cases comes as health experts continue to express caution and preach increased vigilance against the newly arrived Omicron variant. While the county has yet to report more than 50 cases of the highly transmissible variant, breakthrough infections continue to occur.

In an email interview with Irvine Weekly, Sanghyuk Shin, an infectious disease epidemiologist and Director of UC Irvine Infectious Disease Science Initiative, said he is concerned with the arrival of the Omicron variant, even in the vaccinated. 

It should be noted that it has been less than one month since HCA reported the county’s first Omicron case on December 17. Shin added that due to delays in laboratory testing, he believes that the new variant has been circulating in Orange County for some time.

“Unfortunately, vaccinations appear to have limited effectiveness in preventing omicron infection, unless one has received the booster, which does reduce the chance of being infected,” he said. “But we’ve already seen super-spreading events in groups of vaccinated people, including those with boosters, so it will be very difficult to stop the spread of Omicron with vaccinations alone.”  

“The good news is that most people who are fully vaccinated will likely have mild disease,” Shin continued. “Unfortunately, some vaccinated people will get severe illness, and we also have a large population of people who are not vaccinated, who are at a much higher risk of severe disease. This is why I am concerned about a possible surge in people needing hospital care, which would put a tremendous strain on the healthcare system.”

While current case counts continue to increase, health experts continue to reiterate the need for access to vaccines, which Shin said is not occurring on a global scale. 

“As a society, living with COVID-19 seems inevitable, and it is expected the severity of the disease will eventually be substantially reduced due to widespread immunity from vaccines or infection,” Shin said. “However, as long as the vaccines are not equitably distributed across the world, we will likely continue to see new variants arising in the future. This is why we need to do all we can to ramp up the production of vaccines globally by sharing the knowledge for producing the vaccines, most of which were funded by taxpayer money.”