As residents in Irvine and Orange County prepare for a holiday season free of lockdowns, experts across the country continue to express caution against COVID-19, echoing that little is currently known about the Omicron variant, reiterating that this mutation of the coronavirus carries high transmissibility.

On Wednesday, Dec. 22, the Orange County Health Agency reported an additional 652 new COVID-19 cases, along with four deaths, bringing the county’s accumulative total to 5,857 COVID-19 related deaths.

In terms of daily case totals, Wednesday’s total (652) is the highest daily total since 531 COVID-19 cases were reported on December 16. It is also nearly twice the current seven-day average of 323.

The county health agency reported the first case of the Omicron COVID-19 variant in the county on Friday, Dec. 17, as the county surpassed 320,800 accumulative cases of COVID-19. The agency also reported that the individual infected with the Omicron variant was a fully vaccinated male, and experienced mild symptoms.

In a statement, Dr. Matthew Zahn, Deputy County Health Officer and Medical Director in Communicable Disease Control, said it’s important to continue to follow health and safety protocols to reduce the spread of the virus, but that the arrival of the Omicron variant was not something unexpected.

“The Omicron variant is highly transmissible and has already been identified in the United States and many countries around the world,” Zahn said. “We had anticipated that Omicron would arrive here in Orange County. It’s important that we all do our part by following public health guidance to protect our loved ones and neighbors, especially those who are most vulnerable, during the holiday season.”

Hospitalization rates in Orange County have remained flat over the last month, with 187 total patients being treated for COVID-19 on December 22. Of that total, 56 have been admitted to the intensive care unit.

While hospitalizations have not shown a dramatic increase, numbers have yet to significantly decrease over the last month.

One month ago, on November 22, HCA reported a total of 188 individuals hospitalized. Since then, Orange County’s hospitalization totals have not fallen below 163 – peaking at 206 on December 15. Additionally, ICU capacity has shown a slight increase from a total of 49, as of November 22, to 56 on December 22. Capacity within the ICU reached a peak of 66 on December 12.

Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, Deputy County Health Officer at the Orange County Health Agency, is anticipating increases in case rates before the end of December.

“Due to the 7-day lag in our testing reports and calculations, we anticipate that the case numbers will go back up before the end of this month, especially with Omicron beginning to overtake Delta in cases across the U.S. according to the CDC’s data,” she said. “We strongly encourage our residents and visitors to exercise every mode of precaution against COVID that is possible to protect our loved ones and neighbors.”

While mysteries of the virus still remain, action is being taken locally to prevent severe outbreaks at educational institutions, including UC Irvine. On Wednesday, Dec. 22, the University of California system announced that proof of COVID-19 booster shots would be required upon return from the holiday break.

In Irvine, UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman, in a statement, acknowledged that returning to campus directly following winter break “is not prudent,” announcing that the first two weeks after the holiday would be held remotely.

“To accommodate this process, I have decided that the first two weeks of winter classes, January 3 through 14, will be remote,” Gillman wrote in a letter. “This will allow for at least one cycle of testing, sequestration, and re-testing for appropriate members of our community, especially our returning residential students, and continues the testing requirements and opportunities we practiced throughout the fall quarter.”

Gillman added that while UC Irvine students will be remote, the campus will be fully operational.

In order to understand how Orange County is fairing against the current Omicron variant, Irvine Weekly spoke with Keri Hurley-Kim, PharmD, MPH, BCACP, APh, a Health Sciences Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Clinical Pharmacy Practice in the UC Irvine School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences, for her perspective on the current hospitalization trends.

When asked if the current lack of decreasing hospitalizations in Orange County was concerning, Hurley-Kim said in comparison to case rates in Los Angeles and nationwide, which have seen major increases since Thanksgiving, Orange County is doing well.

“It is surprising, the difference, not just hospitalizations but also the case rates have been much more stable compared to Los Angeles and compared to nationwide. There was a small increase after Thanksgiving, but it has not been the same in L.A. where we’ve seen almost a 300% increase,” she said.

Hurley-Kim added that she could not attribute significant reasoning behind the differences in counties, adding that both had similar vaccination rates.

“I don’t know the exact explanation for that. I know in L.A. we have stricter masking policies,” she added. “The fact that hospitalizations are still pretty well connected with the case rates is pretty much to be expected. I think it would be much more concerning if the cases had gone up. I think a lot is going to depend on people’s behavior over the next couple of weeks.”

From a virology perspective, Hurley-Kim added that the best defense against the virus is vaccination. However, Omicron might change that.

“What we are seeing with Omicron is a really significant decrease in the efficacy against infection — meaning that there are a lot more breakthrough infections,” she explained. “The other big thing we’re looking at is increased transmissibility overall — does this strain result in more secondary infections – infecting two, three of four people, instead of one person as we saw with Delta.”

As Omicron continues to circulate, Hurley-Kim said she expects researchers to reveal more distinguishing characteristics within the next month.

“Looking at case counts and hospitalizations is going to tell us a lot. Whether we see a slow and steady rise or more of a continued plateau — that’s going to be a much different story than if all of a sudden see a massive spike in cases, similar to what we’re seeing in South Africa, and the U.K.,” she said. “I think that we do need to be really mindful — even if this wave turns into something small — to say, ‘Well, OK, this is an indication that the pandemic is over.’”