Orange County’s intensive care unit capacity continues to remain under 20%, with more than 85% of hospitalized individuals unvaccinated. However, despite the winter surge, some experts suggest we are moving closer to an endemic, signified by mild sickness, shorter hospitalizations and fewer deaths. 

As steep increases of COVID-19 continue, hospitalizations in Orange County have surpassed 1,000 for the first time since last summer. As of Tuesday, Jan. 18, 1,197 people were hospitalized, with 199 in the intensive care unit. On Wednesday, Jan. 19, hospitalization increased to 1,232 with 207 people in the ICU.

Following the extended weekend, due to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Orange County Health Agency reported 24,639 new COVID-19 cases with 17 new deaths. Accumulatively, Orange County has reached 459,575 cases with 5,938 deaths.

Locally in Irvine, between January 11 and January 18, there were 4,924 new COVID-19 cases, with more than 1,300 among children. In total, Irvine has reported 28,421 total cases and 120 total COVID-19 deaths.

As of Tuesday, Jan. 18 the OC HCA’s COVID-19 dashboard indicated that ICU capacity had fallen from 19.6% on Friday, Jan. 14, to 16.5% on Tuesday, Jan. 18. However, ICU capacity has seen an increase to 19.4% of adult beds available on Wednesday, Jan. 19.

The majority of those hospitalized due to COVID-19 remain unvaccinated, according to Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, Deputy County Health Officer. Chinsio-Kwong reiterated that vaccination continues to be the best protection against COVID-19.

In terms of comparison between the fully vaccinated, fully vaccinated with a booster, and unvaccinated, the case rate between the vaccinated without a booster remains significantly higher than the case rate among the fully vaccinated with a booster.

In Orange County, the case rate among those with zero-to-one doses is 290.1 per 100,000. The case rate for fully vaccinated without a booster is 220.4 per 100,000.

“With the highly transmissible Omicron variant causing widespread infection around the world and locally, it is apparent that adding additional layers of protection to prevent transmission is more important now than ever,” Chinsio-Kwong said. “Recent studies continue to show that getting vaccinated significantly minimizes the chances of having a severe illness, getting hospitalized or dying from Omicron.”

Despite the recent rise in cases, Dr. Andrew Noymer, Epidemiologist and Associate Professor at UC Irvine, explained that the less severe Omicron variant may be a sign of an endemic.

“Part of the answer is that it already is [an endemic]. It’s not going to go down to zero overnight — we all want it to go down to zero, but that’s not the reality,” Noymer explained.

In an interview with Irvine Weekly, Noymer explained that while the long weekend did result in high COVID-19 totals, he says a positive sign is that Omicron seems to require shorter hospitalization time and cause less severe illness.

From Noymer’s perspective, this wave of milder illness is a positive sign that the virus is entering an endemic stage. However, Noymer emphasized that the endemic is not the eradication of COVID-19, entirely.

Instead, Noymer explained that the endemic of COVID-19 will be more seasonal, and continue to become less and less severe year after year.

“One of the biggest misunderstandings with COVID-19 endemicity is that endemicity means we go back to 2019. — COVID-19 endemicity means never-ending winter cycles of COVID,” Noymer explained. “We’re going to be having this conversation next January — and hopefully next January will be milder than this January.”