The Orange County Health Care Agency Friday reported the county's first case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 -- while the county's deputy health officer advised residents to dial down their holiday plans amid increasing COVID-19 concerns.
The health agency said the OC's first Omicron infection was detected in an adult male resident who is fully vaccinated and who has experienced mild illness.
Meanwhile, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, the deputy health officer, also advised residents to invest in some better-quality masks, with an expected winter surge in coronavirus cases looming -- a surge expected to be further fueled by the more contagious Omicron strain.
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When asked about parents wanting to take their children to see holiday shows, Chinsio-Kwong said, "I get it. I have kids who really want to go out and see performances.''
But, she added, she "went out and bought more disposable masks,'' and suggested that surgical N95 masks are preferred over cloth masks.
Chinsio-Kwong's advice came just before officials were notified of the first Omicron case was sequenced in Orange County. But on her weekly conference call with reporters, she said residents should expect that the variant was already here because it has been detected in multiple neighboring counties.
Chinsio-Kwong stressed residents should be on guard even while gathering outdoors.
"If you already bought your tickets to 'The Nutcracker,' I guess you can consider going ... but I would strongly advise your child, who is vaccinated, to wear a very snug N95 mask,'' Chinsio-Kwong told reporters on a weekly conference call.
Avoid going to the movies, she said.
"You can do movies at home,'' she said. "It's actually better at home. You can get popcorn, spread your feet out. It's probably safer that way. ... But if you decide to go the movie theater, wear an upgraded mask ... and eat a snack afterwards or outdoors.''
Chinsio-Kwong said she is going to rethink holiday get-togethers.
"My family is fully vaccinated, but I'm really going to think hard about this one,'' she said. "I'm going to request all of my family members be fully vaccinated and boosted. I'm going to probably even give out a lot of masks as gifts to make sure they're safe. I'm not thinking about being in crowded areas.''
Orange County is 66% fully vaccinated, but there are about 700,000 residents who have not gotten even one dose of vaccine, Chinsio-Kwong said.
"This is still a significant number,'' she said. "That means one in five who are eligible are not protected with even a single dose. This is problematic with Delta and Omicron circulating.''
Even without the pandemic, winter is among the busiest times for hospitals, as there is often a rise in influenza and cardiac cases as well as domestic violence cases, she said.
Chinsio-Kwong acknowledged mask fatigue, but emphasized residents have to stick it out for at least another month or so.
To those still hesitant or nervous about getting vaccinated, she implored them to speak with their doctor. Fears of side effects like myocarditis from the vaccines are dwarfed by the impact COVID-19 can have on the heart, Chinsio-Kwong said.
Studies show that Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are at least 70% effective against infection for the Omicron variant, Chinsio-Kwong said. They nearly always protect recipients from hospitalization or death, she said.
For instance, of the 10 Orange County residents who succumbed to COVID-19 this month so far, seven of them were unvaccinated. The rest were older than 75, Chinsio-Kwong said.
Meanwhile, the county's COVID hospitalizations remained relatively stable Friday, with the number of patients ticking down to 198 from 201 on Thursday, and intensive care unit patients coming down from 58 to 56.
The county also recorded 449 new infections, raising the cumulative since the pandemic began to 318,831.
The five deaths logged Friday increased the overall death toll to 5,851.
The county has 22.4% of its ICU beds available and 70% of its ventilators. Of those hospitalized, 87% are unvaccinated and 89% in ICU are unvaccinated.
Orange County CEO Frank Kim told City News Service earlier this week that most of the COVID-19 indicators are tracking down slightly.
As of Dec. 9, the county's case rate per 100,000 was 7.6 and then increased to 9.8 as of Sunday, but was down to 9.2 as of Wednesday, Kim said.
The positivity rate has hovered between 3.2% to 3.4% this week, he said.
The case rate per 100,000 among the unvaccinated as of Saturday, the most recent data available, was 24.3, down from 24.9 a week earlier. In contrast, the case rate among the vaccinated was 3.7, down from 4.7 during the same time period.
The number of fully vaccinated residents in Orange County increased from 2,270,828 last week to 2,295,286.
That number includes an increase from 2,121,094 to 2,144,648 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 149,734 to 150,638.
The number of vaccine booster shots stands at 681,959.
Of the fatalities logged Friday, three happened this month, raising the death toll to 10. One occurred last month, raising November's death toll to 96. Another happened in October, raising that month's death toll to 126.
The death toll stands at 195 for September and 182 for August.
In contrast, the death toll before the more contagious Delta variant-fueled summer surge was 31 in July, 19 for June, 26 for May, 46 for April, 202 for March and 620 for February.
January 2021 remains the deadliest month of the pandemic with a death toll of 1,596, ahead of December 2020, the next deadliest at 985.