By CBSLA Staff

SANTA ANA (CBSLA) – Orange County medical centers admitted additional 45 COVID-19 patients Friday, with hospitalizations at levels not seen since late February.

Hospitalizations due to the virus increased from 409 on Thursday to 454 on Friday, with the number of intensive care unit patients inching up from 69 to 71. The county has 23.2% of its intensive care unit beds and 74% of its ventilators available.

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The last time the county had this many people hospitalized with the virus was Feb. 24, and ICU numbers have not been this high since mid-March.

“We’re all doing the right thing and yet we’re suffering along with the rest of everybody else, Who for whatever reason decided not to get vaccinated. That’s crazy,” said Laura Oatman, a Newport Beach resident.

The county on Friday reported 1,108 new coronavirus infections, raising the cumulative total to 269,016. The last time the county reported new cases at that level was late January, during the winter surge.

The county also logged two more deaths, which occurred on July 30 and July 18.

Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, called the county’s hospitalization numbers “amazing. And the percentage positive is up again, so I’m expecting more of this (in) this coming week,” he said, in recommending that everyone, including the fully vaccinated, wear a face covering when indoors at businesses or offices.

Health officials have attributed the surge to the highly contagious Delta variant, particularly among unvaccinated people.

According to the Orange County Health Care Agency, the weekly case rate per 100,000 for unvaccinated residents is 35 as of July 31, and 6.1 for fully vaccinated people.

Noymer noted that the peak for last summer’s surge was 722 patients in Orange County hospitals. He predicted this surge will likely equal that period, despite the fact there are vaccines widely available now when there weren’t any last year.

“Right now people are shrugging their shoulders,” Noymer told City News Service. “The Newport Beach restaurants are full.”

According to Noymer, the most important metric to monitor is hospitalizations because many of the infections could be from higher testing or involve breakthrough infections among the vaccinated, which typically feature mild or no symptoms.

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley held a virtual news conference on Friday with Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, deputy health officer for the Orange County Health Care Agency, to discuss concerns about the virus’ trajectory in the region.

“We now have the highest hospitalization and ICU since February,” Foley said. “So we’re definitely not going in the right direction.”

Foley said she was alarmed at the number of children being hospitalized for COVID-19.

Chinsio-Kwong noted that children younger than 12 cannot get vaccinated, so they are especially vulnerable. The doctor said that since fully vaccinated people usually experience few or no symptoms in breakthrough infections, they can unknowingly transmit the virus, so face coverings are being strongly recommended in indoor settings or among large crowds.

The number of children hospitalized for COVID-19 remains low, but “it is still happening,” the doctor said.

There are eight hospitalized COVID-19 patients — all unvaccinated — at Children’s Hospital of Orange County currently, Chinsio-Kwong said.

Chinsio-Kwong said 90% or more of all hospitalized patients are unvaccinated. Experts say the vaccines are effective at preventing serious illness or hospitalization.

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Chinsio-Kwong noted that vaccines are widely available at no cost. The county is offering mobile vaccination pods, but most local doctor’s offices and pharmacies are also providing shots, she said.

“There’s plenty of choices to get vaccinated, so please get vaccinated if you haven’t already,” Chinsio-Kwong said.

She said vaccination rates were trending down, but there has been an uptick in demand of late.

“We’re at least at a plateau, which is encouraging,” she said.

Orange County CEO Frank Kim noted that statewide figures show that 18% of infected Californians are being hospitalized.

So far, county officials are only strongly encouraging mask usage and not issuing any health orders mandating it, Kim said. “We’re challenged with if you’re going to have an order, how do you enforce it?” he said.

Kim added that most everyone understands already how face coverings curb the spread of COVID-19.

“The education has already been done,” he said. “People know how to protect themselves.”

Another headache county officials are dealing with is carrying out a state requirement issued last week that requires checking the vaccination status of some government employees who work in facilities with high-risk people such as homeless shelters, jails and hospitals. Those who are unvaccinated must be tested weekly.

“It’s a huge administrative lift,” Kim said of the new program, which begins Aug. 23.

According to weekly averages released Tuesday, the county’s average daily case rate per 100,000 residents increased from 8 to 12.7, and the test positivity rate jumped from 4.9% to 6.9%.

The county’s Health Equity Quartile rate, which measures the disadvantaged communities hardest hit by the pandemic, increased from 4.4% to 6.6%.

The HCA has logged 5,148 deaths since the pandemic began.

The death toll is nine for July; 15 for June; 22 for May; 43 for April; 199 for March; 612 for February; 1,563 for January — the deadliest month of the pandemic — and 968 for December, the next deadliest.

Noymer said the only way out of the pandemic is through vaccination. Anyone relying on a past infection for immunity is vulnerable to getting COVID- 19 again, he said.

“Natural immunity is not so robust against the variants, which is unusual, but it is what it is. It’s the reality,” Noymer said. “If anything, the immunity from the vaccine seems to be more robust, believe it or not, which is also unusual. This is an unusual virus. It’s not the same as the flu or measles, so it has slightly different rules.”

The number of people in Orange County who have received at least one dose of vaccine stood at 1,991,822 as of Thursday, according to the state’s database.

The HCA’s figures put the number of fully vaccinated Orange County residents at 1,922,696 as of Thursday, up from 1,897,664 last week. The county has 1,796,967 fully vaccinated residents who received Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, which require two shots, and 125,729 who have received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

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(© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)