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As Delta surge eases slightly, health officials urge caution

Voice of OC questions County Health officials

Orange County residents are breathing a little sigh of relief as the Delta outbreak has loosened its grip ever so slightly, with new infections and hospitalizations down from a few weeks ago. Nonetheless, health officials are warning residents to stay away from indoor gatherings over Labor Day to avoid a resurgence of the disease.

“What we see is a gradual downward trend in terms of burden of disease,” Deputy County Health Officer Dr. Matthew Zahn said. “But I think it’s also important to remember that if this is a trend, it is a very gradual trend and it’s still very important that all of us take measures to protect ourselves and our loved ones from COVID infection.”

Despite some good news, the rise in ICU patients correlates with another trend: COVID deaths. Fourteen people in Orange County died from COVID on September 3 alone.

Numbers in Schools

So far, schools do not seem to be playing a major part of the latest Delta surge, despite returning to in-person instruction without social distancing. As reported on the County website, OC schools reported an average of 70 new COVID cases a week from mid-July to mid-August. That number is significantly higher than the average last spring, when schools in virtual or hybrid mode tallied weekly COVID cases from the 20s to the 50s. But there are far fewer cases now than there were during last winter’s surge; the week just after Christmas break last year brought nearly 600 new cases to our schools.

However, reporting delays mean that we don’t truly know yet what the late August and early September numbers will look like during this fall’s in-person learning.

This week’s outbreak at Chapman University in Orange is not an encouraging sign. As reported in the OC Register on September 3, Chapman reported 223 new COVID cases during its first week of in-person instruction. The outbreak spread despite Chapman’s requirement that students either fully vaccinate or submit a personal declination by September 14. The outbreak presses Chapman faculty into offering online instruction for sick students at the same time as they are teaching in-person classes for the healthy, a trick by now familiar for our County’s elementary and secondary school teachers.

The Chapman outbreak also raises concerns about what might happen at other college campuses that have returned for in-person instruction, including Cal State Fullerton, which posted its requirement that all Titans receive “at least their first vaccination dose no later than August 17, 2021, the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year” and that “by September 30, 2021, all returning Titans should be fully vaccinated.” Fullerton College has imposed a similar mandate, albeit on a schedule a month behind CSUF’s, with full vaccination required by November 1.

Vaccination

Universities’ vaccination requirements are part of a broader campaign to vaccinate Orange County residents. That campaign is showing mixed results. Some communities, notably in Irvine and parts of Brea, are vaccinating over 90% of adults, while others aren’t doing much better than half.

Here’s a look at vaccination rates across Fullerton and in our surrounding zip codes as of the end of August, which shows Fullerton about on par with our neighbors in fully vaccinating about two thirds of adults:

Data from: Voice of OC Chart published on Sept. 1 using Aug 26 data compiled by Supervisor Katrina Foley’s staff via OC Health Care Agency Data.

The percentage of those who have been vaccinated is creeping up, but not as fast as it was a few weeks ago. UC Irvine Statistician Vladimir Minin, who posts regular updates, recently noted that 23,500 people in OC began the vaccination process by getting partially vaxxed that week. Sounds like good news but Minin observed that this number was down 10% from the week before. The trend suggests that our neighbors might be losing a sense of urgency about staving off infection.

And THAT means that herd immunity looks likely to remain a dream. Again, Deputy Health Director Dr. Matthew Zahn said, “Herd immunity meant that at some point . . . we’re going to reach a percentage of people who are vaccinated and we don’t have to worry about COVID in our community anymore.”

Unfortunately, Zahn went on to say, “It just doesn’t seem to work that way . . . The virus is going to be in our community for the near future.”

“I think that with the emergence of Delta, a better way to think for all of us is we have two options–we can get vaccinated or we can get COVID disease,” Zahn said. “And clearly the best thing is to get vaccinated.”

County Faces Criticism over Public Outreach

Recently, reporters such as Norberto Santana Jr. of the Voice of OC, have argued that if the County is to push messages like these, it needs to be more transparent and timely in communicating with the public.

At the County health officials’ latest press conference on Friday, September 3, reporters questioned why County officials were only meeting with reporters via phone rather than in front of the general public (or live-streaming on Facebook).

And when Santana pressed Dr. Zahn for specifics on its response to the Chapman outbreak, he was told both that “Chapman has been aggressive in identifying cases” and that “we don’t get into real specifics about outbreaks in those settings.”

Santana places the County’s reluctance to be candid about its response to this outbreak in a more general trend of data distribution by the County that is slow-footed at best. He argues, for instance, that the County ought to rethink its COVID dashboard, since weekly or monthly death counts, rather than two-year totals, would better serve the public’s desire for information on how the Coronavirus is hitting our local communities right now.

In another article in Voice of OC, Santana also raises questions about the pressure put on the County’s leading health official Dr. Clayton Chau by the Orange County Board of Supervisors, arguing that Chau’s predecessor Dr. Nicole Quick took a more proactive approach to disease prevention.

This week, Chau ordered his staff to stop attending daily COVID briefings that Second District County Supervisor Foley had been holding with the public. Santana points the finger at two other supervisors, Andrew Do and our District 4 Supervisor Doug Chafee, in muzzling the agency, saying Chau is acquiescing to the Board’s pressure for a quieter agency, and thereby hobbling the agency’s mission to protect public health.

Next Steps

To help spread information to the public, the Voice of OC will host another COVID Town Hall on Thursday September 9 at 6pm. Readers can find that event on Facebook HERE.

In the meantime, we are hearing much of the same guidance from the Orange County Health Department that we have been for some time: COVID is likely to spread at indoor gatherings this Labor Day holiday, particularly among the unvaccinated; if we are to avoid it, we should get the vaccine, mask up, avoid crowds, put some distance between ourselves and others, and, if we get sick, get tested.

It’s good advice; whether it’s enough to halt the surge remains to be seen.

This article was last updated on September 9.

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6 replies »

  1. Thank you Fullerton Observer reporter Lance Langdon and to Roberto Santana of Voice of OC for getting this information out to the public and for Santana’s great as always questioning of officials.

  2. If I’m not required to mask, I won’t. I’m 73 and have had it with the virus. I’m fully vaccinated. I was promised at one point that having done so (going against my better judgment), I would not have to wear a mask. At the gym, hardly anyone is masked. It’s the last bastion of the old days, and why I love it there. I will spend my remaining days taking advantage of my dwindling freedoms.

    • Bruce,
      I appreciate that you chose to get vaccinated to protect yourself and others. When I see the vaccine numbers in my neighborhood are around 60%, and then I look around in stores and gyms that are requiring unvaccinated people to wear masks, and 90% of people aren’t, I find it frustrating. IMO, everyone ought to be doing their part to get us past this pandemic.

  3. Thanks for this piece, Observer. Useful info for us locals, particularly breaking down the data by zip code.

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