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COVID-19 transmission is soaring at an increasingly alarming rate in Ventura County, pushing even more patients into already packed hospitals, officials said Tuesday.
Data released by the California Department of Public Health showed the unadjusted rate of 131.4 COVID cases a day per 100,000 people in Ventura eclipsed the 127.3 rate in Los Angeles County.
The rate is for the week ending Jan. 2 and is the second highest in the 11-county Southern California region. Only San Bernardino County’s is higher.
A record 449 COVID patients were receiving hospital care in Ventura County, officials reported Tuesday, with 89 of them in the ICU. Hospitals were flooded with a total of 1,002 patients, including those with non-COVID illnesses.
“Nearly half of our hospitalized patients are COVID patients and that is just astounding,” said Steve Carroll, administrator of the Ventura County Emergency Medical Services Agency, noting the 1,002 total patients appear to be a record. “It does not seem to be getting better unfortunately.”
Hospitals are stretched to the limit but are still providing care, said Carroll who praised their efforts.
“Our heroes in the hospital are just exhausted. They need our help,” said Rigoberto Vargas, director of Ventura County Public Health. He urged people to stay at home, wear masks and follow other COVID protocols.
“Do the right thing,” he said.
The ever-rising virus numbers were revealed at a Ventura County Board of Supervisors meeting where officials also provided a vaccine update that included new information on how people high on the priority list can register for shots.
The state adjusts county COVID case rates based on the volume of a region’s testing efforts. Vargas said the county’s per capita test rate was the best in the state for a week.
The testing levels mean the county’s adjusted case rate per 100,000 people is 72.7, better than several Southern California counties, including Los Angeles.
Testing volume aside, Vargas called the county’s COVID numbers alarming. He attributed at least part of the rise to Christmas gatherings.
He also said cases were emerging because of the high rate of COVID testing. He and others urged people to continue to be tested for the virus.
If people test positive, they need to isolate and share information on other people who have been exposed, Vargas said.
According to the new state data, 17.5% of the people tested in Ventura County came up positive in a seven-day average. That’s close to 1 of 5 people.
Speculating on the new virus strain
Ventura County Health Officer Dr. Robert Levin referred to the rising COVID numbers as a second strong bump in the ongoing surge. He said the rise could continue or begin to flatten out.
“This week is critical. I think we will know over the next five days of watching our hospital census of where we are on this,” he said.
Levin said it was also possible though not known for certain that the new virus strain — first reported in the United Kingdom — is present in small numbers in Ventura County.
“My guess is it’s here,” he said, noting that virus strain is believed to be susceptible to the COVID vaccine. Levin said the county’s vaccination efforts means it is on the right track.
Registering for COVID-19 vaccine
Though the county still needs more vaccine from the state, it is expanding efforts to give shots, officials said.
“Whatever it takes to get it done,” said Ventura County Executive Officer Mike Powers of efforts involving several county agencies. “All hands on deck.”
The county said it’s accelerated current efforts to include not just the first tier but all levels of the so-called Phase 1A in accordance with state recommendations issued last week. The phase’s three tiers include an array of medical workers ranging from dentists to home health care workers.
People in Phase 1A can register for vaccinations in a new portal at https://www.venturacountyrecovers.org/vaccine-information/portal/. Registered people still have to show a professional license or other identification to get shots at vaccination sites.
“If they are not in the health care sector at this point, they won’t be eligible to receive a vaccination,” said Barry Zimmerman, chief deputy director of the Ventura County Health Care Agency.
Federal officials said Tuesday they are now encouraging states to vaccinate people 65 and older as well as younger people with pre-existing conditions. The feds are also encouraging states to use all of their doses and not hold some back for the required second shot.
Zimmerman said the county is waiting for direction from the state on how to deal with the new federal guidance.
Ventura County Public Health has received about 24,000 to 28,000 first doses of the vaccine, Zimmerman said. A similar amount has been received and is currently being held for second doses.
Another about 10,000 doses from Pfizer is expected in the next several days.
‘Like a war zone’: ICU beds expanded, body bags in play as Oxnard hospital faces surge
The goal is to build the roll-out to the point where 5,000 shots a day are given by the end of the month. That’s about twice the current rate, Zimmerman said.
Vaccination sites for eligible, registered people include two locations in Oxnard, the Ventura County Fairgrounds and an undisclosed site for first responders.
The county is also looking for qualified people who will volunteer their services to give vaccine shots.
Some pharmacies, including several area Vons locations, are also vaccinating people on the priority list, Zimmerman said.
Officials said they’re constantly asking for more vaccine from the state, noting supplies could run out at some point if the pipeline isn’t accelerated.
“The constraint right now is our allotment not our capacity,” said Powers, reiterating the goal of getting as much vaccine into arms as possible. “We are going big here.”
California Department of Public Health officials have also said counties can vaccinate people lower on the priority list if vaccine is about to expire or demand in higher priority groups has subsided. Zimmerman said that guideline is being followed in Ventura County.
The next phase for vaccination — 1B — is a massive group that includes people 75 and older, law enforcement, firefighters, farm workers, grocery, public safety workers and teachers.
Planning for that phase has begun. Levin predicted vaccinations could start in as soon as two or three weeks. The exact timing will depend on vaccine supplies.
Levin also said vaccination efforts could help with the ongoing surge. He said as many as 40% of the county’s deaths involve residents of long-term care facilities. Residents of the facilities are now being vaccinated.
“This could mean a significant decrease in hospitalizations and ICUs and a decrease in deaths,” he said.
Tom Kisken covers health care and other news for the Ventura County Star. Reach him at email@example.com or 805-437-0255.
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