The number of COVID-19 infections in Orange County may be nearly seven times higher than previously thought, a new antibody study shows.
While the screening, a collaborative effort between UC Irvine and the OC Health Care Agency, demonstrates that the coronavirus may be far more widespread — though less deadly — than official numbers indicate, researchers said more work is needed to understand the level of protection that antibodies provide and how best to address disparities in how the virus affects different populations.
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“Our study demonstrates that, while a significant number of O.C. residents were already exposed and developed antibodies to COVID-19, much of the county still remains vulnerable to the virus,” Bernadette Boden-Albala, director of the university’s Program in Public Health, said in a statement. “For researchers, there is a lot more work to be done.”
From July 10 to Aug. 16, nearly 3,000 county residents were tested for an array of coronavirus antibodies, which are produced as part of the body’s natural immune response to a virus.
Of those screened, 11.5% were found to have antibodies for COVID-19.
As of Thursday morning, 59,213 cases had been confirmed countywide throughout the course of the pandemic.
That figure represents just under 1.9% of the county’s population of nearly 3.2 million. An 11.5% infection rate, on the other hand, would equate to more than 367,000 cases.
More than 1,400 people have died from COVID-19 in Orange County to date.
Health officials and researchers have previously said that the true number of those infected by the coronavirus likely outpaces confirmed cases, as many people may not have gotten tested or needed medical attention.
“There was this lurking suspicion that there’s a large fraction of people who have had it that did not know,” Tim Bruckner, an associate professor of public health at UCI, said in a statement. “Either they had symptoms and did not seek care, or they did not have symptoms and had no reason to go.”
The latest study also reflects previously noted disparities regarding COVID-19 infection. Researchers said the highest prevalence of antibodies was found among Latino residents, 17%, and low-income residents, 15%.
Boden-Albala said that the greater prevalence among Latinos “is consistent with some of the testing and hospital data that has come out of Orange County and nationwide” and that “as we look toward the fall and flu season, this data also justifies enhanced planning and resources in communities likely to be hit hardest.”
Hispanic and Latino residents account for roughly 48% of Orange County’s confirmed coronavirus cases for which that demographic information is available, and 43% of total deaths — even though they comprise only 35% of the region’s population, according to Health Care Agency data.
“Health equity continues to be paramount, and this study not only confirms the observable trend but also helps inform our strategies and policy recommendations moving forward to help ensure that all of our Orange County neighbors are able to attain access to testing, information and education, as well as the resources they need to care for themselves and their families,” Dr. Clayton Chau, county health officer and Health Care Agency director, said in a statement.
While the proportion of Orange County residents with COVID-19 antibodies is significantly higher than previously estimated, researchers said the study’s findings do not mean the county is anywhere near herd immunity — a term that refers to the point at which enough of the population is sufficiently resistant to a disease that it’s unlikely to spread from person to person.
Researchers said that would require at least 70% of residents to have antibodies.