There’s little doubt that compared to the previous COVID-19 surges we’ve experienced, California’s rates of hospitalizations and deaths during the current and worrisome rise in infections remain lower and more stable compared to the past. This gives us hope that we’re in a safer place during this pandemic.
The question is, are we really that safe, or is it a mirage?
The challenge for us today is to know if we’re experiencing the calm before the storm, or if a combination of high levels of immunity due to vaccinations and natural infections is going to blunt the latest bump in COVID-19 cases caused by Omicron subvariants.
Los Angeles County’s coronavirus-positive hospitalizations are rising, resulting in health officials encouraging residents to mask up again to increase protection against COVID-19 and new subvariants.
There’s no doubt that the increase in viral transmission is mainly due to fewer people masking up and the introduction of even more contagious, though less lethal, Omicron subvariants. Studies show that the Omicron subvariant BA.2 is much more virulent than the earliest Omicron version that dominated this past winter, BA.1. According to reports, the new subvariant, BA.2, is now estimated to account for about 85% of coronavirus specimens.
If that’s not enough to raise your concern, we’re also hearing about new Omicron subvariants appearing. These are believed to be even more transmissible than BA.2, causing health officials to wonder if another large surge is just around the corner? Additionally, due to more COVID-19 testing being done at home, health officials suspect that the rate of infection may be higher than reported.
There are reasons why California has fared much better than other states, which have seen new cases of COVID-19 skyrocket in recent months to the chagrin of health officials. In California, we had one advantage: our warmer weather throughout the year meant more activities could happen outdoors, thus lowering the risk of infection. We’re also hearing reports that the San Francisco Bay area has higher rates of infection, and that could be one reason why Southern California’s infection rate remains comparatively lower.
We’re also in a very different place in terms of treatments for COVID-19 with oral treatments now readily available. This means we can treat people sooner and help them avoid getting so ill that they will require hospitalization.
With all the changing factors, and even with our seemingly lower current hospital rates, it’s too early to declare victory against COVID-19. As already noted, actual case numbers are hard to gauge, given the shift to at-home COVID-19 testing. More cases may not be reported as they don’t make it to the local public health department’s radar.
Furthermore, although the news is good for now, we know that California has been a few weeks behind the East Coast’s movements in COVID-19 cases for all the previous surges, which are sadly trending upward once again. That’s why it’s likely that we’ll know in the next few weeks if California indeed will be able to avoid another surge that may require the reinstatement of safety measures that are unpopular among many but may be necessary to ensure public safety.
The power to stay well is in our hands. We each can help ensure that Southern California continues its path of preventing another devasting surge from happening and interrupting our daily lives, social interactions, and overwhelming our health care systems once again as happened previously.
The most effective way of doing so is for all who are eligible to get vaccinated and boosted. The fact is, regretfully, nearly a third of eligible Californians are not fully immunized despite the proven protection these vaccines provide.
Misinformation and political discord continue to be the main culprit. We must work harder to educate the public about the safety and benefits of vaccines based on solid scientific data, not unproven and misleading theories.
And, each one of us has a role in encouraging our friends and families to stay safe by getting vaccinated. We can also help slow the spread by wearing masks indoors and in crowded outdoor settings.
The alternative is not desirable and would carry a high price in the form of lives lost and a forever pandemic.
Dr. Elizabeth Hudson is the regional chief of infectious diseases at Kaiser Permanente Southern California, and is stationed at Panorama City Medical Center.