A recent uptick in COVID numbers proves it is alive and well in California

COVID numbers are ticking up in California. Here’s what to know

Lu Foster receives a COVID-19 booster shot at the Lynne and Roy M. Frank Residences in San Francisco in October 2021. The FDA approved a second bivalent booster dose for older adults and people with compromised immune systems. | Brontë Wittpenn for The Chronicle.

San Francisco Chronicle, by Aidin Vaziri, July 28, 2023

As people crowd movie theaters for “Barbie,” flock to stadiums to see sold-out Taylor Swift concerts and resume their annual trips to Europe, in what largely feels like a summer in the days before the pandemic, highly transmissible variants of the coronavirus have found ideal conditions to reemerge and infect people.

That’s why health officials say a subtle but sustained increase in key COVID-19 indicators is not unexpected. Emergency department visits, test positivity rates and wastewater virus levels in some areas signal a slight rise in infections, according to the latest figures from the California Department of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, hospital admissions across the United States are up by more than 10% from the previous week.

Kathleen Conley, a spokesperson for the CDC, said that the nation is still in a good place despite this increase.

“U.S. COVID-19 rates are still near historic lows after seven months of steady declines,” she said in a statement. “The U.S. has experienced increases in COVID-19 during the past three summers, so it’s not surprising to see an uptick.”

While the 7,109 hospital admissions nationwide reported for the week of July 15 marks the highest level since December, it remains significantly lower than the peak observed during the omicron surge last July, when weekly U.S. hospitalizations reached more than 44,000.

According to the state’s health department, as of Thursday, California reported an average of 858 COVID-related hospitalizations per day over 14 days, up by 7.4% since the beginning of the month, with an average of nine deaths per day over seven days, compared with five on July 1.

To date, nearly 1.14 million people in the United States have died because of COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic. But the combination of vaccination and immunity from previous infections has driven down community transmission, while treatments such as the antiviral medication Paxlovid have helped significantly reduce the likelihood of severe illness and death due to COVID.

That progress led to the U.S. reaching a pandemic milestone last week as the rate of excess deaths — the number of Americans dying from any cause compared with statistical averages — fell to below 1% after growing to as high as 30% during previous virus surges, according to the CDC.

“The death rates are no longer different from the usual death rates at this time of year,” Dr. Bob Wachter, the chair of medicine at UCSF, said this week in a podcast interview for Medscape. “That is a remarkable achievement and says something about the state of the pandemic and the state of immunity, either from vaccines or from infection or both. And it’s worth celebrating. It’s worth going back to something that feels a little bit closer to normal than we’ve lived for the last three or four years. But you have to do it with your eyes open.”

In California, the coronavirus test positivity rate has jumped to 7.6% this week, compared with 4.1% a month ago. That figure is more indicative of trends than community penetration because so few people now get laboratory tests. Most now rely on home test kits whose results are rarely reported to authorities. Others have discontinued testing altogether.

“In the same way people stop wearing masks and throw caution to the wind, once they’ve run out of their home tests, are they going to go to Walgreens and spend $30 to buy some more?” said Wachter, who himself recently got COVID-19 after avoiding it for more than three years. “I’m guessing they’re not.”

There is no single variant driving the current increase in infections, as XBB.1.15 and XBB.1.16 have declined in circulation over the past two weeks, while newer omicron offshoots like EG.5, XBB.1.16.6 and XBB.2.3 are uniformly gaining traction. No individual variant accounts for more than 15% of the measured proportion.

The upturn is not limited to the U.S. Japan has experienced a rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations and emergency department visits for nine consecutive weeks, indicating the country may be entering its ninth waveof infections. But Europe is reporting flat numbers.

The World Health Organization continues to underscore that COVID-19 “remains a major threat,” as several countries grapple with high disease burdens. In its latest weekly update, the agency urged government leaders not to dismantle their pandemic response infrastructure.

The WHO noted that EG.5, a descendant of the XBB.1.9.2 variant, has an additional mutation that could aid its rapid global spread. However, it said there is “no evidence of rising cases and deaths or a change in disease severity associated with EG.5.”

Updated COVID-19 vaccines targeting the XBB.1.5 variant, which has been dominant in the United States throughout 2023, are expected to be available in late September, alongside this year’s flu shot.

“This is the new normal, and COVID will now be baked into the list of day-to-day risks that we all have,” Wachter said. “And all of us have to come to some sense of clarity of how we are going to live our lives in a way that’s fulfilling and maximizes joy.”