Tag Archives: San Francisco Bay Area

What’s the risk of getting COVID outside? New variants may have changed the answer

A mask-wearing woman stands in the middle of an unmasked crowd at the BottleRock Napa Valley music festival in May. Jungho Kim/Special to The Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle, by Aidin Vaziri, July 7, 2022

Summer in the Bay Area means outdoor parties, weddings and music festivals, where people can worry a little bit less about catching COVID-19. But will fast-spreading offshoots of the omicron coronavirus variant change the equation this year?

The highly infectious and immune-evasive BA.4 and BA.5 sub-lineages of omicron are now the dominant strains in Northern California, according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID infections are up across the state as the test-positivity rate nears record levels, meaning the risk is higher in nearly all settings.

“We know they’re more transmissible, so the risk is greater inside or outside,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert with UC Berkeley.

Health experts agree that outdoor activities are still much safer than indoors, since viral aerosols don’t have a chance to accumulate in the air. But with the most transmissible variants yet, chances are you have less protection in certain situations.

“Being at parks and outdoor sporting events is still what we should turn to,” said Dr. Anne Liu, an infectious disease doctor at Stanford. “But if you are in a dense crowd or in an outdoor space that has been modified to look like an indoor space, then the risk becomes higher.”

In other words, walking on an isolated hiking trail or a breezy beach is a lot safer than standing shoulder-to-shoulder with celebrants under a tent at a wedding or singing and dancing with fans crammed into an outdoor concert.

Summer means outdoor activities, where the risk of getting coronavirus is supposed to be low. But will new new COVID variants change things? An attendee of Stern Grove Festival’s opening concert was one of the few wearing masks for the event at Sigmund Stern Recreation Grove in San Francisco in early June.  Laura Morton/Special to The Chronicle

The omicron sub-lineages are so new that infectious disease experts are still measuring their potential impact, even in outdoor settings.

“The risk outside is going to be substantially less than inside but we don’t know if it’s changed because we haven’t had a lot of experience with BA.4 and BA.5,” said Swartzberg. “We’re basing our assumptions on BA.1 and BA.2.”

Given the high rate of infection across the Bay Area, there is more virus circulating in the air, so it’s better to be cautious in any environment. That means masking, social distancing, and being aware of your surroundings.

“The chances of being around someone outside or inside who is shedding virus is very high,” said Swartzberg.

Even for those who were recently infected, the new variants don’t offer much protection against catching the virus again, according to Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert with UCSF.

“The newest kids on the block, BA.4 and BA.5, cause a lot more reinfections,” he said.

There are certain outdoor situations when you should even consider wearing a mask.

“If I was crowded together with other people where I couldn’t keep my distance, or if somebody near me was talking loudly or singing, I would just carry a mask with me and put it on if I feel uncomfortable,” said Swartzberg.

Wedding receptions and concerts are some examples of high-risk environments where you would likely slip on a high-quality mask, such as an KN95 or KF94, especially if you need to go inside to use the restroom or pick up drinks from the bar.

“These are really transmissible variants. It doesn’t take much time to pick up the virus,” Liu said.

Some people wear masks as Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Soulati Shepherd read “You Are Not Alone” on stage during the Bay Area Book Festival at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in Berkeley in May.  Brian Feulner/Special to the Chronicle

So far, the CDC guidance for outdoor masking is unchanged: People generally don’t need masks outdoors, regardless of vaccination status. However, face masks are recommended in areas of high transmission for individuals not fully vaccinated in a crowded outdoor setting, or in situations with sustained close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated.

Testing is also an effective tool in helping catch potential infections when large groups of people gather, especially if attendees are traveling from different locations.

Keep in mind that BA.4 and BA.5 are taking longer to detect than previous strains of the virus, so anyone showing symptoms should stay at home and isolate. Swartzberg said it is not unusual to see tests with negative results up to three days after people become infected.

“If I was having a party outside, I would ask everybody to do a rapid test recognizing that it’s not going to be foolproof but might pick up a few positive cases,” he said. “If you wanted to add a layer of protection, you would ask people to do a PCR test the day before. We’re now getting results back for those within 24 hours.”

People should also test if they plan on spending any time inside.

“Outdoor activities are often associated with indoor activities,” said Liu. “Any time people are staying in close quarters, like an Airbnb, it is advisable to do testing. The antigen testing has proven to help detect the presence of infection even if doesn’t completely rule it out.”

California is seeing a surge in cases as BA.5, a rapidly spreading subvariant, takes root

Though new case reports have climbed in California, local officials have hesitated to reimpose mask mandates or limits on public indoor settings. Residents relaxed outdoors in Mission Dolores Park in San Francisco in June. Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

New York Times, by Soumya Karlamangla, July 7, 2022

California is in the grip of its third-largest coronavirus surge of the pandemic, with roughly 19,000 new cases being reported here each day on average, according to a New York Times database. The true number of people falling sick is undoubtedly even higher, since most at-home test results aren’t included in official case counts.

Experts say the surge is being driven by the Omicron subvariant known as BA.5, which has rapidly become dominant in the United States and is especially good at infecting people even if they’ve been vaccinated, boosted and already had the virus.

“It’s highly immune-evasive, and that is why it’s causing trouble,” said Dr. Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research in San Diego. “And it comes along in California at the same time that we basically have this delusion that the pandemic is over.”

As of the end of June, 39 of California’s 58 counties had high community levels of the virus, including the whole Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while only two rural counties in the state had low levels. Continue reading California is seeing a surge in cases as BA.5, a rapidly spreading subvariant, takes root

Bay Area COVID cases are sky-high

Entire region at CDC’s high COVID risk level

Registered nurse Navneet Chouhan, left, with Contra Costa Health Services (CCHS), puts a bandage on Venus Basaee, 6, after she got the COVID-19vaccine as her mother Mojgan Deldari looks on during a school-base vaccine clinic at Nystrom Elementary Auditorium in Richmond on Nov. 9. RAY CHAVEZ — BAY AREA NEWS GROUP

Vallejo Times-Herald, By John Woolfolk, July 7, 2022

The entire Bay Area is at the high community risk level for COVID- 19 at which federal regulators recommend everyone wear face masks indoors as newer and more immunity-evasive versions of the omicron variant continue to spread across the country.

While infections remain well below the January peak driven by the initial omicron strains, they’re still at February’s elevated levels and show no signs of declining, Bay Area health officials said Tuesday.

“The pattern we’re seeing in our data does make me think a sustained surge is possible,” Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said. “Previous patterns were we went up and then down, but we went up and now we’re staying at a high plateau.” Continue reading Bay Area COVID cases are sky-high

Why experts are ‘not concerned’ San Francisco Bay Area’s COVID rate is highest in California

Solano is only Bay Area County not among highest rates in the state

SFGATE, By Amy Graff, April 6, 2022
San Francisco has the highest COVID-19 case rate of any other county in California, but experts aren’t concerned as cases and hospitalizations are still extremely low compared to what they were amid the winter surge. In this file photo, people wearing masks walk along at path in front of the “Painted Ladies,” a row of historical Victorian homes, and the San Francisco skyline at Alamo Square Park during the coronavirus pandemic in San Francisco. | Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

San Francisco County has the highest COVID-19 case rate of any other county in California with a seven-day average of 13 cases per 100,000 residents, state data showed on Tuesday. By comparison, Los Angeles is reporting 5 cases per 100,000 residents. And San Francisco isn’t the only Bay Area spot sitting at the top of the list. All counties in the region except Solano have among the highest rates in the state.

But multiple experts say this news isn’t alarming, and does not warrant any policy changes. Despite the region’s ranking, cases are extremely low compared to what they were amid the winter surge when the city’s seven-day average soared above 250 cases per 100,000 at the peak.

“No I’m not concerned,” said Dr. George Rutherford, director of UCSF’s Prevention and Public Health Group. “I don’t think it’s any reason to go back to putting the brakes on and our masks back on. We have lots of hospital capacity.”

“I am not too concerned as our hospitals remain eerily quiet — only 2 patients with COVID hospitalized today at the main UCSF Health hospital on Parnassus, compared to close to a 100 in this hospital on January 25,” UCSF infectious diseases expert Dr. Peter Chin-Hong wrote in an email.

“I don’t anticipate any lockdowns, and I am not even sure any restrictions will be re-implemented as long as our hospitals remain protected.” Chin-Hong continued. “There may be disruptions in the community in the workplace and schools as people need to be taken out to isolate for at least 5 days if infected. Is it interesting that countries like the UK, Denmark and South Africa have removed the mandate for a compulsory isolation when infected and this softens the potential disruptions to life in this way.”

While San Francisco’s case rate may not be concerning, you may still be wondering why it’s higher than other places. UCSF’s Dr. Monica Gandhi believes a primary reason is the city’s robust testing apparatus.

“We do a lot of testing in San Francisco with mass community testing sites established via a collaboration between UCSF and the San Francisco Department of Public Health,” Gandhi said. “This allows us to detect slight increases in cases better than other counties in the setting of BA.2 (now 72% of strains in the U.S.) and with increased movement of the population.”

Rutherford agreed that testing is playing into the city’s higher rate and added that the city is a medical hub and people are coming to the city for care that requires testing. “Theoretically, positive tests should be reported back to the county of residence, but that might not always be happening,” he said.

The highly transmissible BA.2 variant — that’s spreading at a time when more people are traveling and society is reopening — is another likely factor, said Chin-Hong.

“A combination of spring break travel, visitors from lots of other parts of the country and world (Asia, Europe), reopening and the resumption of large indoor events like sports and concerts,” Chin-Hong wrote in an email. “This is all fueled by BA.2, which is more transmissible in a city that is compact. There may be more susceptible people to infection in San Francisco and the Bay Area (compared to other parts of the state) who haven’t gotten breakthrough infection with BA.1 and whose immunity to infection has waned. Strategies that have been used in the past to avoid infection may not work quite as well with COVID.”

Could the Bay Area be at the start of a BA.2-driven surge?

The experts that SFGATE talked to all said they don’t expect cases to skyrocket.

“There’s going to be some sort of a sawtooth pattern and it’s not surprising that things are going to be up and down,” said Rutherford. “We’ll see some clusters and bumps from BA2, but I think the overall pattern is it’s going to broaden the base of that curve as it comes down.”

Chin-Hong emphasized that the region has high vaccination rates and this combined with immunity people infected with COVID gained during the original omicron surge “will provide enough immunity ammunition to protect people from getting seriously ill and so protect our hospital resources so we can continue to take care of the spectrum of non-COVID illnesses without interruption.”