Category Archives: Covid 19

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.”

FDA authorizes 2nd COVID booster for older adults

UPDATE: Second COVID bivalent booster shots set to roll out. Here’s what you need 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/The Chronicle 2021

San Francisco Chronicle, by Aidin Vaziri, April 18, 2023 [See also, this article updated: April 19, 2023]

On Tuesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized a second COVID-19 booster dose for older Americans and individuals with weakened immune systems to enhance their protection this spring.

Coronavirus map: How many COVID cases are in Bay Area and California

The move comes amid concerns over newer variants of the virus causing the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths to tick back up in the United States, particularly among vulnerable populations.

Individuals age 65 or older may opt for a second shot of the bivalent vaccine targeting the omicron strains of the coronavirus at least four months after their initial dose. For those who are immunocompromised, a second booster shot may be received at least two months later, with additional doses at the discretion of their physician.

The FDA also announced that the original versions of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are outdated and will no longer be used. Instead, individuals receiving these shots will be administered the newer omicron-targeted version. For those receiving their first-ever vaccine, a single combo dose will suffice.

A Jackson, Miss., resident receives a Pfizer booster shot from a nurse at a vaccination site. The FDA approved a second bivalent booster dose for older adults and people with compromised immune systems. Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press 2022

According to Dr. Peter Marks, the FDA vaccine chief, “At this stage of the pandemic, data support simplifying the use of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The agency believes this approach will help encourage future vaccination.”

Although Britain and Canada have already recommended an additional spring booster for vulnerable populations, high-risk Americans who last received a dose in the fall have been eagerly anticipating another dose.

Booster doses continue to stave off severe disease and death, even as more contagious variants have emerged, while protection against mild infections is short-lived.

At least 250 people in the U.S. still die from COVID-19 each day, many of them older and at higher risk for the worst outcomes of the disease.

Yvonne Maldonado, an infectious disease expert at Stanford, said, “If you look at who’s dying or getting sick now, it’s people who are unvaccinated or unboosted.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must approve the latest round of boosters, and its advisers are scheduled to meet on Wednesday.

The Pfizer and Moderna boosters contain protection against both the original coronavirus strain and omicron variants known as BA.4 and BA.5. Recent studies show that the bivalent shots are still effective, even as newer omicron cousins circulate.

The FDA’s simplification also means changes for unvaccinated children. Children under 5 may receive two doses of the bivalent Moderna vaccine or three doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech bivalent vaccine.

People 5 and older may get a single bivalent Pfizer shot or two Moderna doses. Children already fully or partially vaccinated with the original Pfizer or Moderna shots may get a bivalent vaccine, but the number of doses will depend on their vaccination history, the FDA said.

While over 95% of the U.S. population aged 65 and older received at least one vaccine dose, only 42.1% of those eligible have received the latest boosters, which were authorized in August, according to the CDC.

The offering of a second bivalent booster will not interfere with the Biden administration’s previously stated plan of moving the nation toward an annual COVID vaccine similar to the flu shot.

But for eligible high-risk groups, a second booster in the spring is a reasonable choice, said Dr. Matthew Laurens of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

“We do have vaccines that are available to protect against these severe consequences, so why not use them?” he said. “They don’t do any good just sitting on a shelf. So let’s give them to individuals who are at the highest risk and who can benefit the most.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Covid reinfections may increase likelihood of new health problems

CNN, by Brenda Goodman, CNN, July 5, 2022

Study: Characterization of SARS-CoV-2 Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 clinical isolates. Eakrin Rasadonyindee/Shutterstock

(CNN) Repeatedly catching Covid-19 appears to increase the chances that a person will face new and sometimes lasting health problems after their infection, according to the first study on the health risks of reinfection.

The study, which is based on the health records of more than 5.6 million people treated in the VA Health System, found that, compared with those with just one Covid-19 infection, those with two or more documented infections had more than twice the risk of dying and three times the risk of being hospitalized within six months of their last infection. They also had higher risks for lung and heart problems, fatigue, digestive and kidney disorders, diabetes and neurologic problems.

The findings come as a fresh wave of coronavirus variants, notably Omicron’s BA.5, have become dominant in the United States and Europe, causing cases and hospitalizations to rise once again. BA.5 caused about 54% of cases nationwide last week, doubling its share of Covid-19 transmission over the past two weeks, according to data posted Tuesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Continue reading Covid reinfections may increase likelihood of new health problems

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.”