Bay Area COVID-19 case rates are once again lower than California’s

After four months of having to claim the highest COVID rates in California, the Bay Area has among the state’s lowest infection rates.|

After four months of having to claim the highest COVID rates in California, the Bay Area has dropped back to its familiar position through most of the pandemic — among the state’s lowest infection rates.

Earlier this month, Los Angeles and San Diego both surpassed the nine-county Bay Area as the highly contagious BA.5 variant spread throughout the state. The switch comes as L.A. considers reinstating an indoor mask mandate, which some campuses in Southern California such as UC Irvine have already done.

The Bay Area’s unusual turn atop California’s case rates defied the pattern seen in all but a handful of days during 2020 and 2021 as the region benefited from aggressive shutdowns and social distancing. But the omicron waves and the lifting of nearly all mandates has changed things.

From late February to early July, the Bay Area was reporting a higher case rate than the state, at times more than 50% higher. At one point, the region’s rate was among the highest in the country.

Now case rates in the Bay Area appear to be modestly declining, dropping from over 50 cases per 100,000 residents at the start of June to the low 40s in July. Case rates in L.A. have now topped 55 per 100,000. COVID hospital patients have also soared in Southern California, while the Bay Area’s rise in hospitalizations is slowing.

So what’s happening now that’s causing the Bay Area to once again fall below California’s case rate?

“Any reason I give is going to be a guess,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “When I look over time at this pandemic, we have seen that outbreaks never occur in a uniform fashion,” he said, “they happen in a stochastic fashion,” an epidemiologists way of saying they happen randomly.

Swartzberg said that what is happening now is “the same phenomenon” we have been seeing for years now. “One region has a problem, and it stays a problem for three months or so, and then it starts to get better.”

But what really matters these days, experts say, is the dramatically better outcomes for people who test positive for COVID, thanks to vaccines and anti-viral therapeutics and new variants that cause less severe illness.

There was no better indication of that than Thursday’s news that President Biden had tested positive.

“My immediate response was that I didn’t feel worried,” said Swartzberg, when his wife told him the news. “That’s a remarkable shift in my feelings from nine months ago,” he said, “with delta, if someone got COVID, someone 79 years old, I worried about them dying.

“I think the chances of someone like Biden dying now are not zero, but they’re getting close to zero.”

When President Trump tested positive more than 20 months ago, the country hung on every update in a pre-vaccine world in which doctors relied on experimental therapies to target a deadlier variant of the virus.

Hours after the 79-year-old, fully vaccinated and double-boosted Biden tested positive on Thursday, many people such as Brandon Shirley hadn’t even heard the news.

Shirley, who was walking around Lake Merritt in Oakland, was not overly concerned for the president’s health. “I think he’ll be OK,” Shirley said. “He’ll get the best possible care.”

Shirley has had the virus twice now. And his three daughters have all had it. Although he was once skeptical about getting vaccinated, his first bout with the virus scared him enough to change his mind. “I thought I was going to die,” he said. “That’s what made me get vaccinated.”

Even though he is fully recovered, “it takes a toll,” Shirley said, “physically, and emotionally.” Getting COVID again is “still a concern,” but he does his best to limit his exposure, and his second round with the virus, post-vaccination, was not a big deal.

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