Has California avoided another devastating winter COVID-19 wave?
LOS ANGELES — In the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, winter holidays were marred by a pair of devastating waves that ripped through California, sending case counts soaring, residents to the hospital in droves and, ultimately, leaving thousands dead.
But the third winter seems to have escaped that same fate. A late autumn upswing in transmission, which picked up steam after Thanksgiving, began to dissipate in mid- to late December instead of becoming the runaway train public health officials had feared. And in a stark departure from previous years, COVID-19 metrics have continued to improve in the weeks since.
Officials emphasize that the danger is not past — especially for those at higher risk of developing severe illness.
There’s also a chance another problematic variant could emerge. Officials are keeping a close eye on XBB.1.5, which has been described as the most infectious edition of the virus yet.
But the fact that California navigated what was, for many, the closest thing to a normal holiday season since 2019, without a record-setting spike in infections or surge in hospitalizations, is cause for optimism — and it underscores the power of the tools at our disposal, experts say.
“I never say we’re in the clear, because there’s still people for whom COVID is going to remain a really big concern, and they’re going to continue to need to do everything they can to avoid getting infected,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said. “We still have a lot of virus in our communities, but we are definitely in a promising place.”
How did this happen?
Many residents probably enjoyed some degree of protection against the coronavirus because they have been vaccinated, previously infected or both. This means some were able to avoid getting infected, while others’ immune systems were better primed to ward off severe illness.
Anti-COVID drugs — including Paxlovid and another oral medication known as molnupiravir — also probably helped by keeping higher-risk individuals from falling seriously ill.
Bivalent boosters, formulated specifically to help protect against the omicron subvariants that have dominated in the last year, also became available in September. Uptake has been too slow for some officials’ liking, but almost 24% of eligible Californians have received the updated dose.
“Vaccinations, including bivalent boosters, can help protect you from getting seriously ill or even dying,” said Dr. Wilma Wooten, San Diego County’s public health officer.
Behavioral changes — including moving gatherings outside, testing before events, wearing a mask in indoor public settings and doubling down on hand-washing and other health hygiene efforts — also may have played a role.
“While nothing can be said with certainty, currently we’re seeing evidence that our tools to fight COVID-19, including masks, the bivalent booster and therapeutics, are working,” Ferrer said Thursday.
What do the numbers show?
Case counts across California have dropped steadily since the first week of December, and so have coronavirus levels in wastewater.
In L.A. County, wastewater levels began declining in early December, although in recent weeks, they have plateaued at about 70% of last summer’s peak — still a high level of concern, as defined by health officials.
“While wastewater concentration levels are not low, simultaneously, we’re not seeing the post-holiday spike that was expected by the end of the first week in January,” Ferrer said.
In San Diego County, Wooten said in a statement that “the virus is still circulating in the region. We’re still seeing high percentages of positive COVID-19 tests and detecting high levels of the virus in wastewater.”
Elsewhere, recent analysis “shows wastewater signals decreasing in the Greater Sacramento, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California regions, and plateauing in the Bay Area” and Northern California, the state Department of Public Health wrote in an update Thursday.
Other metrics also lend credence to the concept that coronavirus activity has slowed. Modeling from the California Department of Public Health estimates that the spread of COVID-19 is probably decreasing statewide and has been trending downward or stable for the last month.
What about hospitals?
Though many infected with the coronavirus experience mild symptoms, or none at all, any pronounced uptick in transmission threatens to send a new wave of patients to hospitals. In 2020–21 and 2021–22, these deluges were massive and put immense pressure on healthcare systems across the state.
Although California did see a pronounced uptick in coronavirus-positive hospitalizations starting in late October and continuing through mid-December, that census has since plummeted.
UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy: