California officials remain highly concerned about how the explosion of coronavirus cases is hitting hospitals , which are already overwhelmed by staffing shortages because of infected workers, forcing surgeries to be canceled and worsening 911 ambulance response times.
But there is also hope that the Omicron wave could begin to flatten in the coming weeks, offering some relief.
Already, parts of the globe that saw Omicron explode are seeing the wave recede or flatten.
Gov. Gavin Newsom this week noted the trend, saying, “We’re starting to see, in the last three or four days, some case leveling. That’s going to happen here in the state of California as well. … We’re going to get through this — just a few more weeks,” he said.
Computer models suggest that the peak of the Omicron wave may come sometime in late January — maybe next week, said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of the UC San Francisco department of epidemiology and biostatistics.
And while there will likely be a lot of viral transmission in the weeks after the peak, by the time the Super Bowl is held at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood on Feb. 13, it’s possible that conditions will be similar to “where we were in the middle of December.”
“I do think it is reasonable by the middle of February that we will really be in a substantially better place,” Bibbins-Domingo said.
Northern California’s most populous county, Santa Clara County, has recently observed signs of reduced coronavirus levels in feces collected in its sewage.
Early data suggest that high coronavirus levels in feces peaked last week among samples taken from wastewater treatment plants in San Jose, Palo Alto and Gilroy, and flattened in Sunnyvale, according to data posted on the county’s public health department website. But more days of analysis are needed; it’s also possible the decline could be a result of random fluctuations in data.
Still, officials are “cautiously optimistic that that is a sign of things to come,” Michael Balliet, deputy director of the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, said in an interview. Coronavirus levels detected in feces have been a reliable hint for trends that emerge earlier than case counts.
Even with the downward trend, Balliet said, there are still very high concentrations of coronavirus in wastewater compared with levels over much of last year. “We really encourage the community to continue to be diligent in getting their vaccinations, getting their boosters, wearing a mask,” Balliet said.
The Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts has not detected a decline in coronavirus levels in its wastewater, according to data published on its website Tuesday.
In L.A. County, however, officials say they’re not yet seeing any signs that the Omicron surge is topping out.
“One thing for sure is we are still increasing. We’re not plateauing,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said during a briefing.
Ferrer reported 45,076 new coronavirus cases Thursday, nearly eclipsing the county’s single-day record set last Sunday. Over just the last week, L.A. County has confirmed almost 288,000 total new cases — roughly equivalent to the combined population of Torrance and Pasadena.
“We’re hoping that we will follow a similar trend to New York City, Washington D.C.: Plateau and then start a steep decline within a matter of a couple of weeks, but no way to predict that at this point,” Ferrer said.
New York is already seeing potential early signs of having peaked. For the seven-day period that ended Sunday, New York was reporting an average of 90,000 coronavirus cases a day. By Wednesday, it was reporting about 71,000 cases a day, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
New York’s Omicron surge started earlier than California’s, and it also has a worse coronavirus case rate. On a weekly basis, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that for every 100,000 residents, New York is reporting about 2,500 new cases a week; the comparable rate for California is about 1,700.
Britain’s surge may have crested a week ago. For the week ending Jan. 5, Britain was reporting an average of 195,000 cases a day; by Wednesday, it was reporting about 149,000 daily cases, according to Johns Hopkins University.
But California has not yet seen a sustained decrease in reported daily cases.
For the seven-day period that ended Tuesday, California was reporting about 101,000 cases a day, far higher than last winter’s peak of about 46,000 cases a day, and higher than the prior week’s figure of about 58,000 daily cases.
California’s COVID data models, however, suggest that the transmission rate of the coronavirus may have already peaked. The California COVID Assessment Tool estimates a high mark of Dec. 29, at which time it calculated that every infected person was transmitting the virus to 1.72 others.
The model now estimates the transmission rate is 1.35, which means the virus is still spreading rapidly, but not as fast. The rate needs to be below 1 for the surge to decline.
The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation model projects that the daily number of Californians infected is peaking this week. The model suggests that by mid-February, new infections could be 15% of this week’s levels, about the same as mid-December.
Even once the infection trend reverses, it will still take weeks for the full fury of the Omicron wave to dissipate. Throughout the pandemic, officials have noted that a rise in cases will invariably trigger corresponding increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths a few weeks down the line. The institute, for instance, estimates the number of hospitalized coronavirus-positive patients will peak at the end of January.
When it comes to hospitalizations and deaths: “The sad thing is, once we see these increases, they’re likely to continue for a few weeks after cases plateau or begin to decline,” Ferrer said.
L.A. County reported 39 COVID-19 deaths Wednesday and another 45 Thursday. Those are the highest daily fatality figures recorded since the summer.
Over the last week, the region has averaged about 24 reported COVID-19 deaths a day, up from about 14 a month ago.
However, health officials say it’s likely many of those are largely the work of the once-dominant Delta variant, as opposed to Omicron.
“Many people are sick for quite a while and many are hospitalized for quite a while before they pass away, so it is likely that most of the deaths we are seeing are still related to Delta, although not entirely,” Ferrer said.
Officials and experts in California continue to stress that with Omicron spreading so fast, the public should take precautions against getting infected.
Even though an Omicron infection results, on average, in less likelihood of hospitalization, California is still estimating that about 4.5% of residents will require a hospital stay with this strain of the virus. And, officials warn, it’s not clear how survivors will fare with long COVID, which can result in illness that lasts for months or longer, nor how likely child survivors of Omicron will be to face multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C, a rare but serious complication that can be deadly.
“Anyone who tells you that, for certain, you can assure someone, they won’t have long-term [consequences] from having an infection; anyone who tells you, for sure, they know that this variant will give you immunity that will last forever and so, therefore, you should go out and get infected — they don’t know,” Bibbins-Domingo said. “Because the best virologists, the best epidemiologists, the best physicians don’t know and disagree on these various topics.”
Bibbins-Domingo said that she’s still living her life and leaving her home but that she’s taking precautions to avoid getting infected.
On Monday, Los Angeles County health officials urged residents to postpone nonessential gatherings and avoid some activities — especially those with people who are unmasked, unvaccinated or at higher risk of severe COVID-19 illness.
The ask comes just ahead of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend. The Lunar New Year is also right around the corner, on Feb. 1.
The county’s rules regarding events like the Super Bowl remain unchanged. Large outdoor events may proceed with attendees age 5 and older required to be either fully vaccinated or show a recent negative coronavirus test and with masks being worn by everyone age 2 and older except when actively eating or drinking.
Officials are also urging people to upgrade their masks. The most protective are N95, KN95 and KF94, and surgical masks are better than loose cloth masks alone. A surgical mask, commonly called a blue mask, can be made even better by placing a cloth mask on top of it, which tightens the fit.
“When there’s this much transmission — and it will take awhile for transmission to drop really low — people who are at high risk really need to avoid nonessential activities with others,” Ferrer said. “It just doesn’t make sense to go to parties if you’re an older person, if you’re a person with serious underlying health conditions, if you’ve got any kind of immunity health issues.”