COVID-19 hospitalizations soar in parts of California, a potentially ominous sign – Community News
Covid-19

COVID-19 hospitalizations soar in parts of California, a potentially ominous sign

The number of hospitalizations from COVID-19 has risen significantly in the Inland Empire and Central Valley, raising new concerns about whether the shift foreshadows a larger peak in COVID-19 in California as the winter break approaches.

Statewide, both cases and hospitalizations plateaued after months of decline. Hospital admissions have remained fairly stable in some areas with relatively high vaccination rates, including the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County.

But in some areas with lower vaccination coverage, such as Riverside, San Bernardino and Fresno counties, conditions are worsening, with hospital admissions rising by more than 20% in recent weeks. And even in some places with relatively high vaccination rates, COVID-19 hospitalizations are on the rise; in Orange County, hospitalizations for COVID-19 have increased by 16% since Halloween.

Health officials have warned of a possible new surge in COVID-19 in California, as seniors who received their injections — and did not receive a booster shot — last winter could see their immunity wane, exposing them to a greater risk of infection and hospitalization, and as people gather more indoors as the weather cools and the holidays approach.

Demand for booster shots has fallen below expectations in California. And each Californian infected is increasingly spreading the coronavirus to more people; as of Saturday, computer models estimate that every Californian infected spread the virus to an average of 0.96 other people; if that number goes above 1, it will pave the way for further expansion of the pandemic.

Officials hope strict vaccination requirements in some of California’s most populous areas will help slow the spread of cases over the winter. In Los Angeles, a new city rule went into effect Monday requiring customers to show proof of full vaccination to enter venues such as indoor restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and hair and nail salons, but it won’t be applied until after Thanksgiving.

Just weeks ago, officials in the San Joaquin Valley were optimistic that trends were heading in the right direction. But now officials say hospitals in Fresno County, the most populous county in the region, “really never left the crisis,” said Dan Lynch, director of the Central California Emergency Medical Services Agency.

“The larger hospitals are probably between 110% and 130% of normal capacity. And they’re all holding ICU patients, again, back in their emergency department,” Lynch said. “We see the hospital’s emergency departments being overwhelmed.”

Most hospitals have been forced to postpone scheduled surgeries, and some patients who need special care may need to be referred to other parts of California, officials said.

Many of the COVID-19 patients who need to be hospitalized are unvaccinated people in their thirties, forties and fifties, said Dr. Rais Vohra, Fresno County Interim Health Officer. Fresno County was forced on Wednesday to re-implement a measure to no longer automatically transport all 9-1-1 patients to the emergency room, a policy that had ended Oct. 22 because officials believed the increase in the Delta variant in the region was declining.

“If you asked me two weeks ago what I thought would happen, I would have really thought we would have a nice, relaxing November,” Vohra said. Now, “it’s been very humbling just because this pandemic is giving us more and more curveballs and this November plateau is really keeping us busy.”

Of California’s five regions as defined by the Department of Health, the San Joaquin Valley has the worst COVID-19 hospitalization rate, with 25 COVID-19 hospitalizations for every 100,000 residents; followed by rural Northern California, at a rate of 16, and the Greater Sacramento area, at a rate of 14.

The statewide percentage is 10, and the two most populous regions have percentages below that: Southern California’s percentage is 8, while that is 4 in the Bay Area. 100,000 inhabitants.

In Southern California’s most populous areas, the Inland Empire has the worst COVID-19 hospitalization rates, with San Bernardino and Riverside counties reporting 14 and 11 respectively. San Diego County Reports 8; Orange County, 7; L.A. County, 6 and Ventura County, 4.

Since mid-October, COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased by more than 27% in both San Bernardino and Fresno counties; while in Riverside County, numbers are up 21% in the past two weeks.

While health officials have been largely optimistic that the state’s relatively high vaccination rate will keep conditions from worsening to the devastating magnitude we saw last fall and winter, flipping the calendar comes with a host of additional risks.

Colder weather, even in normally balmy parts of California, will increasingly push people to gather indoors — where the risk of transmitting the coronavirus is higher. There is also a marked seasonality of the coronavirus itself, making it easier to spread when temperatures drop.

A packed list of holidays will also entice people to travel and get together, possibly to an extent not seen since the start of the pandemic.

Add it all up and you have a powerful recipe for another possible coronavirus resurgence.

It’s already happening in other parts of the country.

“Even in highly vaccinated places like New Hampshire and Vermont, you can see these northern counties breaking out and starting to develop more transmission, just like Alaska,” Dr. George Rutherford, a UC San Francisco epidemiologist and infectious disease expert, said recently at a campus forum.

The greatest concentration of coronavirus cases has expanded from Montana, Idaho, North Dakota and Wyoming, spreading further south, through Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.

States with both low vaccination rates, such as Wyoming, where only 44.4% of residents are fully vaccinated, are among the highest rates in the country, as are several states with vaccination rates comparable to California’s 61.8%, such as Colorado ( 62.1%). New Mexico (62.5%) and Minnesota (61.6%), Rutherford said.

That’s why Colorado, New Mexico and Minnesota could be warning signs for California’s future, Rutherford said. Those three states have weekly coronavirus cases three times what California is now reporting; Wyoming’s is more than 3½ times worse than California’s.

Rutherford said LA, Orange and Ventura counties are doing well in relative terms, but warned San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties have quite high cases.

These factors all suggest there is an urgent need for unvaccinated people to get their injections, including children ages 5 to 11 who just qualified last week, Rutherford said. People who have recovered from COVID-19 also still need to be vaccinated; a study published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that unvaccinated COVID-19 survivors were five times more likely to contract a new coronavirus infection compared to fully vaccinated people who had never been infected.

And people who are immunocompromised or are seniors should get additional vaccinations to boost their immunity, Rutherford said. The CDC says less than 33% of fully vaccinated California seniors age 65 and older have received a booster dose, “which is a major problem that needs to be addressed,” Rutherford said.

That means there’s a race to boost more seniors before their immunity wears off too much, Rutherford said. A study recently published in the journal Science found that all three COVID-19 vaccines available to Americans have lost some of their protective power, with the vaccine’s effectiveness in a large group of veterans aged between 35 and over. % and 85% fell.

Some experts have already expressed hope that the worst of the pandemic is over and that a new wave is unlikely. Other experts, including Rutherford, aren’t so sure. While Rutherford said he expected California “to be ready by spring,” November will likely be decisive in giving us a sense of how the rest of the fall and winter will unfold.

“If we come out the other side and have a high number of people vaccinated, a lot of vaccine coverage, then I think we can really throw the masks off a little bit and go back to normal,” Rutherford said. “It’s not inconceivable that the Bay Area and urban Southern California could really walk away with high vaccination levels — especially if we can get it to these younger kids — that will really create something akin to herd immunity.”

Rutherford added: “If not, we will have to postpone this longer.”

Part of the future of the California pandemic will also depend on more people being vaccinated around the world, reducing the risk of an even more problematic variant emerging, Rutherford said.

LA County’s months-old mandate to wear masks in indoor public places is likely to be in effect through the end of the calendar year. Special state rules for so-called mega events, which were initially set to expire this month, have instead been extended indefinitely.

“We’re worried about the winter, to be honest,” LA County director of public health Barbara Ferrer said at a recent briefing. “We don’t like what we see in Europe. We know this virus is seasonal, we cannot escape that reality. We know that people go indoors more, even here in LA County, when it gets colder. And we know the holidays are coming.”

According to a recent survey commissioned by the American Hotel and Lodging Assn., 29% of Americans said they would likely travel for Thanksgiving — up from 21% last year. The proportion of people who said they were likely to do this at Christmas, 33%, was also higher than last year’s 24%.

Of those surveyed, 58% said they were planning a vacation somewhere within driving distance due to the pandemic.

Unlike last year, health officials are not directly advising residents not to travel during the holidays. Instead, they reiterate the importance of taking precautions.

“This is where people, vaccinated or not, really need to continue to apply the preventive measures we’ve been talking about from the start of this pandemic, including washing your hands regularly, wearing a mask, trying to keep your distance, in well-ventilated areas.” said Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, a deputy health officer for Orange County.

Times staff writer Melissa Healy contributed to this report.