As shown in the graph above, LA County reported this week that the daily average of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths remained relatively stable again this week, firming up the County’s assessment that we are indeed now in a “new phase” of the pandemic.
In her weekly address on Thursday, LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer reported the good news that LA County remains in the the “low” community tier for COVID-19 for the sixth week in a row. However, the week also saw the state of California pass the major landmark of 100,000 COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic (LA County accounts for more than 35,000 of that total), and Ferrer also noted that while our current numbers numbers are about 50% of their January levels, they’re still higher than they were this past October. And that definitely means “COVID is still circulating,” and “these aren’t low levels.” What makes the numbers less worrisome now, though, Ferrer said, is that the current number of new cases doesn’t seem to be driving increased hospitalizations, which means that tools like masking, vaccines, and therapeutics are definitely working to improve our overall quality of life with COVID-19.
Next, also in the good news category, Ferrer reported that while the XBB.1.5 Omicron variant (gold bar in the graph below), continues to increase its dominance to about 45% of cases locally and as much as 95% in other parts of the U.S., there are no new overly-concerning variants emerging, and those we are seeing are still in the Omicron family, for which our current vaccines were developed.
Given our current relative stability on the infection front, Ferrer turned much of her attention this week to the still fairly mysterious phenomenon of “Long COVID,” which – like COVID-19 itself – will likely continue to be part of many people’s lives for a very long time.
According to Ferrer, Long COVID is the “continuation of signs, symptoms, and conditions of a COVID-19 infection for four weeks or more after the initial phase of the infection.” It can involve a variety of symptoms, some of which can co-exist and/or worsen over time. Symptoms include things like extreme fatigue and a variety of respiratory, heart, neurological, digestive, and other issues.
Ferrer reported the results of a new study of long COVID in California, conducted by the CDC, which showed that about 30% of California adults who have had COVID-19 reported symptoms that lasted for three months or more after their initial infection. And about 79% of those reporting such symptoms said the issues affected in some way the sufferers’ ability to perform their normal day-to-day activities.
Also, in a study more specific to LA County, Ferrer said 43.8% of respondents reported symptoms that lasted for more than four weeks after their initial COVID-19 infection, with 77% of those saying the symptoms to some degree affected their ability to perform daily tasks.
Ferrer said the specific causes of long COVID are still not yet known, though data shows that people more likely to develop long COVID symptoms are often the same as those most vulnerable to infection in the first place. This includes older people, those who have experienced more severe bouts of COVID-19, those with underlying health conditions, those who are not vaccinated against COVID-19, and children who developed Multi-Symptom Inflammatory Syndrome (MIS-C) during or after a COVID infection.
While specific causes and cures for long COVID are still elusive, though, Ferrer noted that there are now several clinics in LA County, at several of our largest health care providers – including Cedars-Sinai, USC’s Keck Medicine, and Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles – which specialize in treatment and management of Long COVID symptoms.
Ferrer reiterated, however, that the best way to prevent Long COVID is to try to avoid infection in the first place, including all of the practical steps we now know so well.
“COVID is here to stay,” she said, “at least for now.” So masking in crowded spaces, testing when appropriate, isolating when sick, and – most importantly – getting vaccinated, are all still very important. Also, because so-called “natural” immunity from prior COVID-19 infections is quite variable and unpredictable, Ferrer said vaccinations are both less risky and more reliable for immunity than relying on getting sick. “If your strategy for protecting yourself is to get infected,” she said, “we would say that’s not a great idea.”
Finally, Ferrer said, “There’s a temptation to say the pandemic is ending, and for some this experience is very real. For others, they continue to feel the impact daily, whether it is living with the loss of a loved one, the economic toll of the pandemic, or the effects of long COVID. At Public Health, we made a commitment to not leave these people behind. The fact that we didn’t see a large winter surge and that our hospitalization and death rates have remained stable is positive. And I’m optimistic about this next phase in the coming months. As we lift our emergency orders, Public Health will continue…to work to ensure that the public is informed, resources are available to prevent transmission and severe illness, and that we’re all prepared to move forward together.”
About Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.
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