With the heart of the winter holiday season quickly approaching, there’s good news on the COVID-19 front this week: case numbers, which have been rising steadily over the last two months, dropped a bit this week, along with COVID-19-related hospitalizations.
According to LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer in her weekly address yesterday, our average daily number of new cases this week was just over 3,000, which is down from its recent peak of just over 4,000 new cases per day. The number are still up about 120% from a month ago, though, Ferrer said, and still represent a significant undercount because of the growing use of unreported home testing.
Ferrer said COVID-19 hospitalizations also declined a bit this week, though deaths increased slightly, to about 16 per day. And this week’s count also included the county’s 20th pediatric death from COVID-19.
While the slight downturns in cases and hospitalizations are good news, though, Ferrer also noted that we’re still in the “high” community tier, as defined by the CDC, which means that there is some stress on our health care system. For example, she said, COVID-19-related hospitalizations are still higher this year (red line below) than in 2021 (yellow line)…and deaths right now also are just above where they were a year ago – indicating the virus is still very much with us.
And this can also be seen, Ferrer said, in wastewater concentrations, which also remain high right now for both COVID-19…
But while we can’t predict the future trajectories of either flu or COVID-19 right now, Ferrer pointed out that the variant landscape has definitely shifted some in recent weeks, with the BA.5 subvariant of the Omicron strain (red bars in the chart below), which was dominant for most of the year, dropping quickly – it now accounts for a bit more than 24% of sequenced samples – while the BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 (pink and light purple) strains are growing rapidly. Together, she said, those two strains now account for more than 54% of local cases and will likely hit about 70% of cases nationwide this week.
The good news, though, Ferrer said, is that BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are both sub-lineages of the BA.5 Omicron subvariant, so our current bivalent boosters, which protect against the original form of the virus, as well as both BA.4 and BA.5, should be well matched and provide protection against serious illness and death from those forms of COVID.
A bit more worrying, though, Ferrer said, is the emergence and widening spread of the newer XBB variant (bright yellow band in the chart above), which comes from the BA.2 Omicron subvariant and contains a mutation that makes it more likely to evade prior immunity. It is not specifically targeted by our current seasonal booster, though the booster and other vaccinations do also protect against the original strains of COVID, so should provide at least some protection here, too. Also, XBB is still only a small percentage of total cases.
Meanwhile, though case numbers are down a bit this week, it doesn’t mean we can let down our guard. Ferrer said COVID-19 transmission is still very high, and there is definitely some strain on our health care system. For example, Ferrer reported that the number of available hospital beds is actually quite low right now. In fact, she said, there are fewer adult hospital beds available this week (see the red line in the chart below) than at the same point in time in any of the last four years. Ferrer said this year’s early surge in influenza and RSV, in addition to ongoing COVID-19 infections, is “resulting in a very high volume of patients right now.” Also, she said, when more hospital workers get sick, as is also happening right now, that creates staff shortages, which also affects the number of available beds. (Interestingly, the number of available hospital beds at this time of the year in 2020, during the first year of the pandemic, was higher than it is right now. But Ferrer said that’s because many hospitals activated surge protocols at the time, adding beds and staff to meet the increased need, and freeing up other beds by cancelling elective procedures.)
Pediatric hospital beds are also at a premium right now, Ferrer said – with only about 88 available in all of LA County – which is “some of the lowest availability we’ve seen in the last four years.”
Meanwhile, Ferrer said, the percentage of emergency department encounters related to “influenza-like” respiratory illnesses is currently four times higher than it’s been in the last four years, thanks to this year’s confluence of COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
The good news, though, Ferrer said, is that there are good strategies everyone can use to help reduce viral transmission, and – if you or family members do get sick – to reduce the chance of severe illness.
First of all, Ferrer said, wearing masks – which is highly recommended in indoor public spaces – can help minimize the spread of all three major viruses.
Second, getting vaccinated and/or boosted, if you haven’t already done so, is very important, and goes a long way toward preventing severe illness and death. Ferrer also pointed out that bivalent boosters for children ages six months to five years were recently approved and are now available from the county and a wide variety of other providers. Eligibility for the new boosters, though, varies depending on which primary vaccine a child was given:
- If a child age 6 months to five years received the Moderna primary vaccine, they are eligible to receive an updated Moderna booster two months or more after completing their primary vaccine series.
- If a child age 6 months to four years has started, but not yet completed, a Pfizer primary vaccine series, their third dose in the series will now be the new bivalent booster.
- And if a child age 6 months to four years has completed a three-doze Pfizer vaccine series, no third dose with the bivalent booster is needed.
While COVID-19 boosters remain very important, however, Ferrer reported that only a small percentage of our local population – about 18% of those eligible – has taken advantage of them. And currently, she said, the age group with the greatest number of vaccine-eligible un-boosted residents is adults 18-49…which is also the group that tends to be most active, out and about, and in contact with other people more than any other age group.
Testing before and after attending big gatherings is another effective way to help minimize COVID-19 transmission, Ferrer said, noting that the U.S. government has reinstated its giveaway of up to four free COVID-19 tests per household. To order yours, just to to http://covidtests.gov, and fill in your name and address information. The form takes less than a minute to complete. Also, most health insurance policies now reimburse the costs of up to eight COVID-19 tests per month, per person – so check with your insurance provider for details.
Finally, Ferrer said that if you do get sick this year, contact your health provider as soon as possible to discuss your eligibility for anti-viral medications. These need to be taken as soon as possible after infection, but can be very effective in reducing symptoms and the length of your illness.
Ferrer ended her remarks on an a very optimistic note this week, saying that even with the recent surges in three different viruses, “high numbers no longer mean shutting down events or gathering over Zoom. We now have strategies, information, and resources to celebrate with family and friends in safe ways.” And she said “simple efforts have big returns” in protecting both ourselves and others, with the best results coming when we everyone does their part and acts collectively to protect each other during this holiday season.
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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