Thursday, January 26, marked the three-year anniversary of the first COVID-19 case reported in Los Angeles County, said LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer in her weekly address that day. But while the pandemic is still ongoing, she said, we’re definitely in a much “better place” now, thanks to increased knowledge about the virus, development of effective prevention tools, and the availability of new therapeutic drugs for those who do get sick.
What that “better place” looks like more specifically last week is that both new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continued their recent downward trends, with new cases averaging about 960 per day, a “significant decline” since the first of this month, and only about 104 hospitalizations per day.
The one caveat, however, is that daily deaths from COVID-19 are still “relatively high,” Ferrer said, at about 19 per day…which means the virus is still very much with us. In fact, she said, it is still the number one cause of death in Los Angeles County. (For comparison, there have only been 57 deaths from influenza in LA County so far this season, which began in October…and Ferrer said COVID will remain a much bigger threat until its deaths drop to levels similar to those for the flu.)
Also, as we’ve been hearing for a few months now, Ferrer explained again that new case reports no longer provide a complete picture of the current spread of COVID-19, since so many people are not testing at home. But wastewater testing, which doesn’t rely on whether or not individuals get tested or report test results, does paint a more accurate picture of our current viral distribution. And it, too, this week shows a steep drop, to just 29% of our peak levels last July, and dipping just barely into the level of “low” concern for the first time since October.
And just as welcome, on the broader viral front, was Ferrer’s news that wastewater testing for both influenza and RSV, which began their seasons early and very strong this year, also showed big drops again this week.
Ferrer did note that flu often rises and heads for a second peak during the spring season, though, so we might still have that to look forward to…but for now, she said, things are definitely heading in the right direction.
Among other metrics, this week’s declining COVID numbers also keep us in the “low” community tier, as defined by the CDC, for the third week in a row. And that means, said Ferrer, that “masking for most indoor sites is now based on individual preference, unless it’s required by the site.” Sites still requiring masking for everyone include health care facilities, congregate living facilities, and any business or school that chooses to institute a mask rule. People are also still required by state law to wear masks in workplaces if they’ve been sick recently and are returning to work five days after testing negative again (they must remain masked for days 6-10 after that negative test). And masking is also still highly recommended on public transit, in crowded indoor spaces, and/or when out and about anywhere 6-10 days after testing negative after a recent infection.
Ferrer said officials tend to watch for large shifts in the variants currently circulating as harbingers of potential surges to come, but for the week of January 7 (the most recent data available), nothing seems to be shifting dramatically. The BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 variants, which have been dominant for the last several weeks, dropped a bit this week, but still remain responsible for about 63% of cases sequenced locally. And the XBB and XBB.1.5 variants, which are newer and faster growing, increased to about 11% of the total this week (doubling their presence from last week), but are not taking over as quickly as first expected. Also, all of these newest variants are still part of the Omicron line of the virus, which means our current vaccines and therapeutic drugs are all still very effective against them.
Ferrer did report that the one setting where there were some increases in outbreaks and case clusters this week is schools. But that’s to be expected, she said, because students were returning after the three-week winter break, and the increases match similar patterns we’ve seen after previous school breaks, such as Thanksgiving. Ferrer said school numbers might continue to rise over the next few weeks, but that, too, would match previous patterns, and the numbers will likely to fall off again soon. The increased numbers of school-based clusters and outbreaks do, however, do underscore “the importance of basic preventive measures,” Ferrer said, such as wearing masks in indoor crowded spaces, and following remaining rules about masking in schools for 10 days after an infection or exposure.
Finally, Ferrer also reminded residents that the latest bivalent vaccines have been very effective at preventing COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, and they are now available to everyone over the age of six months who has not had a primary vaccine or another kind of booster for at least three months. So far, she said, overall booster rates for the bivalent vaccine are about 22-23% across LA County, but that rises to about 40% for older adults, and about 66% for residents of congregate care facilities.
To find and schedule a bivalent booster shot near you, see http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/acd/ncorona2019/vaccine/hcwsignup/