Despite huge success in vaccination and some of the best case rates in the Country, officials at the state and local level are asking residents not to become complacent in the fight against Covid-19 as tentative warning signs are emerging in the infection models.
About 88% of those 18 and older in California have received at least one dose of a vaccine that didn’t exist last fall and millions have survived contracting the virus and have a level of natural immunity, though it’s unclear for how long.
Still, millions are not vaccinated and new cases and hospitalizations have flattened after a steady two-month decline that saw California boast the nation’s lowest infection rate. State models show a gradual increase in hospitalizations in the next month.
The state seems to have reached what Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency called a plateau after its steady decline in cases and hospitalizations since the summer surge of the delta variant of the virus.
Models show coronavirus hospitalizations increasing slightly over the next month, from about 3,800 in hospitals now to about 4,460 by Thanksgiving.
The models forecast a gradual drop in intensive care patients but with a troubling upward curve starting in about two weeks. Deaths are expected to continue their inexorable climb, adding nearly 3,000 to reach a pandemic total of 74,000 by Thanksgiving week.
The rate at which each infected person spreads the disease, known as the R-effective, remains below 1 statewide but had been creeping up since mid-September until another recent dip. Anything below 1 means the number of infected persons will decrease.
Counter-intuitively, experts expect the hardest-hit and most vulnerable populations last time to enjoy the best protection now because they have built up a natural immunity. So areas like Los Angeles, which had disproportionate levels of infections, hospitalizations and deaths, are likely to be protected from a surge.
On Thursday Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer said the County has seen about a seven percent increase in hospitalizations over the past week.
“We don’t see steep declines anymore in case numbers in case rates, there’s a lot of plateauing, but we’re all plateauing at a level that’s much higher than where we’d like to be, certainly much higher than where we were back in June,” she said. “So, we’re going to watch this carefully. There’s no need for alarm at the moment. But as I’ve always said, the goal is not to plateau where we are today. The goal is to drive our numbers down and the way to get hospitalization numbers down is to get case numbers down. So we’ve got to continue to do everything we can to prevent that spread in our communities.”
She said the vast majority of cases are among unvaccinated residents and that greater vaccine adoption, particularly among young minority populations that have the lowest vaccine rates, is the most effective way to prevent another surge. She said there’s also strong evidence for seasonal swings to the virus.
“We all lived through, you know, a terrible November, December and January last year but I do think we have this new tool, it’s vaccinations, it’s super powerful, it’s making a difference and will continue to make a difference as we are cautious about the activities that we’re all engaging with,” she said. “The biggest effort right now is to get people vaccinated and to get boosters among those people who are now eligible and are at higher risk for serious outcomes, should they get sick.”
Ferrer said Los Angeles County has done well in controlling outbreaks among youth and said many of the cases identified on campuses are among asymptomatic individuals who are identified through routine screening. She said the anticipated rollout of additional vaccines for younger students would also aid in keeping cases low.
California is prepositioning millions of small-dose Pfizer vaccines in anticipation that the federal government will give final approval to administer the shots to children aged 5-11 as early as the end of next week. About 3.5 million children would be eligible, or 9% of California residents, state epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan said.
The state plans to mandate vaccinations for school children but that’s not expected to kick in until the 2022-23 school year. Meanwhile, California will wait until after this winter to review its school masking requirement and then will look at typical indicators like the number of people who are vaccinated and the rate of transmissions and hospitalizations, Ghaly said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.