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COVID-19 gone? Not by a longshot, local officials warn

Coronavirus transmission has been slowly, but steadily, on the rise in recent weeks — and though local public health officials say the most recently available data doesn’t yet indicate a surge akin to the spike in cases seen last winter, they are urging members of the public to take basic safety precautions ahead of the fall flu and back to school seasons.

The number of reported COVID-19 infections has nearly doubled in Los Angeles County over the past month, according to Department of Public Health director Barbara Ferrer, who held a press briefing on Thursday, Aug. 31, with virus-related hospitalizations following suit in recent weeks.

There were about 571 coronavirus cases reported this week, Ferrer said Thursday, up from about 264 reported in early August. Those numbers, though, are likely undercount since they don’t include the results from home tests.

“And while case numbers are relatively low compared to many other points this past year,” Ferrer said, “I also want to note that it’s a bit unfair to make those comparisons because there’s less reportable testing.”

Since the COVID-19 emergency ended at the federal, state, and local levels in the Spring, reliable testing results — like PCR or other lab tests — have dropped significantly, meaning that DPH has less virus data to work with, Ferrer said.

Hospitalizations, though, are a more reliable metric the health department uses to get an understanding of how widespread COVID-19 is, Ferrer said. Those have also doubled since the first week of August — with an increase to 521 coronavirus-related hospitalizations over the last week from just 245 on Aug. 2.

“(But) hospitalizations remain well below the numbers we saw during the 2022 summer and winter surges,” Ferrer said. “In fact, there were only four other periods during the entire pandemic where hospitalizations were lower than what we’re reporting this week.”

Another metric — the average weekly rate of coronavirus-related hospital admission per 100,000 people — which is used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to evaluate the virus’ risk, has also increased since July, the director added.

Barbara Ferrer, Director of the Los Angeles County Health Department  (File photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Barbara Ferrer, Director of the Los Angeles County Health Department (File photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

That number currently sits at 6.3 per 100,000 people, Ferrer said, meaning that the county still qualifies for the “low” risk category.

“If our COVID-19 hospital admission rate continues to increase at the same rate it has the past three weeks,” Ferrer said, “L.A.  County could move to the ‘medium’ hospital admission level in about four weeks.”

Since the CDC uses that specific metric to determine risk, if the county reaches the “medium” tier, their could be changes to DPH’s health orders in order to prevent further spread of the virus.

The COVID-19 death rate, though, hasn’t increased the same way. DPH is currently reporting about one death per week on average — but the department also tracks the percent of all deaths in the county that have been linked with COVID-19, Ferrer said.

About 2.5% of all deaths countywide were associated with COVID-19 according to DPH’s most recent data, Ferrer said — and increase from 1% two weeks ago. That number was about 5% during the winter surge and 7% during the summer surge last year, she said.

“It is possible that this could be an early indicator that we’re (maybe) going to see some increased numbers of deaths,” Ferrer said. “Yet, with only one week of data, it’s too early to determine if this is a trend.”

DPH also reported an increase of COVID-19 in its wastewater samples — which cover about 77% of all LA County residents — along with increased virus outbreaks in school, skilled nursing, and workplace facilities.

Virus strain EG.5 — a descendent of the omicron XBB strain — is currently the most dominant one in LA County, accounting for about 21% of DPH’s sequenced cases. This is significant, Ferrer said, as its the first time a single strain has made up more than 20% of the county’s cases since early July.

The CDC and World Health Organization are also tracking a new strain, BA.2.86, a variant of “possible concern,” Ferrer said. It has 35 new mutations on the virus’ spike protein — roughly similar to the genetic differences seen in the original omicron variant.

That new viral lineage, though, only makes up about 1% of all COVID-19 cases nationwide, CDC director Many Cohen said during a separate Thursday press briefing, and no instances of it have been detected in California thus far.

“We are watching that closely,” Cohen said. “The good news is we have a vaccine that is tailored to the current dominant versions of the COVID virus — and that’s why we’re encouraging folks to make sure they’re up to date on their (vaccines).”

A newly updated COVID-19 vaccine booster, meanwhile, is expected to be available by the second week of September. It’s currently being reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration, Cohen said, and is tailored to protect against severe illness from the variants that are dominant in both the U.S. and around the globe.

That added protection, along with common sense health measures like frequent handwashing and testing, will be crucial moving into the fall season — especially ahead of the Labor Day weekend and as kids continue their return to school.

“COVID-19 is still changing, and we can’t accurately predict what will happen in the fall,” Ferrer said. “What we do know is how to be prepared to take appropriate safety precautions as needed to protect ourselves and our community.”

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Source: Orange County Register

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