Community levels of COVID-19 in Ventura County have dropped from “medium” to “low” in a weekly federal assessment, marking the decline of a winter surge that didn’t grow as severe as expected.
The ranking is based on a combination of COVID infection rates, hospital admissions and the percentage of hospital beds being used by COVID-19 patients. The county moved into the “high” ranking in mid-December and then fell to “medium” later in the month.
On Thursday, Ventura and Los Angeles counties moved into the lowest of three risk tiers.
“It means the impact on our hospitals is diminishing,” said Dr. Robert Levin, the county’s health officer. “This winter surge was significantly smaller than the two previous winter surges.”
Highly contagious variants accelerated the spread of the virus. But protection from vaccinations and previous COVID infections helped limit serious illness and hospitalizations, Levin said, cautioning it’s possible another phase of the wave could still come.
The case rate and the percentage of people testing positive have fallen in Ventura County, though the numbers don’t include home tests. Hospitals remain busy but admissions related to COVID have also decreased. Several emergency room doctors across the county said they’re also seeing fewer people struggling with the flu.
One metric has risen. County public health officials announced 13 deaths involving COVID-19 in their weekly report on Thursday, pushing the tally of such fatalities reported during the month to 41. The rise began in December with 59 deaths reported, compared to five deaths reported during November and 11 in October.
Throughout the pandemic, 1,649 deaths of county residents have been linked to COVID. Deaths are generally counted if a doctor lists the virus as at least a contributing condition, Levin said.
But of January’s deaths, only four occurred this month with other reports slowed by delays involving death certificates, tests confirming the presence of the virus or other factors. Public health officials said 32 deaths occurred in December, compared to the 59 reported.
The increase in deaths is far less than in previous winter surges with a record 385 fatalities in January 2021. Levin said the recent rise may be “statistically insignificant.”
“I think it’s a phenomenon of small numbers,” he said. “When the numbers start falling lower and lower, scarcer and scarcer, the numbers take on a less accurate significance.”
The risks are higher for some populations. Of the 13 deaths reported Thursday, 11 involved people with pre-existing conditions and the same number were 65 and older. Officials said 3 of the 13 had not been vaccinated.
Dr. George Yu, a Camarillo pulmonologist, identified elderly people as an especially “vulnerable population” for severe illness and said too many of them have not received the bivalent booster shot that targets omicron variants.
People of all ages should get another shot if they have not received the bivalent booster in the last four months, Yu said, adding that antibodies from infection offer protection for about three months.
Dr. Raj Bhatia, an Oxnard critical care doctor, still wears a mask on planes, in stores and at work and encouraged other people to do the same.
“COVID has not gone away. COVID still kills people,” he said. “It’s not over.”
Tom Kisken covers health care and other news for the Ventura County Star. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-437-0255.
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