The Perfect Enemy | COVID in California: U.S. tallies highest weekly coronavirus death toll since August - San Francisco Chronicle
January 29, 2023

COVID in California: U.S. tallies highest weekly coronavirus death toll since August – San Francisco Chronicle

COVID in California: U.S. tallies highest weekly coronavirus death toll since August  San Francisco ChronicleView Full Coverage on Google News

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Week-over-week numbers for COVID cases and hospitalizations can be deceptive, but at least trends are pointing in the right direction. The California Department of Public Health’s weekly update on Thursday showed statewide declines in total cases, cases per 100,000 and test positivity, as well as continued slowing in new hospitalizations. Sewage readings around the Bay are also generally trending downward, but it’s hard to know how the recent rainstorms may have affected the results. We’ll get national numbers and trends from the CDC on Friday. Meanwhile, prominent scientists are engaged in a public spat over the efficacy of the bivalent booster shot, but research on COVID patients in Israel offers the hope that most people who exhibited symptoms of long COVID recovered within a year.

XBB.1.5 doubles in proportion, accounting for 43% of U.S. cases

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention once again calculates that the XBB.1.5 omicron subvariant made up more than 4 out of 10 coronavirus infections in the U.S. On Friday, the agency estimated that the latest virus strain was detected in 43% of COVID-19 cases sequenced in the week ending Jan. 14, up from 27.6% of cases for the week ending Jan. 7. The agency had initially estimated the subvariant made up 41% of cases for the week ending Dec. 31, when it first started tracking the strain, but later adjusted that figure dowward to 18.3%.

XBB.1.5 is now outpacing BQ.1.1, which made up 28.8% of circulating variants last week, and BQ.1, which made up 15.9%. Its parent XBB variant was detected in 3.9% of cases. XBB.1.5’s impact varies by region, as it drove 80% of infections in the Northeast while it appeared in only about 15.8% of cases on the West Coast. New York City health officials on Friday labeled the latest omicron descendant as “the most transmissible COVID variant we know of to date,” as the region experiences another surge. They added that it “may be more likely [than previous subvariants] to infect people who have been vaccinated or already had COVID-19.”

U.S. tallies highest weekly death toll since August

A total of 3,907 Americans died of COVID-19 in the week ending Jan. 11, marking the highest figure for virus fatalities in the nation since late August, according to data published Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Northeast region of the country, where the highly immune evasive XBB.1.5 omicron subvariant has grown to dominance, tallied a substantial loss, with 447 deaths recorded in HHS Region 2, while the mid-Atlantic region saw the sharpest spike with 523 deaths. While the numbers remain far below those recorded during previous COVID-19 surges, they have sharply increased since late December and could continue to rise in the coming week.

Nose sprays could soon replace face masks, John Hopkins scientists say

Johns Hopkins engineers are developing a nasal spray that could be used to prevent the transmission of respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19 and influenza, according to a report published Thursday by the university. The engineers have created thin, thread-like strands of molecules called supramolecular filaments that are designed to be sprayed into the nose, blocking harmful viruses from entering the lungs. “The idea is that the filaments will work like a sponge to absorb the COVID-19 virus and other viruses before they have the chance to bind to cells in our airways,” said research team leader Honggang Cui, core researcher at the Institute for NanoBioTechnology and associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering. The sprays could effectively replace face masks in curbing virus transmission. “Even if the therapeutic can block the virus for an hour or two, that can be helpful when people must be in a public setting,” Cui said.

The newly engineered filament is called fACE2, and essentially blocks virus entry in the nasal cavity by duplicating a receptor called angiotensin converting enzyme-2, or ACE2. “Our plan is that this would be administered as a nasal or oral spray, allowing it to be suspended in the lungs or settle on the surface of airways and lungs. When a person breathes in the COVID-19 virus, the virus will be fooled into binding to the decoy receptor and not the ACE2 receptors on cells,” Cui said. No date was provided for when the spray could become available to consumers.

New studies from top scientists set off squabble over bivalent boosters

Two papers and a commentary from prominent scientists published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday offer evidence that the quickly-developed bivalent COVID vaccine boosters from Pfizer and Moderna may not be much better than the original monovalent mRNA boosters at preventing coronavirus infection. “Boosting with new bivalent mRNA vaccines targeting both the BA.4/BA.5 variant and the D614G strain did not elicit a discernibly superior virus-neutralizing peak antibody response as compared with boosting with the original monovalent vaccines,” a research team led by David Ho at Columbia University wrote of their pseudovirus study.

Another study found that both the monovalent and bivalent boosters “markedly increased antibody responses” but did a better job neutralizing ancestral strains of the coronavirus — for which the vaccines were originally developed — than the more recent BA.5 omicron descendent. All told, wrote the team at the Dan Barouch Lab at Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, “the median BA.5 neutralizing antibody titer was similar after monovalent and bivalent mRNA boosting, with a modest trend favoring the bivalent booster by a factor of 1.3.” The researchers also found that neither monovalent nor bivalent boosters substantially augmented immune response from the foundational T-cells that fight off infection in tandem with antibodies.

Paul Offit, a member of the vaccine advisory group to the FDA and booster skeptic, wrote an analysis of the Ho and Barouch studies in which he argued that given their limited incremental benefit, bivalent boosters might best be aimed at high-risk individuals. “Although boosting with a bivalent vaccine is likely to have a similar effect as boosting with a monovalent vaccine, booster dosing is probably best reserved for the people most likely to need protection against severe disease — specifically, older adults, people with multiple coexisting conditions that put them at high risk for serious illness, and those who are immunocompromised.”

Eric Topol of Scripps Research in San Diego replied sharply in a Substack essay that despite these findings there are still benefits to promoting bivalent shots, which he asserts outperform monovalent doses in preventing serious illness, including crucially from more recent coronavirus strains such as BQ and XBB. “Bivalent boosters work well to prevent severe COVID, as manifest by reduction of hospitalizations and deaths. They are not a panacea, by any means — their efficacy against infections is limited and of short duration, which has been the case for shots since the omicron variant came along in late 2021.” He added, “We’re lucky in the United States to have a big supply and it’s frankly disappointing to see the divisiveness, cherry-picking of data, and detractors that defy the body of evidence that has now accumulated. The bivalent booster impact of broadening our immune response has exceeded expectations.”

Trends improve across the state as positivity rate falls below 10%

California’s COVID-19 trends showed signs of improvement on Thursday, with the state tallying a daily average of 5,745 new cases as of Jan. 10 — about 14.3 new cases per 100,000 residents — down about 7.7% from an average of 6,224 daily cases — or roughly 15.5 new cases per 100,000 — reported a week earlier on Jan. 3. The statewide test positive rate dropped from 12.8% to 8.7%, falling below 10% for the first time since late November. But that number may be an underestimate, as the average tests per day conducted at sites that report results to the state has reached its lowest level since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. The average of COVID-19 deaths inched up to 35 per day from 34 per day reported in the prior week. Hospitalizations also appear to be declining, with California reporting 4,025 admissions on Wednesday, versus 4,547 a month earlier. The state has not yet seen the full impact of the XBB.1.5 omicron subvariant, which last week accounted for about 7.6% of new cases in the region compared to 72.7% on the East Coast where hospitalizations are climbing at a rapid rate.

For most mild infections, long COVID symptoms fade after a year, study finds

A majority of patients who experience long COVID following a mild coronavirus infection can expect their symptoms to clear up after a year, according to a new large-scale study. A team at KI Research Institute analyzed nearly 2 million patient records in Israel in the report published Thursday in the journal the BJM, comparing outcomes of 300,000 diagnosed patients with mild cases of COVID-19 to 300,000 people not infected with the virus. The researchers tracked persistent symptoms such as cognitive impairment, weakness, and palpitations, as well as hair loss, chest pain, cough, myalgia, and respiratory disorders. The study was conducted in patients who were infected between March 2020 and October 2021, with the wild-type virus and delta variant. “Although the long COVID phenomenon has been feared and discussed since the beginning of the pandemic, we observed that most health outcomes arising after a mild disease course remained for several months and returned to normal within the first year,” the authors wrote. They acknowledged that the study had many limitations due to its scale and lack of precise data. Other researchers have found that long COVID symptoms can persist in people with even a mild infection for more than three years.

Music reduced lockdown stress early in pandemic, study finds

People who regularly listened to music in the early days of pandemic lockdowns experienced significantly lower stress levels and improved moods compared to those who did not, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal JAMA Network Open. Researchers at the University of Vienna used a smartphone app to monitor data on about 700 adults during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place period between April 1 and May 8, 2020. The study participants reported their emotions five times a day, providing nearly 20,000 total data points, including about 5,000 reports related to music listening. They found that music was tied to lower momentary stress levels and improved overall mood, even among listeners who reported higher levels of chronic stress. “The present findings suggest that music listening may be a means to modulate stress and mood during psychologically demanding periods,” the researchers wrote. “Individuals experiencing heightened momentary and/or chronic stress because of the challenges brought about by COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions might consider music as an easily accessible tool for the management of stress and mood in daily life.”