The Perfect Enemy | COVID in California: U.S. virus levels remain stagnant as surge fears mount
December 3, 2022
Read Time:16 Minute

New coronavirus subvariants are rapidly spreading across California, overtaking the strain that led to a U.S. summer wave and fueling concern that the next surge is already here. California COVID cases jumped 36%, according to data from the state health department, a pace of growth alarmingly similar to what the state saw ahead of prior COVID waves. 

John Kerry tests positive at U.N. climate summit

U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry has tested positive for COVID-19 at the U.N. climate talks in Egypt, a spokeswoman said late Friday night, the latest setback for what appeared to be stalled negotiations that were already going into overtime, according to the Associated Press. “He is fully vaccinated and boosted and experiencing mild symptoms. He is working with his negotiations team and foreign counterparts by phone to ensure a successful outcome of COP27,” spokeswoman Whitney Smith wrote in a statement late Friday.

A former U.S. senator and secretary of state, Kerry has deep relationships with leaders around the world and carries a lot of weight in international talks. Negotiations, at least those in public, hit a lull Friday afternoon into the evening, as press conferences and plenaries were postponed or cancelled.

U.S. virus levels remain stagnant

COVID-19 trends have stopped improving in the U.S. as virus community levels remained stagnant for another week. The proportion of counties nationwide that fell into the “low” tier on Friday, based on hospitalization and case metrics used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was about 80.52%. Another 16.68% were in the “medium” category and the remaining 2.8% were categorized as having “high” community levels — numbers that showed little movement from the previous week.

The agency’s community transmission map, based on a separate metric that tracks the rates of new cases and positive tests, also changed little, with 38.61% of U.S. counties in the U.S. in the “high” virus transmission category, 32.84% in the “substantial” tier, 23.12% in “moderate,” and 5.43% of all counties with “low” virus transmission.

Bivalent booster improves immune response to newer omicron subvariants, Pfizer says

Pfizer said Friday that new data shows its bivalent booster shot improves immune response against COVID-19 subvariants that are emerging and circulating in the U.S. The omicron BA.4/BA.5-adapted booster elicited a higher antibody response against subvariants including BA.4.6, BA.2.75.2, BQ.1.1 and XBB.1 in adults aged 55 and older, one month after booster uptake, according to Pfizer and BioNTech.

The company said antibodies increased by about 11 times against BA.4.6, about 9 times against BQ.1.1, by 6.7 times against BA.2.72.2 and about 5 times against XBB.1.The omicron BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 subvariants accounted for about 49.7% of total coronavirus cases in the U.S. last week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The BA.4.6 subvariant made up an estimated 4.4% of cases and BA.2.75.2 made up about 0.7% of cases, while XBB.1 was not yet prevalent enough to appear in data, per the CDC. As of Friday, 11.3% of eligible Americans aged 5 and older had received the bivalent booster, according to CDC data

NFL games with fans last season were associated with COVID-19 spikes, study says

Fan attendance at NFL games during the 2020-21 season, the league’s first of the COVID-19 pandemic, was associated with ensuing increases in COVID-19 cases in areas where the games were held, according to a new study published in the journal Jama Network Open. For that season, some NFL teams played home games with no fans and others with their stadiums at limited capacity. The study looked at 269 games, 117 with no fans and 152 with fan attendance ranging from 748 to 31,700 people, and COVID-19 data for the host county and surrounding ones at 7, 14 and 21 days after games. It found that games with no crowds or fewer than 5,000 fans were not associated with COVID-19 spikes, but games with 20,000 or more fans were associated with 2.23 times the rate of spikes in the ensuing 14- and 21-day windows.

Researchers noted it was “impossible” to state a causal effect between fan attendance and ensuing COVID-19 increases as trends might have been influenced by public health regulations in those areas. “The spikes in COVID-19 for crowds of over 20,000 people suggest that large events should be handled with extreme caution during public health events where vaccines, on-site testing and various countermeasures are not readily available to the public,” researchers wrote.

BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 make up nearly half of U.S. cases

The omicron subvariants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 made up 49.7% of the total coronavirus cases circulating in the United States last week, two months after they were initially detected, according to data published Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. BQ.1.1 accounted for 24.2% of circulating variants and BQ.1 made up an estimated 25.5% for the week ending Nov. 19. The proportion of the omicron BA.5 subvariant that drove this year’s summer surge declined to 24% of cases, compared with nearly 33.8% in the week ended Nov. 12. BF.7 also grew to make up 7.6% of the cases, followed by a “variant soup” that includes BN.1, BA.5.2.6, BA.4.6, BA.2.75, BA.2.75.2, BA.4, BA.1.1.529 and several other strains that are circulating.

State HHS Secretary Ghaly shares suggestions for safer holiday gatherings

California is seeing rising rates of COVID-19, flu and other respiratory illnesses just ahead of the holidays. Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, suggested several things people can do try to gather more safely this winter: Those include everyone testing for the coronavirus before the gathering, staying home if sick, doing activities outside if possible and, if traveling, wearing a well-fitting and high-filtration mask en route, Ghaly said on a media call Thursday. “I know not all of these actions are possible, so consider what you might be able to do and do as many as you can,” he said. Ventilation is also important when indoors, so: “If you can’t open your window, at least open the doors in the area so you’re able to have some circulation, that would be beneficial,” Ghaly said.

Among the viruses surging in the U.S. is respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which typically resembles a mild cold but can cause more serious illness, especially in infants and elderly adults. There is no available vaccine for RSV. Ghaly cited getting vaccinated for COVID-19 and influenza, handwashing and covering your cough as other practices people can follow to try to help prevent spread of respiratory viruses.

State officials “concerned” with “very low” uptake of bivalent booster

With COVID-19 rates rising in California, state officials are “concerned” about low numbers of people receiving the the bivalent booster shot, Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, said on a media call Thursday. As of Thursday, 13.3% of eligible Californians had received the booster, which is designed to protect against both the original coronavirus strain and the BA.4 and BA.5 variants that have given rise to newer subvariants now in circulation, according to the state’s health department.California’s booster uptake was higher than the 10.1% rate across the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Ghaly termed it “very low,” adding that: “If you’re inclined to get it, there’s probably no better time than now to give yourself this period of protection over the next many weeks” with the holidays and colder months approaching.

Along with COVID-19 trends, the state is seeing increases in flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, in “every category we track,” Ghaly said. “Unlike the past two years, when we discussed a COVID and flu collision, this year we’re actually starting to see it,” he said. The state’s COVID-19 test positivity rate was 6.3% as of Thursday, up from 4.5% two weeks earlier. Ghaly noted the state has already seen RSV levels among children “that rival peaks from other years,” straining pediatric hospitals and emergency rooms.

Virus carries higher risk of epilepsy and seizures than influenza

A COVID-19 infection carries a substantially greater risk for both seizures and epilepsy compared to an influenza infection, according to a retrospective analysis of over 300,000 people published in the medical journal Neurology.

The incidence of new seizures or epilepsy diagnoses in the six months following COVID-19 was low overall but higher than in matched patients with influenza, the researchers from Oxford University found. “This difference was more marked in people who were not hospitalized, highlighting the risk of epilepsy and seizures even in those with less severe infection,” the authors wrote, noting that children are at particular risk of seizures and epilepsy after COVID-19 “providing another motivation to prevent COVID-19 infection in pediatric populations.”

Oakland airport anticipates 90% of pre-pandemic traffic for Thanksgiving

The Port of Oakland projects that 170,000 passengers will use Oakland International Airport during the five-day Thanksgiving holiday travel period from Nov. 23 through Nov. 27. The figure marks at 10% increase over last Thanksgiving and more than 90% of the 2019 pre-pandemic traffic benchmark officials said. ”The Thanksgiving travel period is always busy, and the airport is ready to welcome holiday travelers,” said Bryant L. Francis, director of aviation at the Port of Oakland. “Travelers can help to make their journey smoother by arriving at the airport early, adhering to airline check-in and carry-on bag requirements and using airline apps for check-in whenever possible.”

Indoor masking ‘strongly recommended’ again in L.A. County

Los Angeles County health officials are now “strongly recommending” indoor masking due to a rise in COVID-19 infection rates, county health officer Dr. Muntu Davis said in a media briefing Thursday. The county is seeing a daily rate of 100 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents, up from 86 the prior week, triggering the recommendation as per the county’s COVID-19 response plan, Davis said.

Settings where the recommendation applies are public indoor spaces, public transit – including buses, rideshares, taxis and medical transport – correctional and detention facilities and homeless and emergency shelters, Davis said. Masking is already required for people exposed to COVID-19 in the past 10 days, in healthcare settings and congregate care facilities and at any sites that require it, he said.L.A. County’s 7-day average of nearly 1,500 cases per day the past week marked a 13% rise from the previous week and a 52% spike since Nov. 1, Davis said. Hospitalizations are also going up; the county averaged 97 admissions per day the past week, a 26% week-over-week increase and a 54% jump since Nov. 1, Davis said.

Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, said on a media call Thursday the L.A. County decision reflects local conditions but didn’t rule out the state following suit if its COVID-19 trends continue to rise. “Making that move here, again, local decision, definitely makes sense,” Ghaly said. “I think as we see the next weeks evolve, that decision on a statewide basis may be appropriate, and we’ll see.” 

No link between vaccine and shingles, UCSF study confirms

There is no association between COVID-19 vaccination and shingles, according to a study of more than 2 million individuals in the U.S. Researchers at UCSF found that the risk of herpes zoster in the month after receiving a dose of COVID-19 vaccine was no different when compared with a control period 60 to 90 days following an individuals’ last dose. “There was no increase in risk of herpes zoster after COVID-19 vaccination when individuals were stratified by age, immunocompromised status, or type of vaccine administered,” the team wrote in JAMA Network Open.

COVID-19 vaccination was associated with a slightly lower shingles risk than outcomes following influenza vaccination in a period before the pandemic, the research showed. “Compared with previous work, our study had a larger sample, which enabled us to control for confounders that were not included in other studies, such as measures of healthcare use, history of zoster vaccination, and comorbidity-related risk factors for herpes zoster rather than weighted indices,” lead author Nisha Acharya said in a statement.

California COVID cases jump 36% ahead of anticipated surge

California’s COVID-19 trends have officially reversed ahead of an anticipated winter surge. The state is averaging about 9 new daily cases per 100,000 residents as of Thursday, marking a 36% increase compared to the 6.5 per 100,000 reported two weeks earlier, according to health department data. Before last week, the rate of new cases in California had been on a steady decline since a July peak. The state test-positive rate is also up for the second week in a row, growing to 6.3% compared to 4.5% just two weeks ago.

The pace of growth is similar to what the state saw ahead of previous waves, including the summer BA.5 spike. And it‘s likely that the reported numbers are a severe undercount with so many people taking rapid home tests.Hospitalizations are also rising sharply. There were 2,187 patients hospitalized in California with confirmed COVID-19 as of Thursday, a 19% increase from the prior week and the state’s highest daily total since mid-September.

The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units Thursday had risen 28% from last week to 287.San Francisco’s average test-positive rate has also jumped to 6.1%, after falling below 5% for the first time since April last month.The trends coincide with a higher circulation of newer omicron subvariants that are overtaking the BA.5 subvariant that fueled a summer coronavirus surge in the U.S., according to federal data.

While newer subvariants such as BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are thought to be more immune-evasive, raising the possibility of reinfections, it’s unclear if they cause more severe illness than prior strains of the virus, health experts have said.About 72% of Californians have completed their primary vaccination series, with 13% of those eligible receiving the updated bivalent booster targeting the newer omicron strains of the virus, according to the state dashboard

Expanded airport surveillance program detects an influx of XBB

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday announced it has expanded its airport genomic surveillance program, which tests international travelers to detect new variants entering the country. The service — which is already up and running in SFO, JFK, Newark-New York and Atlanta — is now available at Washington Dulles International Airport.

More than 60,000 people have voluntarily participated in the program from November 2021 through September 2022, with an average of 1,100 participants per week, per the CDC. Based on the latest data, there is a growing proportion of the omicron XBB subvariant arriving in the U.S., making up about 13% of the samples collected in the most recent week.  But the national health agency has not yet flagged it as a variant it is monitoring nationwide.

Global cases up for first time in 4 months, WHO says

Global coronavirus cases increased last week for the first time in four months, the World Health Organization reported on Wednesday. Since mid-July, the U.N. health agency reported that cases were either stable or on the decline. But the trend appears to be reversing now, as the number of infections worldwide rose to 2.3 million infections in the latest tally. The five countries reporting the most cases were Japan, South Korea, Germany, China, and the U.S., where cases increased by 10% over the past two weeks after falling steadily since August, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Japan’s daily COVID-19 cases topped 100,000 for the first time in two months as the country reopened to visitors from other nations, according to Kyodo News

CDC forecasts virus hospitalizations to rise for first time since July

For the first time since July, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national ensemble predicts that the number of new daily confirmed COVID-19 hospital admissions will likely increase, with 2,000 to 9,000 new confirmed COVID-19 hospital admissions likely reported on Dec. 9. The health agency’s ensemble forecast for virus-related hospitalizations in the U.S. for the past four months has shown numbers to either remain stable or steadily decline. Some of the biggest increases have been reported in HHS Region 9.

Virus fight in China leads to 250,000 quarantine beds, iPhone production delays

China’s southern metropolis of Guangzhou announced plans Thursday to build quarantine facilities for nearly 250,000 people to fight surging coronavirus outbreaks even as the national government tries to reduce the impact of anti-disease controls that have confined millions of people to their homes. Guangzhou, a city of 13 million people and the biggest of a series of hot spots across China with outbreaks since early October, reported 9,680 new cases in the past 24 hours, according to the Associated Press.

That was about 40% of the 23,276 cases reported nationwide. China’s infection numbers are low compared with the United States and other major countries, but the ruling Communist Party is trying to isolate every case. Repeated closures of neighborhoods, schools and businesses are fueling public frustration and clashes with health workers. A spike in infections has led officials in areas across China to confine families to cramped apartments or order people into quarantine if a single case is found in their workplace or neighborhood. The Communist Party promised last week to cut the cost of anti-virus controls by reducing the length of quarantines and changing other rules. However, party leaders said they will stick to the “zero COVID” strategy at a time when other countries are easing restrictions and trying to live with the virus. Access to a Zhengzhou industrial zone that is home to the world’s biggest iPhone factory was suspended this month following outbreaks. Apple Inc. said deliveries of its new iPhone 14 model would be delayed

Home births rose in pandemic’s second year

The number of people giving birth at home in the U.S. rose slightly in the second year of the pandemic, according to a CDC report released Thursday.

“The percentage of U.S. home births rose from 1.26% (45,646) in 2020 to 1.41% (51,642) in 2021, an increase of 12% and the highest level since at least 1990,” the report’s authors wrote. 

Why the number of at-home births increased during the pandemic wasn’t immediately clear, but the increase corresponded with a time in which vaccines weren’t yet widely available, suggesting some people giving birth may have been reticent to go to the hospital.