California tops 12 million COVID cases;  XBB.1.5 is now dominant

California tops 12 million COVID cases; XBB.1.5 is now dominant

  • US News
  • February 13, 2023
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The total number of coronavirus cases reported in California has surpassed 12 million.

The milestone — achieved last week, according to data compiled by The Times — comes as California is seeing an increasing spread of the Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5, which has been described as perhaps the most infectious strain of the coronavirus.

In many respects, however, the pandemic picture remains relatively rosy as newly reported infections have declined and stabilized in recent weeks. Hospital admissions have also fallen to levels not seen since mid-November, indicating a reduced strain on the healthcare system.

“We have more tools now than we ever had during the pandemic,” Barbara Ferrer, director of public health for the Los Angeles County, told reporters. “While new strains always have the potential to cause an increase in cases, to date we have not seen a large increase in cases associated with XBB.1.5.”

The nationwide number – just under 12.02 million cases as of Friday, according to The Times tracker – is undoubtedly too low, both due to limited access to testing in the early days of the pandemic and the fact that many people are now self-diagnosing by taking at-home tests.

Even so, the number represents a population larger than all but six states.

According to estimates by the California Department of Health and Human Services, the spread of COVID-19 is likely to be decreasing nationwide and has been for more than a month.

Still, the coronavirus has thrown its share of curveballs over the past three years. The latest is XBB.1.5, a member of the sprawling family of Omicron subvariants that have dominated the US for months.

This strain accounted for an estimated 74.7% of cases over the past week, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The increase was slower in California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. But even in this western region, XBB.1.5 accounts for an estimated 56.9% of new cases.

Despite its contagiousness, XBB.1.5 hasn’t sparked a huge spike in hospitalizations – sparking optimism it may not be the beastly “kraken” that some feared.

“Outside the Northeast region, there was no spike in hospital admissions during the ascent of XBB.1.5,” said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, tweeted Friday.

In California, the number of coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized as of Thursday was 2,485. That’s significantly lower than this winter’s high of more than 4,600.

This is the first year California hasn’t experienced a devastating surge that coincided with the winter, a development many officials attribute to widespread vaccine administration.

“Real evidence continues to show the vaccine prevents serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths,” the California Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement Thursday. “Public health agencies are urging Californians to get vaccinated and boosted as soon as they are eligible.”

According to the department, unvaccinated Californians were 2.4 times more likely to contract COVID-19 in December than those who had received at least their first vaccination series. The unvaccinated were also 2.6 times more likely to be hospitalized and three times more likely to die from the disease.

The comparatively mild winter has reignited discussion of the once-hot topic of herd immunity — the point at which so many people are immune to a virus that it’s difficult to find new hosts to infect. While thousands of new cases are reported in California every day, many people enjoy some protection from vaccination, prior infection, or a combination of both, experts say.

“We’re not really talking about herd immunity anymore. What we’ve learned about this virus is that it’s constantly changing and mutating, and it’s kind of a dance between immunity in the population and what the virus is doing – and it’s a continuous change. It’s dynamic,” said Dr. Santa Clara County health director and health officer Sara Cody during a news conference last week.

The way of thinking about it is, “You’re better protected if you’re vaccinated,” she said. “You’re less protected if you’ve never been vaccinated or it’s been a long time since you’ve been vaccinated and then you have to add some extra layers.”

Aside from getting vaccinated, Californians should mask themselves in public indoor places, especially in crowds, health officials say. Other well-known recommendations include practicing good hand hygiene, covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, staying at home if you are sick, testing if you suspect you have been exposed to the coronavirus and seeking treatment promptly. if you are infected.

Those resources have helped forge what officials are calling a new phase of the pandemic marked by careful preparation. Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced that California’s COVID-19 state of emergency will end on February 28 and national emergency and federal declarations of emergency will end on May 11.

“It’s important to recognize that the changes we’re seeing are evidence of how residents have adapted, learned, and continue to use the new tools and common sense safeguards when warranted,” Ferrer said. “There will be a lot of information circulating over the next few months as contingency orders are lifted and new proposals are brought into play. Let’s not let go of what we’ve learned so far so we can take advantage of the protections available.”

Most notably, she added, “As COVID will continue to affect people long after it’s slipped out of the limelight, we should continue to take care of each other.”

Times contributor Sean Greene contributed to this report.

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