On December 15, just as the original Omicron wave was gaining momentum, California reinstated a statewide indoor mask mandate. State Health Commissioner Tomás Aragón said the move “adds a layer of mitigation as the Omicron variant, a World Health Organization-designated variant of concern, increased in prevalence and spread widely in California, the United States and the world.” lighter than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and Delta variant.” At the time, the state’s 7-day mean rate of test positivity was 2.6%.
Today, another worrying variant is plaguing the state called BA.5, a subline believed to have a growth advantage at least four times that of December’s original Omicron. CDC data shows that BA.5 and its sister subvariant BA.4 accounted for about 68% of new cases in the region, which consists mostly of California, Arizona and Nevada, late last week. BA.5 accounts for the vast majority of these cases and is expected to crowd out all other variants in the coming weeks.
California’s current 7-day test positivity rate is 16.7%. That gives the current summer surge the dubious honor of having the second-highest rate of test positivity the state has seen during the pandemic. It is second only to the peak of last winter’s Omicron wave. And it goes even higher.
Because BA.5’s increased growth rate is largely due to its ability to evade protection from previous infection and, to a lesser extent, protection from vaccination, the state cannot count on vaccination in the same way as it did with the original one omicron wave.
In addition, the three most important metrics for public health officials – hospital and intensive care beds occupied by Covid-infected and the average number of daily Covid deaths – are already well above pre-Christmas levels.
The director of public health in the state’s most populous district, Los Angeles, said yesterday that she expects her district to be included in the CDC’s Covid “high” designation next week due to the rising numbers. If LA stays in this category for 14 days, the county will again impose a mask requirement in public places.
Statewide, 35 of California’s 58 counties are also so designated by the CDC. Few of them have spoken about the reintroduction of masking. Neither does the state.
An apparent bright spot in the region’s location fades on closer inspection.
Cases reported over the past month have been rising steadily, but not nearly as fast as December. The problem is that reported test results have fallen dramatically since December, as more Californians use at-home kits whose results are not recorded in official reporting.
That’s why White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha told Lester Holt on NBC’s Nightly News last night: “There is no question in my mind that we are currently missing out on the vast majority of infections.”
Even with the limited testing coverage, the number recorded in California today — 13,000 new cases — is already 44% higher than the roughly 9,000 cases reported as of December 15 last year. That, coupled with the Golden State’s sky-high test positivity and a much more contagious variant, doesn’t bode well.