California’s summer 2021 COVID-19 surge has now eclipsed its summer surge from last year in the number of people testing positive and being hospitalized each day.
Deaths, however, remain relatively, primary because so many have been vaccinated. And the latest hospitalization data from the state offers a glimmer of hope that the steep increases that have been putting stress on the health care system may be leveling off.
Numbers released Tuesday, Aug. 17, from a daily hospital survey show that 7,414 people with confirmed COVID-19 cases were in California’s hospitals on Monday, up by 248 from Sunday. That topped the 7,170 people hospitalized on July 21, 2020, the peak of last summer’s surge.
“That’s concerning to me,” said Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and demographer at UC Irvine. “To have more hospitalized this summer than last summer is not good.”
However, only 1,693 of the patients hospitalized now are sick enough to require intensive care, compared to more than 2,000 for a stretch of last summer.
Not like last winter
The current numbers are close to what California saw a few days after Thanksgiving: 7,415 people hospitalized, 1,711 of them in the ICU, on Nov. 28, 2020.
Cases were rising so fast then that just five days later, there were more than 9,000 COVID-19 patients hospitalized and 2,100 in the ICU, prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom to announce that stay-at-home orders would soon go into effect in regions with dangerously low ICU capacity.
But hospitalizations aren’t rising that fast now — at least, not anymore. A month ago, the numbers were increasing about 50% every seven days, but that’s dropped to about 25%, according to a Southern California News Group analysis of state hospitalization data.
While Noymer isn’t pleased by the current situation, he’s not terrified, either.
“We saw much worse in early January,” he said. (Indeed, California topped out then at almost 22,000 COVID-19 patients hospitalized and more than 4,800 in the ICU.)
“It’s not like you need to start building a bunker underneath your garage and filling it up with dehydrated food,” he said. “What I’m wondering is … is this wave going to morph into a big fall wave, or will there be a respite? I honestly don’t know.”
Southern California faring better
Not every part of the state is feeling the same impact from the current wave. Most Southern California counties — including Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino — still have fewer people hospitalized than they did last July or in late November.
San Diego and Ventura counties do have more COVID-19 hospitalizations now than last July, but the higher numbers are mainly in Northern California. In fact, some far northern counties, including Humboldt, Del Norte, Shasta and Mendocino, have more people hospitalized and in the ICU now than they did in January.
Even so, Southern California front-line hospital workers are tense, juggling increased caseloads amid familiar staffing shortages, the ghosts of the deadly winter surge never far from their minds.
“We had it bad in December and January, and now it’s coming back,” said Frank Villegas, a registered nurse from Irvine who works at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood.
“The symptoms are less severe — more like flu, with fever, cough, congestion. I’m not putting as many people on ventilators. But we have serious staffing issues that make it hard for us to provide the necessary patient care.”
Villegas was one of those picketing staffing shortages at the hospital Tuesday morning. “Nurses are getting burned out. We have nurses going home after an entire shift without breaks, going home crying,” he said.
For a stretch of July 2020, more than 10,000 Californians per day were testing positive for COVID-19, according to state data.
The numbers have been back over 10,000 since Aug. 1 and surpassed the July peak for at least a few days this month.
The state data uses the date people got tested or started feeling sick, not when their positive test made it into the official statistics. That means recent days’ numbers will keep rising as more testing information comes in, which makes it hard to know if the same slowdown seen in hospitalization numbers is showing up in the case data as well.
Deaths tend to take even longer than cases to make it into official statistics, so recent numbers are likely to be incomplete. But as of Tuesday, the state was aware of about two dozen Californians dying from COVID-19 per day in recent weeks. That’s more than double the number from the low point in June, but a far cry from the 100 to 150 last summer and about 700 per day in the deadliest stretch of January.
“Deaths have been low because of vaccinations, and ultimately, that’s not a bad outcome,” Noymer said. “I actually think that it’s really quite a good outcome. … Deaths here have slowed down — but they’d slow down even more if more people got vaccinated.”
There are many differences between this summer and last summer. Vaccines are now widely available. A more contagious variant is circulating. And after restrictions were lifted in mid-June, people threw themselves back into pre-pandemic pursuits with a certain giddiness.
“People who thought it was over in June and skipped the shots are now wondering if they should get vaccinated,” Noymer said. “The answer to that is yes. Yes they should.”
It appears that some Californians are getting that message. The number of doses being administered each day in the state topped 400,000 in mid-April, state data shows, then dropped steadily to below 60,000 by early July.
Since then, however, the numbers have been ticking back up, and appear on track to top 80,000 per day soon.
Still, California has about 15 million unvaccinated people, including about 6 million who are under age 12. No vaccine has been approved for that age group yet, although one is expected to be available this winter. Millions of youngsters would be eligible, and that would move the needle in the right direction.
Choppy waters ahead?
As more people head back to school and work, it’s going to fall to the private sector to rise to the challenge of curbing infections, said Richard Carpiano, a professor of public policy at UC Riverside.
Businesses, unions and schools are lining up behind vaccine requirements for those who can safely take them, and they can protect employees and customers by requiring masks in private spaces.
“We need the private sector to be pushing, given where the numbers are and the things we’re facing, if we want to have some semblance of a normal life and economy,” Carpiano said.
He is not so sanguine. Even after vaccines get emergency-use authorization for kids, and even after boosters go to the immunocompromised, “you’ve got all these other elements spreading misinformation and undermining the response,” Carpiano said. “Even with vaccines and masking that we know can be effective, we’re still fighting this with one hand tied behind our back.”
Is the slowing rise of hospitalizations just the calm before the storm?
“We know what’s coming up,” Carpiano said. “We know there’s time to get in the boat and set sail. Is it going to be a big storm or just some choppy waters? There’s definitely good reason to be concerned about what we might be facing in two or three weeks.”