Last December 15, as the original Omicron wave gained serious momentum, California reinstituted a statewide indoor mask mandate. State Public Health Officer Tomás Aragón said the move was “to add a layer of mitigation as the Omicron variant, a Variant of Concern as labeled by the World Health Organization, increased in prevalence across California, the United States, and the world and spread much more easily than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and the Delta variant.” At the time, the state’s 7-day average rate of test positivity was 2.6%.
Today, the state is beset by another Variant of Concern called BA.5, a sublineage thought to have a growth advantage at least four times that of the original Omicron from December. CDC data indicates that, at the end of last week, BA.5 and sister subvariant BA.4 accounted for about 68% of new cases in the region comprised chiefly of California, Arizona and Nevada. BA.5 accounts for the vast majority of those cases and looks set to push 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’s second only to the very peak of last winter’s Omicron wave. And it’s still going higher.
Since BA.5’s increased growth rate is largely due to its ability to evade the protection provided by previous infection and — to a lesser extent — the protection provided by vaccination, the state cannot count on vaccination in the same way it could with the original Omicron wave.
What’s more, the three most concerning metrics to health officials — hospital and ICU beds occupied by those infected with Covid and the average number of daily Covid deaths — are already far above where they were before Christmas.
The director of public health in the state’s most populous county, Los Angeles, said yesterday that she expects her county will move into the CDC’s “High” level Covid designation next week as a result of the rising numbers. If L.A. stays in that category for 14 days, the county will reimpose a mask mandate in public places.
Across the state, 35 of California’s 58 counties are also so designated by the CDC. Few of them have spoken about reinstituting masking. Nor has the state.
One seeming bright spot in the region’s situation dims on closer inspection.
Reported cases over the past month, while steadily rising, have not jumped at nearly the rate they did in December. The problem is, reported test results have dropped dramatically since December as more Californians use at-home kits, the results of which are not captured in official reporting.
Because of that, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha told Lester Holt on NBC’s Nightly News last night, “There’s no question in my mind that we’re missing a vast majority of infections right now.”
Even with the limited test reporting, the number recorded in California today — 13,000 new cases — is already 44% above the approximately 9,000 cases reported on December 15 of last year. That, coupled with the Golden State’s sky-high test positivity and a much more infectious variant, does not bode well.