California’s sneaky summer COVID wave is reaching heights not seen in more than a year as highly contagious strains of the virus continue to spread with the promise of a new vaccine days away.
The state’s test positivity rate has now topped 14%, the highest since July of 2022 and the fifth highest mark since the pandemic began in early 2020, according to the latest California Department of Public Health data.
Since federal and state authorities have stopped tracking COVID case counts, the percentage of lab-processed COVID tests that are positive has become one of the best indicators of how much the virus is spreading in the community, similar to how influenza has been tracked historically.
The virus has been active from coast to coast, with some East Coast schools requiring masks, and First Lady Jill Biden testing positive at the end of the Labor Day holiday weekend. In an appearance at the White House Wednesday, President Biden caused some confusion by contradicting CDC guidelines that recommended he wear a face mask indoors in public for 10 days after being exposed.
“Let me explain to the press: I’ve been tested again today. I’m clear across the board,” Biden said, holding up a black face mask. “But they keep telling me, because this has to be 10 days or something, I’ve got to keep wearing it. But don’t tell them I didn’t have it on when I walked in.”
Biden’s apparent flouting of his own administration’s guidance signaled how the virus has become less dangerous compared to previous delta and original omicron waves.
In California, hospitalizations have increased in the past several weeks, but they are still far from record highs, with 1,600 hospitalized COVID patients last week compared to over 20,000 in the first winter surge in late 2020 and early 2021.
As of early August, there had been no notable increase in deaths recently, with a steady level of around nine or 10 COVID deaths on average each day since May. So far this year, 4,461 Californians have died from COVID compared to 17,214 through end of August in 2022.
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More protection is on the way. The Food and Drug Administration is poised as soon as Friday or early next week to approve new vaccines developed to protect against the XBB.1.5 omicron subvariant, a recent strain although it is no longer dominant. Still, the new varieties should be more effective than older vaccines: Clinical trial data released Wednesday suggests Moderna’s updated COVID vaccine appears to generate a “strong human immune response” against one particular new variant — the highly mutated BA.2.86.
As positivity rates soar, other metrics also show the current wave is growing. “We see a similar trend in wastewater data,” said Sarah Rudman, Deputy Health Officer at County of Santa Clara Public Health Department.
Public health officials have been reminding the public for several weeks that during times of high transmission, it is best to mask indoors and in large gatherings and more so for those at higher risk. “They become especially strong recommendations at moments like this one,” said Rudman.
“With COVID wastewater rates high at two of the four local sewer sheds, we do recommend that folks mask when they are indoors in public places or in large crowds … especially for our most vulnerable residents,” she said.
Still, there are no plans in Santa Clara County to implement any new measures beyond masking recommendations, Rudman said. But there is a standing public health order that mandates masks in health care facilities starting Nov. 1 through the end of March in the county during the busy flu season. Alameda County has an ongoing requirement for masking in skilled nursing facilities.
“As we head into the winter months, that order will go into effect requiring masking in our hospitals, clinics, and skilled nursing facilities to help make sure our most vulnerable residents are especially well protected,” Rudman said.
Wire services contributed to this report.