The rapid decline in newly reported cases of COVID-19 has slowed in recent weeks. But that doesn't necessarily mean the state is again headed for the dark days of the winter, when deaths skyrocketed and patients filled up hospitals to the point where ambulances had to wait in line around the block to get coronavirus patients admitted.
For most of January and all of February, California’s coronavirus curve steadily flattened as the state came out of the surge. But for several days last week, the state's rolling seven-day average positivity rate ticked higher than the two-week average for the first time since Jan. 11, according to state statistics.
Normally, the seven-day positivity rate climbing higher than the 14-day rate would indicate an upward trend. Not this time, necessarily: A data dump from L.A. may have skewed the numbers when Los Angeles County in one day logged 3,678 cases previously reported as “probable.”
Nevertheless, health experts say California’s declining cases have likely leveled off.
“This is a plateau,” said George Rutherford, an epidemiologist with UC San Francisco.
But unlike in other lulls during the pandemic, the state now has three vaccines to fight the spread of the coronavirus. Adult Californians over the age of 65 have received nearly half of the more than 12 million shots the state has administered, so far.
That’s a big deal because seniors are much more likely to get severely ill from the virus. Nearly 3 out of every 4 Californians who have died during the pandemic have been older than 65.
The vaccination of the most vulnerable Californians means the number of newly reported cases are not nearly as important as they were even just a month ago.
“Once we are in a situation where the people who get sick are unlikely to get very sick — that is, they are the lowest risk citizens — then the number of COVID cases doesn't become as big of a concern,” Stanford epidemiologist Steven Goodman said. He says the most important numbers for people to pay attention to are hospitalizations and deaths.
“We've seen a really steep drop in the number of hospitalized patients over the past four-six weeks,” he said, calling the trend “very encouraging” and attributing it, in part, to the state’s vaccine campaign.
“It looks like the immunization strategy could be having the effect that we want it to, which is to protect those most likely to burden the health care system and get very sick and die,” he said. “And we need to keep doing exactly what we've been doing on the immunization front — hopefully move down the age, comorbidity, underlying illness-spectrum and get as much protection as we can.”
Roughly a third of adult Californians age 18-49 have received one shot. Beginning Monday, millions of Californians with health conditions and disabilities started making appointments.
“California has pretty substantial levels of immunity through either naturally acquired or vaccine-acquired immunity,” Rutherford said, adding that in Northern California, at least, he hasn’t seen an indication that the more infectious U.K. variant (B.1.1.7) has taken deep root within the population.
Will the coronavirus variant begin spreading rapidly enough in the community to fuel the fourth surge? Maybe, if it or another more infectious mutant seeds rapidly.
“But it’s not inevitable,” Rutherford said. “Spring is coming, people will be outside more, and there’s so much immunity in the population, much more than there ever was before as we came down off of previous peaks.”
Case counts in the state remain far below the pandemic apex, with an average of roughly 3,300 new cases being recorded each day this past week. Similarly, hospitalizations and deaths from the virus are both down.