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Bay Area Faces Viral Uptick: COVID-19, RSV and Flu on the Rise

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A gloved hand reaches toward a small vial on a pink tray.
A nurse reaches for a vial of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

A steady rise in respiratory viruses is hitting California hospitals.

Three-quarters of the state’s intensive care beds are full, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wastewater data shows that flu, RSV and COVID-19 cases are increasing across the Bay Area, albeit not surging to the overwhelming heights witnessed last winter. COVID-19 concentrations are equal to the region’s previous surge in September, according to Alexandria Boehm, a professor at Stanford who oversees the SCAN system.

However, flu and cold season typically peaks in January and February.

“I’m not celebrating yet,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at UCSF. “We’re just crossing our fingers because I’m not sure yet if this is going to be where [viral loads] settle down to.”


He said the number of patients in UCSF hospitals with COVID-19 has doubled since November. They’re about 90% full, which sounds bad, but that’s on par with pre-pandemic levels for this time of year.

“If we get through this season OK, I think it will be a bellwether for the remaining seasons with COVID in the mix,” Chin-Hong said.

However, there’s a wild card this year: mycoplasma pneumoniae, sometimes called “walking” pneumonia. Although it is not known to be circulating in the Bay Area, cases have been recorded in other parts of the country and overseas. Every few years, the bacteria emerges, which can inflict this mild pneumonia.

“Most kids who get mycoplasma are going to be fine,” Chin-Hong said. “It usually feels like a cold. In more serious cases, patients may get a rash and struggle to breathe.”

It’s rare, but mycoplasma can trigger lung infections that may require hospital care.

For now, current data warrant a vigilant stance, especially for vulnerable demographics, notably individuals aged 65 and older. Chin-Hong said he always carries a mask with him and will don it in a small space like an elevator or inside a crowded venue.

“Certainly, I’d wear it when I’m traveling across the country to see my mom because she’s older,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to pick up something to give to her.”

He emphasized the efficacy of this year’s flu shot against the prevailing flu strain, urging individuals to capitalize on this preventative measure along with the latest COVID-19 booster. He said it’s definitely not too late to protect yourself.

San Francisco’s health department strongly recommends that San Franciscans take what they describe as “simple but effective actions” to stay healthy this holiday season. Stay home if you’re sick, test for COVID-19 and seek treatment if you test positive.

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