One year ago, on Wednesday, June 15, California celebrated what many thought was the end of the coronavirus pandemic and cast aside most health-based restrictions on people’s everyday lives.
The number of people being infected by the virus had plunged to low levels. In Los Angeles County, for example, only about 200 new cases were being reported each day as the much-publicized “reopening” approached.
Few were getting sick enough to require medical treatment.
Hospitalizations linked to COVID-19 dwindled to 27 in Riverside County, 41 in San Bernardino County and 212 in LA County, following a months-long decline from a frightening holiday spike in late 2020 and early 2021 that still stands as the pandemic’s worst wave.
Then the delta variant crashed last summer’s party.
Large numbers contracted the virus. Many landed in the hospital. People died.
Another sharp spike in cases and hospitalizations hit in December and January as the omicron variant took center stage. Then the Inland Empire enjoyed a long period of relative good health.
Now cases are rising again. Since early May, reports of new infections have climbed at a steep clip, roughly doubling in San Bernardino County and tripling in Riverside County.
Epidemiologist Andrew Noymer, an associate professor of population health and disease prevention at UC Irvine, said those reports likely are undercounting the magnitude of the wave because many families are relying on home tests.
“Those, for all intents and purposes, are not being reported,” he said.
What is more accurately and completely reported, Noymer said, is the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19.
“Hospitalizations have been modest, thank goodness,” he said.
Public health experts said in May that this latest wave, while alarming, likely wouldn’t deliver another “catastrophic” blow to the region. So far that expectation appears to be holding up.
Dr. Marshare Penny, deputy director of public health for Riverside County, said relatively high vaccination rates and recent bouts with COVID-19 are providing immunity that is keeping many out of the hospital and preventing death.
“We’re in a good place right now,” Penny said.
Looking back on the year since the reopening and peeking ahead to a third summer of living with the coronavirus, here are some questions and answers.
Q: How fast are cases rising?
A: Riverside County reported 5,031 new cases the week ending Friday, June 10 — up from 4,095 the week of June 3 and 1,789 the week of May 6.
San Bernardino County’s 3,749 cases the week of June 10 were down slightly from 4,039 the week before, but a significant increase from 1,951 the week ending May 6.
Cases reached 35,011 in LA County last week — up from 29,020 the week of June 3 and 16,237 the week ending May 6.
Q: How many people are being treated in the hospital for COVID-19?
A: The number of coronavirus-positive patients stood at 116 in Riverside County, 111 in San Bernardino County and 579 in Los Angeles County on Monday, June 13, according to state data.
Placing the numbers in perspective, Riverside County hospitalizations were at 36 as recently as May 5. San Bernardino County recorded a pandemic low of 28 on April 24 and 25. LA County set a record low of 209 on April 22.
Hospitalizations are well below peak levels seen during the winters of 2020-21 and 2021-22, when Riverside and San Bernardino counties each had more than 1,000 people in hospital beds, and LA County treated several thousand patients.
While hospitalizations have gone up some, said Dr. Troy Pennington, an emergency-room physician at the San Bernardino County-run Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, “they are still a fraction of what we saw previously.”
Q: How does this wave compare to the delta surge of late last summer?
A: During the delta wave, hospitalizations hit 580 in San Bernardino County on Aug. 17, 675 in Riverside County on Sept. 1 and 1,790 in LA County on Aug. 17.
“This wave that we’re in at present is shaping up to be a modest wave by the standards of COVID,” Noymer said. “It’s going to be a lot more like the delta wave of last August than either of the winter waves we’ve had.”
And, he said, the virus likely will claim fewer lives than delta did.
Q: Should I wear a mask indoors while this wave continues?
Penny, the Riverside County deputy health director, strongly recommends people wear face coverings in indoor settings.
Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer warned that LA County residents soon may be required to do so.
If hospitalizations continue rising, the nation’s most populous county could move into the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “high” virus transmission category by late June, Ferrer said. LA County would reinstate an indoor mask mandate if it were to stay at the “high” level two straight weeks, she said.
Q: What is the virus transmission level in my county?
A: Currently, Los Angeles County is in the “medium” virus transmission category, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with a new-case rate of nearly 310 per 100,000 population.
San Bernardino County also was listed on Tuesday, June 14, as having a “medium” virus transmission level, with about 210 cases per 100,000 people.
Riverside County was rated as having a “low” transmission. With a rate of about 198 new cases per 100,000 population, the county is just below the threshold for crossing into the “medium” category.
Q: Why are cases on the rise again?
A: In large part, said Richard Carpiano, a public health scientist and professor of public policy at UC Riverside, because people are returning to normal. They are beginning to shed masks. They are socializing more and in larger numbers.
The season may be a factor, too, Carpiano said. While many Americans have been coming out of hibernation after months of cold weather, Inland Empire residents have been spending much time outside. Now, as summer arrives, area residents are spending more time inside.
“It’s Riverside. It gets hot. People head indoors for the AC,” he said.
The arrival of new coronavirus variants also is playing a role, Penny said.
Q: Are we going to have to mask up over and over again?
A: Not necessarily, said Noymer, the UC Irvine epidemiologist.
“We can always mask up,” he said, but “people are just not going to mask indefinitely.”
Noymer believes another strategy should be deployed.
He mentioned the threat cholera posed during the 19th century and the realization that purifying drinking water was crucial to controlling the disease.
“The big emerging disease of the 21st Century is COVID, but it is not spread by drinking water, it is spread by air. The solution to this in the long run is going to be better indoor air quality,” he said, saying improvements are needed in filtering and circulating the air.