Sharp decreases in several key coronavirus metrics across Southern California during the past two weeks are a strong indication that the winter omicron virus surge has peaked.
While public health doctors and hospital administrators are relieved that case numbers, hospitalizations and positivity rates are falling rapidly, deaths from COVID-19 remain high and hospital staffs are exhausted.
“Better days are coming but they are not here yet,” said Dr. Kimberly Shriner, medical director of infection prevention and control at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena.
“Right now we are just coming out of the tornado but there are still some strong winds. We have to keep our guard up,” Shriner said.
A new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California released this week found a less optimistic public than last spring, with 67% of Californians believing the worst is over. That is less than 86% who felt that way in May 2021.
While infectious disease doctors and the public express cautious optimism, the numbers from mid-January to early February paint an optimistic picture, especially in the following categories:
• Hospitalization rates for COVID-19 patients declined from 1,000 to 855 in Riverside County, said Jose Arballo Jr., spokesperson for Riverside County’s public health department; and from 1,265 to 879 in San Bernardino County, 1,200 to 818 in Orange County, and nearly 5,000 to 3,398 in Los Angeles County, state data shows.
• Case rates fell from 196 per 100,000 population to 71 in Riverside County; from 178 cases per 100,000 to 61 in San Bernardino County; from 142 cases per 100,000 to 41 in Orange County and from 246 per 100,000 to 80 in Los Angeles County, according to state data from Jan. 21 to Feb. 1.
While hospitals in the Inland Empire and Los Angeles County are still experiencing nearly filled ICU rooms with COVID-19 patients, most are relieved to see the drop in hospitalizations in general.
San Antonio Regional Hospital in Upland has seen a sharp drop in COVID-19 patients in the past 14 days, from 120 on Jan. 20 to 77 on Feb. 3, said John Chapman, CEO and president. The omicron-fueled surge was less severe than January 2021, when the hospital had a high of 230 COVID-19 patients, Chapman said.
“It is decreasing and it is nice to see,” he added. “We have definitely reached the peak and are on the back end of the omicron surge.”
With the fast-moving omicron variant, more people were getting infected in December and January. Those who have been vaccinated and boostered have mild symptoms and usually don’t require an ICU bed or even hospitalization, health officials reported. But the transmission rate has left hospitals, including San Antonio Regional, short-staffed, Chapman said.
“At any given day I had up to 150 nurses out sick or isolated,” Chapman said. There are 1,000 nurses employed at the hospital. The number of nurses out sick had dropped to 20 as of Thursday, Feb. 3, he added.
Shriner at Huntington Memorial said the region seems to be “on the other side of the surge,” though she was careful to say the impacts to non-vaccinated individuals are a major concern, including the effect these unprotected patients have on ICU levels and on the staff taking care of them.
“While the public is hearing the surge is getting better, the hospitals are still really impacted with patients,” Shriner said. “Our ICUs are really full. And our nursing staff is exhausted.”
In San Bernardino County, the numbers show cases are falling dramatically. And testing sites are far less crowded.
Daily new cases for Jan. 25 and Jan. 26 combined reached 33,559, the highest total in the county for a Tuesday and Wednesday since the pandemic began. Cases dropped to 23,926 for Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 1-2. (Tuesday and Wednesday case counts include lagging numbers from the day before and are more accurate than other daily totals.) The county reported 1,858 cases on Friday, Feb. 4.
San Bernardino County is also showing a decline in deaths, going from 18 on the combined days of Jan. 25 and Jan. 26, to four on Feb. 2 and Feb. 3. The county’s lowered death numbers are in contrast to other counties. Riverside County had 50 deaths on Feb. 1 and Feb. 2 combined, double the number from Jan. 21 to Jan. 22.
The number of people who have died from COVID-19 in Riverside County is 5,918, a number that is expected to reach 6,000 soon, Arballo said. “That is so sad when you think about it. Those are family members, our neighbors and our colleagues,” he said.
Los Angeles County is still seeing high numbers of deaths, with the rate inching up during the past week. On Feb. 2, the county reported 100 people died from COVID-19 and 99 on Feb. 3. While positivity rates and case rates are dropping, deaths won’t fall off for a few weeks, said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of public health for LA County.
Deaths from COVID-19 are far greater than deaths from other respiratory illnesses, she said. From March 1, 2020 through Dec. 31, 2021, 24,947 individuals died from COVID-19 in the county, including Pasadena and Long Beach, which have their own health departments. In comparison, pneumonia and influenza killed 3,422 people in the same time frame.
“COVID-19 deaths continue to outstrip deaths compared to other respiratory illnesses,” Ferrer said.
Shriner said these statistics disprove the misinformation that coronavirus is tantamount to the flu virus. She said the coronavirus, with its delta and omicron variants, is potent and can be deadly for those unvaccinated.
“This virus is so much worse than the flu,” Shriner said.
Shriner and Ferrer said hospital doctors and nurses are frustrated because they see people dying who are not vaccinated, deaths they say could be prevented.
Fully vaccinated individuals are six times less likely to be hospitalized and those with a third shot known as a booster are 22 times less likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than unvaccinated people, Ferrer said. Unvaccinated people are 7.5 times more likely to be infected than people who received their booster dose, the state Department of Public Health reported.
In Riverside County, over 90% of those who died between February and December 2021 were unvaccinated, Arballo said.
Among Riverside County’s eligible vaccine population (those over age 5), 60.3% are fully vaccinated, state data shows. This is well below the state rate of 73.3%. Arballo said the county is working on getting the remaining 40% vaccinated, especially children ages 5 to 11, which as a group has a vaccination rate of just 14%. For those 12-17 years old vaccination coverage is about 50%.
“It might take a little longer in the long run, for parents to see the benefit,” Arballo said. Last month, the county reported an infant less than 1 year old had died of COVID-19. The Federal Drug Administration is considering expanding vaccine eligibility to those under 5 years old.
San Bernardino County’s vaccination coverage for its eligible population is 58.2%, the lowest in Southern California. Seventy-four percent of the eligible residents of Los Angeles County are vaccinated, just ahead of the state average. Orange County’s vaccination rate is 74.3% of its eligible population.
In Los Angeles County, children ages 12-17 represented 13% of the cases in January, but comprise only 7% of the population. Ferrer said children are more likely to infect others at home, at school or when playing together. She said the county is urging parents to get their children vaccinated and boosted.
Shriner said hospitals with pediatric wards have been filling up with children infected with COVID-19. She said even among the variants, vaccines are remarkably effective at preventing serious illness.
“I say, this shot will save your life. It is not even compared to wearing a seatbelt. It’s like you are in the middle of the ocean and someone is throwing you a life preserver,” Shriner said.
Those who are not vaccinated and getting sick are helping the virus spread and mutate, according to the state Department of Public Health.
“As more people are vaccinated, the virus is less likely to spread, mutate, and potentially become even more dangerous,” according to the CDPH’s COVID-19 website. With more people immunized, the virus has less opportunity to infect others, according to the CDPH.
A new omicron coronavirus variant has showed up in Southern California. Scientists don’t know a lot about its tendencies, but some are concerned about the future.
“This virus is very wily,” Shriner said. “What worries me is all this replication going on. Will it develop other mutations with better performance?”
For COVID-19 vaccine information:
San Bernardino County: sbcovid19.com/vaccine/
Riverside County: rivcoph.org/COVID-19-Vaccine-with-Registration
Los Angeles County: www.VaccinateLACounty.com
Orange County: https://occovid19.ochealthinfo.com/covid-19-vaccine-distribution-channels
Staff writer Nikie Johnson contributed to this story.