California is seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations as we head into the holiday season. Health officials are urging caution and recommending masks as families gather to celebrate.
COVID Hospitalizations Increasing
Hospitalizations due to COVID are on the rise across most of California, with the state averaging about 3,800 hospitalized COVID patients in recent weeks according to state data (source). This represents a 23% increase over the past two weeks.
However, impacts vary by region. Southern California is being hit the hardest right now, with Los Angeles County emergency rooms and urgent cares seeing three times more COVID patients compared to September (source). Parts of Northern California are also seeing upticks, with data from Sacramento County showing a 29% increase in hospitalizations over the past two weeks (source).
|2 Week Hospitalization Change
Meanwhile, other parts of the state like San Diego have yet to see a significant rise in hospitalizations so far.
Health experts attribute increasing transmission to immunity waning from previous infections/vaccinations as well as people gathering indoors more due to colder fall/winter weather (source). New COVID variants like BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, which are more adept at evading immunity, are also playing a role (source).
Cases Also Trending Upward
Alongside increasing hospitalizations, California’s daily COVID case rate has also been rising over the past month. After dropping to a low of 5.6 new daily cases per 100K residents in October, the case rate has since doubled to over 12 new daily cases per 100K as of late November (source).
The test positivity rate has similarly trended upward across the state to 6.4%, indicating increased community transmission.
Health officials expect cases to continue rising through the holidays as people gather more, allowing the virus to spread. They also note that actual infection numbers may be even higher than confirmed cases due to the prevalence of home tests that go unreported (source). The upcoming flu season could also limit testing capacity.
Flu and RSV Also Circulating
In addition to COVID-19, influenza (flu) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are circulating widely right now. California is simultaneously battling three respiratory viruses for the first time since the pandemic began.
RSV in particular is hitting earlier than usual this season after many children failed to build immunity in previous years due to COVID precautions. As a result, pediatric hospital beds are more scarce with RSV and other childhood illnesses admission pediatric patients at higher capacity (source).
Officials recommend getting both the new omicron-specific COVID booster and annual flu shots ahead of holiday gatherings to reduce transmission risks. They note the combination of all three viruses could put considerable strain on the healthcare system this winter.
Renewed Mask Recommendations
With the triple threats of COVID, flu and RSV, some California counties are renewing recommendations to wear masks in public indoor spaces – especially crowded venues like airports.
As of late November, about half the state’s residents live in areas considered “high” COVID community levels where masks are suggested (source). More counties may reach that threshold soon.
Sacramento County public health official Olivia Kasirye notes “We strongly recommend that people wear high-quality well-fitting masks like KN95 or N95 masks, which offer the best protection against COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses.” (source)
They emphasize masks are especially important for those at high risk who are gathering with groups where not everyone is vaccinated.
Holiday Precautions Recommended
Health experts recommend taking the following precautions to stay safe from COVID and other illnesses this holiday season:
- Get updated COVID boosters and annual flu shots
- Wear masks in crowded indoor settings
- Stay home if sick
- Test before and after holiday gatherings
- Improve indoor ventilation (open windows, upgrade filters, etc.)
- Practice good hand hygiene
They stress the situation could rapidly worsen through the holidays and into 2023 if people remain unboosted and drop all precautions. Officials urge the public not to let their guard down yet against the ongoing pandemic.
At the same time, most do not expect a return to lockdowns barring a severe new variant disrupting immunity. However, hospitals could still face considerable strain managing three simultaneous respiratory outbreaks. The weeks and months ahead remain uncertain.
Outlook for 2023 Remains Unclear
It’s unclear if California’s COVID uptick is just a holiday blip or the start of a broader winter surge. The state saw little virus transmission over the summer months. But colder drier weather now drives people indoors where the virus spreads more readily.
Some experts feel another wave is likely based on the past two winters. Plus, COVID continues evolving new variants capable of evading prior immunity. Nevertheless, population-level protection remains fairly strong for now thanks to vaccines and previous infections.
California officials say they will continue monitoring the data closely through the new year. They have funds and plans in place for expanded testing, treatments, public outreach and other resources if cases spiral. But whether California faces a mild, moderate or more severe COVID surge remains hard to predict.
In the meantime, officials maintain getting updated boosters and practicing baseline precautions offer the best protection against severe illness. They urge the public not to panic but remain alert amid an uncertain path ahead. 2023 promises further COVID twists and turns as the long-running pandemic persists.
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