Coronavirus activity in Merced County and California overall has stayed mostly flat for the past several weeks.
With some slight, recent fluctuations in activity, along with worsening conditions around other parts of the globe, it remains difficult to forecast whether the Golden State will see another severe surge take hold this winter.
Generally, health officials warn that the winter months elevate the risk of COVID-19 transmission due to a string of major holidays plus colder weather driving more gatherings indoors, where the virus spreads more easily.
California’s worst surge of the pandemic came last winter. But comparing winter 2020 to winter 2021 is complicated, even more than halfway through November.
On one hand, close to two-thirds of all Californians are now fully vaccinated; more than 4.7 million adults have received booster doses; and children 5 to 11 were recently cleared for vaccination, meaning the earliest rounds of young kids to get a jab could be fully inoculated in time for Christmas or at least New Year’s Day.
On the other, the state has to contend with the far more contagious delta variant, which hadn’t yet emerged last year.
There’s also the removal of many restrictions, such as capacity limits and social distancing; K-12 campuses being open for in-person instruction; vaccine protection possibly waning for the earliest to receive them; and vaccination rates remaining uneven in California, both geographically and demographically.
Health experts are warning the public to err on the side of caution, stay diligent during the holidays and get vaccinated for COVID-19 and the flu.
Gov. Gavin Newsom recently pointed to the steep surges currently developing in Europe as evidence the pandemic is far from over. Nationwide, virus cases have begun ticking back up in the U.S. in the past few weeks, after nearly two months of decline, federal data shows.
Newsom urged unvaccinated Californians to get a first dose and those who are fully vaccinated to get a booster dose when available.
State officials earlier this month expanded booster eligibility to all adults who are six months beyond their second dose of Pfizer or Moderna or two months beyond Johnson & Johnson.
More than a week before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized boosters for all adults last Friday, state health officials told Californians they could self-attest their own risk level, and instructed providers not to turn down adults for whom the two- or six-month interval has elapsed.
“Absolutely, if you are interested in getting a booster, we ask you to go ahead and get yourself signed up to get one,” state health chief Dr. Mark Ghaly said Nov. 10.
What do local, statewide COVID numbers show?
Newsom earlier this month noted the statewide total of virus patients in hospitals had been ticking up. In the last couple of weeks, though, virus hospitalizations declined, falling from around 3,900 in early November to fewer than 3,200 as of Monday, according to California Department of Public Health data.
California’s test positivity has fluctuated near 2% since mid-October, and was last reported Monday at 1.9%. The statewide case rate grew from 12.2 daily cases per 100,000 residents in mid-October to 14 per 100,000 by the end of the month, but fell to 10.6 on Monday, its lowest rate reported since early July.
Merced County’s COVID-19 numbers have generally trended downward in recent weeks, according to the local health department’s data.
The county’s new daily cases per 100,000 residents fell from 27.7 three weeks ago to 16.3 as of Monday.
Active cases, outbreaks and testing positivity have declined during the past few weeks as well to 822, 43 and 6.4%, respectively. The county’s recent hospitalizations and deaths are still high and intensive care unit bed availability remain strained, however.
Compared to one year ago last November, Merced County’s active cases count is about 430 cases lower and testing positivity is slightly down from 7.1%.
A total of 45,164 local cases have been tallied since the pandemic’s start.
While mostly good signs, the data represents only short-term developments. A major test will begin this week, as millions gather with friends and loved ones for Thanksgiving.
CDPH has guidance, updated earlier this month, for safely celebrating the holidays. The first recommendation listed is to get vaccinated. The second is to keep gatherings small. The third is to wear masks indoors, unless everyone at the gathering is fully vaccinated.
Hospitals filling, not just from COVID
Though CDPH now reports its lowest virus patient statewide total since late July, the 3,200 mark is about 30% higher than just before the start of last winter’s surge.
Some counties hit hard this summer by the delta variant — including Butte, Fresno, Shasta and a few others in Northern California and the San Joaquin Valley — are seeing significantly higher patient totals now than mid-November of last year.
The Merced County Department of Public Health reported 29 local COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Monday — lower than the 43 patients hospitalized one year earlier. But across the county, just one available and staffed ICU bed was free, according to state data.
While almost 3,200 hospitalized statewide pales in comparison to last winter’s peak of nearly 22,000, state epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan says the combination of COVID-19 and non-COVID maladies has already elevated hospital census counts to similar levels as last winter.
Filling hospitals are another reason health officials are urging people to get flu shots as soon as possible.
“Overall census is already close to last winter surge in most regions except Southern CA,” Pan tweeted Nov. 13, along with a graph showing hospital census levels in five geographic regions. “W/ COVID trends plateauing & other respiratory viruses on the rise (eg RSV), this is why we r (sic) worried.”
Pan’s graphs showed that the San Joaquin Valley was recently at about 120% of its hospital census baseline, and that COVID-positive cases make up about 20% of the census total, both the highest among the five regions.
Rural Northern California was next, at about 115% and 15%, respectively, followed by Greater Sacramento at about 110% of baseline census with 10% being COVID-positive.
Hospital census numbers fared better in the Bay Area and Southern California.
Here’s how CA hospitals look regionally compared to prior surges. Overall census is already close to last winter surge in most regions except Southern CA. W/ COVID trends plateauing & other respiratory viruses on the rise (eg RSV), this is why we r worried pic.twitter.com/OIHcwkWPVH
— erica pan (@ericapanMD_CDPH) November 13, 2021
The graphs largely align with regional trends for vaccination: in general, rural Northern California counties have some of the state’s lowest vaccination rates, along with most of the San Joaquin Valley; most Greater Sacramento counties trail the state average slightly; Southern California is a bit above average; and Bay Area counties top the list with the highest rates.
Local and state health officials have said COVID-19 booster doses and vaccinations for newly eligible children ages 5 to 11 may represent the difference between surge and no surge this winter.
The most recently available state data reported that about 1.4% of children 5 to 11-years-old are partially vaccinated. Over 37% of older children, age 12 to 17, are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in Merced County.
Of all the Merced County residents age 5 and up, 50.4% have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Monday. That compares to a statewide average of 67.2%.
CDPH reports that, for the week ending Nov. 6, unvaccinated residents were about seven times more likely than the fully vaccinated to test positive, 12 times more likely to be hospitalized with the virus and 17 times more likely to die from it.
In Merced County, where COVID-19 vaccinations have lagged behind other parts of California, the seven-day death average was .5 fatalities per 100,000 residents on Monday, compared to the statewide rate of .1.
Since the start of the pandemic, 666 total Merced County residents as of Tuesday have died after contracting the virus.
The Sacramento Bee’s Michael McGough contributed to this report.