Coronavirus infections and hospitalizations are on the rise again in the Bay Area as the region enters the sixth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which public health officials said is occurring.
San Francisco now has the second-highest infection rate in California, averaging 40 new daily cases per 100,000 residents, according to state data released Friday, behind nearby Santa Cruz County, which reported 43 per 100,000 residents.
Both counties were reporting just 3 daily cases per 100,000 a month ago.
“I’m surprised it’s increasing so much,” said Dr. George Rutherford, infectious disease expert at UCSF.
San Francisco, Santa Clara, Marin and San Mateo counties — as well as Santa Cruz — had all transitioned to “moderate” levels for community COVID presence as measured by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday . The calculation is based on case numbers and hospitalizations. At this level, the agency recommends that high-risk individuals return to using face masks in public spaces.
All nine counties of the Bay Area, as well as those around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and virtually all of California’s coast, are also classified as having “high” viral community transmission rates, according to a separate CDC metric.
“There’s a lot of transmission going on,” Rutherford said. “Nobody wears masks. We are no longer at the same level of avoidance as we used to be.”
He added that the highly contagious BA.2 omicron subvariant and its sublineages such as BA.2.12.1 could be causing the current surge in cases, particularly with waning immunity in both those who have been vaccinated in the last year and those who have Individuals previously infected with the original winter omicron strain.
“I think the vaccines are doing a great job of preventing hospitalizations and deaths,” Rutherford said. “But their ability to prevent transmission is not as good as before.”
Hospital stays are also increasing. Across the Bay Area, 322 people are now hospitalized with the virus, compared to 245 people a month ago. San Francisco reported 55 patients with COVID-19 on Friday. That number was 23 on April 6. COVID admissions to Bay Area intensive care units also rose to 50 on Thursday, compared to 29 a week earlier.
These numbers remain well below those recorded during previous COVID waves, when fewer people were vaccinated and new treatments like antiviral drugs were not yet available.
The city’s coronavirus test positive rate has risen to 8.7%. That’s more than double California’s overall rate of 3.9% and appears to be rising sharply.
“We will continue to see increases in transmission,” Rutherford said. “We will see cases. We will also see some hospitalizations and deaths, but not as many as in the past.”
The newly discovered subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, which have caused another surge in South Africa, also cloud the future of the pandemic.
“That could make things worse,” Rutherford said. “I expect there will be a sawtooth pattern in the future.”
Health officials in Santa Cruz County this week urged residents to “protect mom by wearing a mask and staying in well-ventilated areas” for their Mother’s Day celebrations.
dr Cal Gordon, the Santa Cruz County assistant health officer, told TV station KSBW that the county is seeing “sneaker waves” of new cases, but wasn’t sure if that would lead to a spike.
The number of deaths, a lagging indicator of pandemic trends, remains low across California but is likely to rise next month, according to the California Department of Health’s CalCat forecasts.
For the first time since February, the CDC projected that the number of newly reported COVID-19 deaths is likely to increase over the next four weeks, with 1,600 to 4,600 new deaths likely to be reported nationwide in the week ending May 28.
Bay Area health officials are hoping for expanded treatment options, and the widespread availability of the antiviral Paxlovid will help stem the tide of new virus-related deaths.
Dispensaries across Marin County received about 500 doses of Paxlovid last week, said county health officer Dr. Matt Willis, in a briefing on Wednesday.
“It happened with little fanfare, but it is an important milestone in our response to the pandemic,” he said. “It basically means that for the first time since the pandemic began, we have enough medicines in Marin to effectively treat everyone who should be treated for COVID-19.”
Willis said that while the county is highly vaccinated, immunizations are “not 100% adequate” and Paxlovid reduces severe episodes by 90%.
“For the first time we can envision a community with zero COVID deaths,” he said, noting that that would have been “unimaginable” last year and calling the treatments groundbreaking.
However, Willis warned that the treatments are only recommended for people at high risk of serious consequences from COVID-19. Starting next week, Marin County will open three new test-to-treat locations in Novato, San Rafael and Mill Valley. In a single visit, patients can receive COVID testing and prescriptions for Paxlovid if needed.
While case numbers don’t carry the same weight as they did when the pandemic began, public health experts are concerned that more cases will fuel an increase in long-term COVID and other virus-related complications, including long-term cardiovascular and neurological problems that could strain health care systems for years to come.
“That’s not something you want to get,” Rutherford said. “We know that long-term COVID can affect people with even mild symptomatic illness. The way to avoid it is not to get it in the first place.”
Aidin Vaziri (he/him) is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]