California is continuing to see a downward trend in its coronavirus case numbers, hospitalizations and other key metrics, but state health officials say residents shouldn’t let their guard down just yet.
The state reported a 14-day average positivity rate of 7.2% on Tuesday, down significantly from 11% two weeks ago.
It’s a sign of declining infections, said Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services. The state’s daily new cases numbers were also down at 12,604 infections reported in the past 24 hours, a significant drop compared to days in December when there were more than 50,000 new cases reported daily.
“We haven’t seen a number like this in quite some time,” Ghaly said.
COVID-19 hospitalizations are also down, decreasing nearly 29% in the past 14 days. The number of intensive care unit admissions in the past two weeks have also gone down by 18.9%.
The state anticipates that by March 4 “we’ll see fewer than half the number of people with COVID in our hospitals as we have today,” Ghaly said.
In another sign of hope, state health officials are projecting ICU capacities statewide will rise above 30% in four weeks’ time. Southern California’s ICU capacity, for instance, is expected to rise 43.7% by next month. Just weeks ago, SoCal and many other regions were hovering around 0% ICU capacities.
While the overall state numbers are looking good, transmission rates remain high in many communities across the state.
“The chance for another surge in California is real. It’s still circulating in our communities,” said Ghaly. “Our case rates are down but they’re not low.”
All but four California counties remain in the most restrictive purple tier. Only two counties saw enough progress to change reopening tiers — Alpine and Trinity, both moving from red to orange.
Even as vaccine distribution ramps up, another surge is still entirely possible, especially with the new coronavirus variants and people becoming complacent.
State health officials say they’re closely monitoring new virus variants, including two West Coast mutations and the strain first identified in the United Kingdom.
Some mutations are meaningful and may increase the virus’ infectiousness, Ghaly said. The variant first discovered in the U.K., B.1.1.7., is allegedly found to be more contagious but the strain is “not rapidly increasing” in the state, he said.
Meanwhile, less is known about the West Coast variants, which have shown up in more than 1,000 cases in California. The variants have been detected in Los Angeles, Mono, Monterey, Orange, Riverside, San Francisco, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Humboldt and Lake counties. But because genomic sequencing is sparse, health officials do not know exactly how prevalent the variants are.
“We are continuing to actively sequence the virus here in California and building up to do even more,” Ghaly said.
Given the ocean of unknowns regarding the emerging variants, Ghaly reminded that people shouldn’t lose sight of the fundamentals: wearing a mask and social distancing.
Ghaly also warned residents to keep their guard up with the Super Bowl coming up this Sunday and Lunar New Year celebrations on Feb. 12.
“I know many people are looking forward to gathering,” Ghaly said. “But as much as you can, let’s not have the Super Bowl become the next beginning of a huge surge here in California.”
He said people should continue to only gather with members of their own households, and wear masks whenever out in public or visiting people in different households.
Ghaly said that the fall and winter surge in California coincided with holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving as well as championship wins by Southern California teams, the Lakers and the Dodgers.
“As I’ve said before, you give COVID an inch and it will take a mile,” he added. “So, don’t fumble this, we’re almost there.”
Meanwhile, the frantic effort to vaccinate as many Californians as possible continues.
Following a slow start, the state’s vaccination campaign is beginning to ramp up. As of Monday, California had administered more than 3.5 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
However, frustrations have been mounting for weeks as eligible seniors struggle to secure a vaccine appointment and providers say they aren’t receiving nearly enough doses to keep up with demand.
“The only rate-limiting step to vaccinating Californians should be the availability of the vaccine itself,” Ghaly said. “We continue to work with the federal administration, the manufacturers directly to understand what can be done to get more supply to California as we really build up our capacity.”
He added that the state is putting more focus on not only vaccinating the most vulnerable but also making sure the communities hit the hardest by the virus are getting equal access to doses.
“Availability of vaccine is always top of mind on these issues, to ensure we can successfully and adequately deliver on the promise of adding people to our eligibility list,” Ghaly said.
As part of the effort, the state is exploring providing payments to groups that work to vaccinate minorities and those most affected, as well as providing targeted outreach, evening accessibility and translation services, the state’s health director said.
As of Tuesday, the state has not released a breakdown of its vaccine distribution by race or ethnicity, but Ghaly said health officials were working on making the data public.