A surge in COVID cases hitting San Diego County has public health experts worried that a rise in hospitalizations and deaths could be on the way.
The Omicron variants BA.2 and BA.2.12.1, which are even more contagious than the variant that caused a winter surge in the U.S., are responsible for the recent increase in cases across the county — rivaling numbers seen in the Delta wave late last summer. For example, confirmed cases surpassed 1,500 per day for three days straight in late May.
“The respite we get between surges seems to be decreasing,” said Corinne McDaniels-Davidson, epidemiologist and the director of the San Diego State University Institute for Public Health.
Why this matters
Like other places around the country, San Diego is seeing yet another uptick in COVID cases, which could lead to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths.
“The question is: Where does it go from here?” she said. “Are we going to see something … close to the Omicron wave that we had in winter of this year? It all depends on what we choose to do as a society.”
Even more alarming, she said, data from wastewater sampling suggests that the number of new cases could be undercounted as more and more people rely on home-based testing. Looking at cities that preceded San Diego in the latest COVID-19 surge, she worries that hospitalizations and deaths could soon begin to rise.
“I think that probably is coming,” she said. “It’s frustrating.”
COVID has killed more than 5,300 people in San Diego County since the start of the pandemic. While hospitalizations hit their lowest point of the year in April, county data show those numbers rising throughout May.
Dr. David Smith, head of infectious diseases at University of California San Diego, said the increase in infections isn’t surprising.
“When new variants come through and immunity wanes within the community, then we should expect to see an increase in cases,” he said. Still, he said he was caught off guard by how early the new wave hit. “I was thinking that we weren’t going to be hitting an uptick until July. … That was the surprising part to me.”
Smith said it’s important to look closely at new variants spreading locally and abroad to determine how it will affect the population. The Omicron wave that hit the U.S. over the winter generally caused milder symptoms, but turned out to be deadlier for older Americans than the Delta variant. Smith said he expects the coronavirus to continue to evolve for the rest of his career.
“Each wave of variant is different. It is the same virus but it behaves differently both in its infectiousness and its clinical outcomes,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want people to be complacent. “There will be another wave and it will be like a whole other pandemic.”
Given the latest increase in cases — and likely future waves — McDaniels-Davidson said she wants the federal government to set standards for “on-ramps” to guide local officials on when they might put restrictions in place again to hamper the spread of the virus.
“We haven’t seen that from the federal government and it’s been disappointing,” she said. “Local authorities at the county and state are in a pretty tough position when they are not really being supported by federal agencies.”
She added that in between surges, she’d like to see more focus placed on ventilation and air filtration in public spaces, given their importance in preventing the spread of the virus.
“We know what works,” she said. “I wish we were using that time to put those measures in place.”