Santa Clara County has seen a rise in residents infected with COVID-19 variants, a sign that efforts to curb the pandemic remain precarious, county public health leaders said during a Thursday press conference.
The county has cases of variants first identified in Brazil, Japan, South Africa, the United Kingdom and other parts of California, which county Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody called "variants of concern."
As of last week, every variant identified so far by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been detected in the county. All have either shown to be or are presumed to be circulating in the community, she said.
As of March 27, the county has recorded the following number of variant cases:
• Ninety-two confirmed cases of B.1.1.7, which was first detected in the United Kingdom.
• Three confirmed cases of B.1.351, first detected in South Africa
• One case of P.1 first detected in Japan and Brazil.
• More than 1,000 confirmed cases of California variants B.1.427 and B.1.429.
In addition, the first two cases of variants detected in New York — one each of B.1.525 and B.1.526 — are confirmed in the county.
Only a small percentage of COVID-19-positive specimens undergo genomic sequencing, which looks for mutations. Still, the proportion of cases linked to more transmissible variants is climbing and signals a worrying trend, Cody said.
"This is important to know. Right now we're in a race between the variant and the vaccine," she said, noting the county and state have a shortage of doses to immunize the public against the deadly disease.
"Genomic sequencing is allowing us to confirm what we already presumed based on national trends, which is the presence and unfortunate increase of variants in our community. We're already seeing surges in other parts of the country, likely driven by variants. Combined with the data we are seeing locally, these are important warning signs that we must continue to minimize the spread. We can still stop a surge from happening here if we hold onto our tried and true prevention measures for a little longer while we increase our vaccination rates," she said in a statement.
The encouraging decline in the number of positive COVID-19 cases has leveled off to October 2020 levels, causing concern that the county, state and other parts of the U.S. are headed toward another surge, she said during Thursday's press conference. The increase in variants is particularly concerning as health officials struggle to get a limited allocation of doses into the arms of the public as quickly as possible.
The number of vaccine doses from the state has remained flat over the past several weeks. This week’s allotment allowed for roughly 35,000 first-dose appointments. Next week, the county will receive 71,900 doses, 49,000 of which are designated as first doses. The number is small considering the county's 1.9 million inhabitants, said Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, the county's COVID-19 testing and vaccination officer. (The total allocation does not include doses for Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health/Palo Alto Medical Foundation, which receive their supply directly from the state, he added.)
So far, 34% of county residents ages 16 and older have received one dose of vaccine and 20%, or 1 in 5 residents, are fully vaccinated. Vaccines from manufacturers Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna require a two-shot regimen; the newer Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires a single shot, Fenstersheib said.
The state expects to receive an estimated 4 million doses per week by mid-May and allocations are also expected to pick up in mid-April, he said. Fenstersheib expects the county will reach its goal of having 80% of residents vaccinated by August, the level at which is thought to achieve so-called "herd immunity."
In the meantime, health officials worry the shortage of vaccine doses and the public's sometimes lax approach to protective measures, such as social distancing, mask wearing and limited travel, will allow the virus to continue to mutate into more deadly or more transmissible forms. The current manufacturing issues discovered with some of the Johnson & Johnson doses presents an unknown variable. Although the state has received more than 500,000 doses of the J&J vaccine, it's unknown if the production-line issues will affect future dose allocations, Fenstersheib said.
Cody urged the public to continue wearing a mask in the event that those who have been immunized become asymptomatic carriers of the disease or also become infected with a stronger variant. Although the current vaccines are thought to be a safeguard against the current strains, the vaccines are not completely protective. There is always the threat of a variant against which the vaccine would be far less effective, she said.
County leaders urge anyone who travels to quarantine upon their return. They also recommend community members to keep activities outdoors instead of indoors and get vaccinated when they become eligible. Although most activities are now allowed, many are high-risk and are not recommended, county officials said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.