COVID-19 cases are rising again to higher levels than last summer's surge, Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said during a press conference on Tuesday.
Cody said the numbers of cases and hospitalizations are on the rise, with the uptick also reflected in the sewershed surveillance, which follows the spread of the virus and its variants throughout the county.
"What we're seeing now is similar to what we were seeing in mid-February, and it's more than what we were seeing at the height of the delta surge. And similarly when we look across all of our sewersheds, we are also seeing an uptick. … (At) the San Jose sewershed, which covers the majority of the population in Santa Clara County, the levels there are now more than twice what they were two weeks ago. They've been steadily climbing for about a month and they're above what we saw at the height of delta," she said.
Not surprisingly, the county is experiencing a significant uptick in reports of outbreaks from schools, work sites and other congregate facilities. Many of them are related to social gatherings.
"It's spring. School is ending and people are gathering and COVID is spreading," she said.
The county is also seeing early signs of an uptick in hospitalizations, which is likely to rise since the rate tends to lag behind reported cases, she said.
"As you know, the variants that are circulating now spread much more easily than earlier variants in the pandemic. And in fact, even if you've got omicron during the omicron surge, you can still get COVID again, unfortunately. I wanted to make sure that everyone understood that," she said.
"For the very few folks in our county who have not yet been vaccinated, we still think that that's a good idea and encourage you to talk with your health care provider or someone you trust, and a vaccine is ready for you. It's still the best way to prevent hospitalization, severe illness and even death from COVID," Cody said.
She also advised people to keep the highest-grade mask people are comfortable wearing handy and to wear it whenever indoors, especially if it's crowded or in a poorly ventilated space. People should also use the COVID-19 tests they have stockpiled if they have been exposed or develop symptoms, she said.
"If you do get sick, seek treatment; there is treatment available. There are pills that you can take to prevent severe illness from COVID," said Cody, who encouraged people to learn more from their health care provider. She added that many people are eligible for the medication, which are in stock at most pharmacies. "We're also encouraging providers to get up to date on these pills. And so if you do get infected, you can get treated," she said.
Even though new variants spread quickly and it's getting increasingly difficult to prevent infection, Cody said it's still worth preventing illness.
"That's because if you're sick, you're gonna miss work, you're gonna miss school, you might expose somebody else who's not going to do well with COVID. And if you get sick with COVID, you're at risk of long COVID, which you really don't want to get. So while it's difficult, I still want to emphasize that trying to prevent it in the first place is still a good idea," she said.
"Two-and-a-half years in, we're not out of it yet. Everyone has done an amazing job. And every little bit helps. None of us are perfect. We are not going to be perfect all the time. But every little bit that you do will help you stay safe and help our community safe."
The county doesn't have plans to add any restrictions apart from being aligned with California regarding the mask requirement. The state still strongly recommends masking indoors and the county follows that recommendation, she said.
"At this point in the pandemic, no one wants to issue restrictions. At the same time, we also know that we have to think about the whole community and particularly people who are more vulnerable and need restrictions to protect them. What I want to happen is for everyone to just understand where we are, and to understand that they are at risk because we've got a lot of virus circulating now and it's on its way up. So people need to take extra precautions and wear their mask indoors and be a bit more choosy about their gatherings, take them outside, test, etc.," she said.
The county recommends anyone who are over age 50 or who have certain immunocompromised conditions to get a second booster shot if they haven't already. The durability of the vaccines and boosters to prevent severe illness and hospitalization seem to be holding steadily, Cody said.
But each new variant that emerges — particularly omicron and its subvariants — appear to gain a growth advantage over the previous variant and spread more easily.
"It is still true that people who are vaccinated and boosted are less likely to get infected and less likely to spread. But with every successive variety of omicron that seems to be less. So this is where the layers of protection come in. Being vaccinated and boosted is absolutely the best way to prevent hospitalization and death, and it does still reduce your chance of becoming infected in the first place," she said.
Cody likened the cyclical upticks of COVID-19 to the weather.
"The COVID weather is starting to look not so good. In addition to your raincoat — you should also wear it — you should also use an umbrella, that kind of thing. So vaccination and boosting is a very critical foundation. But when COVID weather starts getting wild, you have to add on other layers. You have to mask indoors. Test when necessary; try to take things outside if you can. You know, people have to make trade-offs."
Cody said she doesn't have a crystal ball regarding the future of the virus and when, or if it will fade away.
"I would guess that we will continue to see peaks and valleys. How often the peaks come and how high they are and how dangerous they are, we don't really know. I think that one thing to remember is that the conditions are present for new variants to emerge, and they could emerge really in any corner of the world. Certainly what we've experienced during this pandemic is that a problem in one corner of the world then spreads across the world. I think it's maybe an adjustment in the way that we think about it. I believe it is something that we're going to be living with for quite some time.
"We can't completely ignore it, though, because it has wreaked havoc. But we also have to have balance and do those things that we enjoy doing."
Cody said people should not try to time their boosters with when they think a surge would occur. It's possible that more boosters will be needed in the future, but the question of what the virus will do remains unclear.