Bay Area COVID cases surpass 2021 winter surge, but far fewer hospitalized

Coronavirus cases in the Bay Area’s spring surge have surpassed the peaks of the devastating winter wave of early 2021, but high levels of vaccination and immunity in the community are keeping hospitalizations at more manageable levels so far, and deaths remain notably low throughout the region.

Statewide, coronavirus cases continue to rise sharply, with the Bay Area reporting overall higher levels than the rest of California. Officials said the current surge shows no signs of waning: The Bay Area is reporting about 53 new cases per 100,000 residents as of Tuesday, up from 18 per 100,000 a month ago and 42 last week.

“This wave is still going, and I have not seen evidence it has peaked yet,” Dr. Nicholas Moss, health officer for Alameda County, told supervisors during a briefing Tuesday.

The Bay Area is reporting roughly 4,500 new coronavirus cases a day as of Tuesday — about the same as the peak of the winter 2020-21 surge, which was the deadliest period of the pandemic. The true current case count is likely much higher due to so many people testing at home — results of which are not usually reported to the county or state — or not testing at all.

Hospitalizations are a fraction of the 2020-21 surge, though — about 516 people are currently hospitalized with COVID in the Bay Area, up from 255 last month and compared to more than 2,000 in the worst days of the pandemic. The region is reporting about three deaths per day, far below the 50 or more deaths reported daily during the deadliest time.

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The nine counties that make up the Bay Area region currently have the highest infection rates in the state, behind only rural Del Norte County. Among them, San Francisco is still outpacing the rest of California in new coronavirus cases. The city reported about 61 daily cases per 100,000 residents as of Tuesday, nearly twice the statewide average of 36 per 100,000. A month ago, San Francisco was tallying 24 cases per 100,000, and last week it was 54.

Other Bay Area counties have also logged substantial increases. Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties are all reporting case numbers more than three times higher than a month ago, while San Mateo County’s case count has doubled.

“We are seeing new cases on the rise across the state and here in the Bay Area,” Anna Roth, Contra Costa County’s health director, said in a briefing with supervisors Tuesday. She noted that COVID-19 hospitalizations, a lagging indicator of pandemic trends, are still low but ticking up following the steady increase in cases.

Dr. Bob Wachter, the chief of medicine at UCSF, said in a tweet Tuesday that the asymptomatic test positive rate at his hospitals is now 6.2%, up from 4.8% last week. The test population, he previously explained, is mostly preoperative patients at UCSF undergoing routine screening tests before their procedures. The implication is that about 1 in 16 people in San Francisco without symptoms could test positive.

The current wave is playing out a little differently than previous ones, Alameda’s Moss said. Earlier surges hit lower-income communities harder, whereas now, it’s flipped — higher-income communities are seeing higher case rates. This is measured by the Healthy Places Index, which looks at income, education level and other socioeconomic factors. During this wave, white and Asian residents now have higher case rates than Black and Latino residents.

Moss noted that case rates are now roughly where they were in early February when the omicron wave was starting to retreat. But he also agreed with Contra Costa’s Roth that there is much less severe disease — hospitalizations have increased slightly but are not rising as much, relative to cases, as they did during previous waves.

“Our ICU (numbers) have not budged, and we’re far enough into this wave, about seven weeks now, that I would have expected to see more of a signal there if we were seeing a large burden of severe disease,” he said. “Hospitalizations are lower than any prior waves we’ve experienced.”

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