The number of COVID-19 cases is dropping in California and across the country to levels not seen since the nasty delta variant set in last summer. The requirements for face masks have been lifted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s risk maps have shifted from red and orange warning colors to comforting yellow and green.
So why do many health experts feel uncomfortable?
There are troubling signs on the horizon that this could be a brief reprieve from the virus, now in the third year of our lives turned upside down. Cases are on the rise in Europe and Asia, driven by BA.2, a more transmissible subline of the super-infectious Omicron variant that pushed cases up during the winter. And that new sub-variant – dubbed ‘stealth omicron’ – is steadily gaining ground in the US
“We should definitely be concerned,” said Dr. Eric Topol, executive vice president at Scripps Research in La Jolla and professor of molecular medicine. “We’re going to see a significant increase here.”
The World Health Organization director general said on Thursday that “after several weeks of declines, reported cases of COVID-19 are increasing again worldwide, especially in parts of Asia,” adding that due to reductions in testing, “cases that we see are just the tip of the iceberg.”
“The pandemic is not over yet,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus.
dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of WHO attributed the global uptick in cases to the timing of the spread of the BA.2 variant, just as many countries, especially in Europe, relaxed public health measures, such as mandating face masks and restricting from crowds.
She warned that confusing messages from government and public health officials led to “misinformation that omicron is mild, misinformation that the pandemic is over, misinformation that this is the last variant we will face.”
What does that mean for us here in California and the rest of the country? Topol and other experts worry that California and other states have eased pandemic restrictions in recent weeks, and that the US has lower vaccination and booster doses than other countries experiencing spikes in infections. In the past, outbreaks in the US have followed the rise in foreign cases by just a few weeks.
Consider the comparison with countries that see significant cases: the United Kingdom and Germany in Europe and South Korea and Vietnam in Asia. The percentage of the population that has been fully vaccinated is 74% in the UK and 76% in Germany, with both countries reporting a boost to 58%, according to data from the New York Times. South Korea is 86% fully vaccinated and 62% boosted, Vietnam is 80% fully vaccinated and 44% boosted.
The same data shows that the US is 65% fully vaccinated and 29% boosted.
“This is coming here to a place near you,” Topol said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
According to at least one measure seen as an early indicator of virus activity, it’s already happening. Of the 485 wastewater systems the CDC monitors across the country to check for the COVID-19 virus, 193 reported increases in the last week. In California, they include systems for San Benito County, Los Angeles, and Ventura.
Santa Clara County health officer Dr. Sara Cody, said BA.2 is already showing up in sewage from the north end of the county, although virus infection levels across the county have remained low and cases have not reversed their downward trend.
“It doesn’t raise levels in general,” Cody said. ‘I don’t know why, but it isn’t. But we’re monitoring that very, very closely here and elsewhere.”
dr. John Swartzberg, professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at UC Berkeley, said the BA.2 subvariant is 30% more transmissible than the BA.1 omicron subvariant that caused the record wave of winter cases. Reports from the United Kingdom show that the growth of the subvariant has coincided with the rise in the number of cases in the country, with BA.2 rising from 52% of cases on February 20 to 83% on March 6.
The subvariant has not yet reached those levels in the US. But Swartzberg noted that it has grown rapidly, from 4% February 19 to 7% February 26 to 14% March 5 and 23% March 12.
“It’s about doubling here every week, which means if this continues, within two weeks it should become the dominant variety that we’ll be dealing with here in the United States,” he said. “We are dealing with a variant that will be about 30% more transferable in a few weeks, if not sooner.”
The highly contagious virus has infected several high-profile political leaders in the past week, including former President Barack Obama, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, Doug Emhoff, and San Jose Rep. Zoe Lofgren.
Yet, while acknowledging the threat, Washington officials are not sounding the alarm, claiming that the country with funding for tests, treatments and vaccines — the White House has asked for $22.5 billion — is well positioned to deal with COVID-19. outbreaks to manage.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday that BA.2 “has been circulating here for a while” and that “we are closely monitoring and monitoring the situation in both Europe and China.”
“But we do know that the tools the United States has — including the mRNA vaccines, therapies and tests — are all effective tools against this variant,” Psaki said.
Those comments have made health experts like Swartzberg feel like Cassandra from Greek mythology as they watch COVID-19 rise overseas and warn that relaxed public health measures are still needed here.
“You can see the future, but no one is listening to you,” Swartzberg said. “Basically, we’re just not done with this virus yet.”