California blows through record for new daily cases as omicron surges

The numbers from the holiday weekend are in — and California has broken every record for new coronavirus cases. Obliterated them, actually.

The California Department of Public Health reported more than 230,000 new cases on Tuesday, more than twice as many as has been reported in a single day before. The holiday data dump brings California’s closely-watched 7-day average of new daily cases to a record high of 45,466 — nearly doubling the data available the day before. That figure appears poised to soar past 50,000 average daily cases as new data is confirmed and the highly contagious omicron variant continues its head-spinning spread.

The Golden State is catching up to COVID hotspots in other parts of the country that had already toppled last winter’s peak for new infections. The 7-day average of new daily cases in the U.S. as a whole surpassed 400,000 this week for the first time and was headed toward a half-million. Last winter’s surge peaked at 251,000 on Jan. 11.

“Our exposure notifications have been off the charts,” said Christopher Longhurst, chief medical officer at UC San Diego Health, whose team has a contract with the state to run a system that notifies people when they’ve been exposed to the virus.

As during previous spikes, the highest concentration of new cases is in Southern California, with Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino and Orange counties registering some of the state’s highest rates — all with a daily average of more than 100 cases per 100,000 residents. The positivity rate for COVID tests across California has reached a startling 20%, topping the previous high of 17% one year ago.

In highly vaccinated San Francisco, 829 people are testing positive on average each day, more than double last winter’s peak, and there are more than 95 cases per 100,000 people in the city.

“We believe that the height of this surge is upon us,” the city’s health director, Grant Colfax, said during a news conference Tuesday.

But Colfax and other San Francisco officials said the omicron wave is behaving differently, in large part because most residents are vaccinated and boosted, so they are well protected against severe illness, hospitalization and death. Right now, Colfax said, as many as 30% of patients with COVID-19 at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital were found to be positive after arriving for other reasons.

“We’re in a much different place,” said San Francisco Mayor London Breed. “Right now, we’re learning what it means to live with COVID.”

“The consequences today are not catastrophic” for vaccinated residents, Breed said. “That’s a stark contrast to the impact COVID had before the vaccines.”

In a previous generation of the pandemic, nearly every county in California would be solidly purple — the most restrictive level among the state’s past lockdown protocols. But with better treatments and evidence that the omicron variant so far causes less severe illness, public health measures are less dramatic. Indoor mask mandates are still in, but most businesses remain open. Nursing homes and assisted leave facilities will adopt new vaccine and negative-testing requirements for visitors starting Friday. Stanford and other universities are starting the new term online, and Stanford is limiting spectators at indoor sporting events, but K-12 schools are keeping kids in class.

“We’re not shutting anything down,” Breed said. “This is not 2020.”

Colfax said San Francisco currently has enough hospital beds to manage the surge, but he and others are concerned about health care workers and other frontline workers such as police, bus drivers and firefighters getting sick. San Francisco canceled its traditional New Year’s Eve fireworks show in part because of staffing issues, and the city, Breed said, is seeing some missed runs on Muni lines, making for longer wait times, although all routes are still running.

Still, the number of patients in California hospitals who are COVID positive has increased more rapidly in the past 10 days than at any other point in the pandemic, though the percent of positive cases needing hospitalizations is lower than before.

At UCSD, Longhurst said, one model suggests local hospitalizations will rise beyond their peak last winter, before vaccines were widespread.

“That was really surprising to me,” he said, adding that the hospital had to reschedule more than two dozen surgeries Tuesday because of staffing challenges. And, he said, it’s not just omicron making people sick. The earlier delta variant is also continuing to spread.

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