San Diego County

San Diego's COVID Case Spike Isn't Result of Omicron … Yet: Epidemiologist

More than 7,500 San Diegans tested positive for the coronavirus last week, but there was an increase of just 16 hospitalizations

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The winter surge is here. The latest report from San Diego County health officials shows a drastic climb in new COVID cases, but hospitalization figures remain steady.

Officials expected a rise in COVID cases, aligning with the peak flu season, but an epidemiologist told NBC 7 that the region's latest COVID case numbers are still largely a byproduct of the delta variant. Translation: We haven’t even started to see the full impact of the omicron mutation.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of identified cases from COVID," said Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday while announcing a booster mandate for healthcare workers in California.

Newsom was discussing what is, essentially, a fifth wave of the virus, but this time, the tide is rising much faster than in the past.

Just over 7,500 San Diegans had a positive COVID-19 test last week. That's a figure significantly higher than the 4,700 last week — a jump of nearly 60% week-to-week.

Here’s the good news: The number of COVID patients requiring hospitalizations stayed relatively flat, with just 16 more patients week-to-week, for a total of 387 local patients.

NBC 7's Monica Dean breaks down a plan for those who test positive for COVID-19.

"The omicron is doubling every two days," epidemiologist Yameer Bar-Yam said, "so even the increase we saw from last week is not yet the speed of increase in omicron.”

Bar-Yam, who helped extinguish the Ebola pandemic in Africa under the Obama administration, said that when Omicron reaches its peak in San Diego, cases should increase tenfold week to week. not just 60%.

“It takes about two weeks for people to get sick and things to get worse enough that they need to go to the hospital," Bar-Yam said.

For that reason, Bar-Yam urges caution regarding the low number of severe cases to date.

“There will be more hospitalizations in a couple of weeks," Bar-Yam said.

So what can San Diego County do to turn the trends around?

“What we’ve been focusing on in the U.S. has been the vaccine," Bar-Yam said, "and then we say we have been vaccinated and don’t need to do anything else, and that’s just not true.”

Bar-Yam said that more testing is paramount. Policies encouraging high-quality face masks and better air ventilation and purifying systems are also key. Another recommendation Bar-Yam had might be hard to hear ahead of the holiday:

“[Get} food delivered right now because cases are going up so fast," advises Bar-Yam. "I really recommend everyone shelter in place as much as you absolutely can, because by doing that, you’ll be protecting yourself at a time when there is going to be a severe overflowing of hospitals. They are not going to be able to care for all the people who show up.”

There is hope, though. The latest case numbers from South Africa show the new variant might exit a population as quickly as it infects it. Top health officials now believe South Africa may be past the peak of omicron after cases dropped from about 27,000 to 15,000 in less than a week.

Those 7,500 positive cases in San Diego County were out of nearly 20,000 tests total, meaning 6.3% of tests reported to the county tested positive, twice as high a rate as the week prior, which saw a 3% positive rate. 

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