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‘Tis the season for viruses: Contra Costa Health Services monitoring 3 that could interfere with holiday plans

on December 10, 2022

Many people love the holiday season for its chilly weather, twinkling lights and scent of fresh fir trees. But respiratory viruses love it too, spreading through increased travel, family gatherings, and the colder weather driving people indoors.

Across California, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising. According to the latest Public Health Department data, the average number of cases diagnosed per day in California has quadrupled since mid-October, when case counts were trending downward, and doubled in the past month, to more than 8,000 cases. On Thursday, more than 4,000 people across the state were hospitalized with the virus, twice the number in hospitals a month earlier.

“We know that the holidays create a significant problem, and that Thanksgiving is the beginning of that,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at UC Berkeley. “And unfortunately, what happens is that you’re starting to see a lot of the holiday parties beginning within the next week or two and then people traveling for the holidays. And that’s just going to exacerbate problems further.”

In Contra Costa County alone, both the percentage of people who test positive and the average number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 are increasing. As of Thursday, there were 100 more new cases of COVID-19 on average per seven days than there were a month earlier. And the seven-day average number of coronavirus patients in the hospital had more than doubled in the span of a month, to 92.

Virus surge
With COVID-19, the flu and the RSV virus spreading this holiday season, hospitalizations are up in Contra Costa County. (Courtesy of Contra Costa County)

“Case rates are not the most reliable indicator of where things stand COVID-wise,” said Will Harper, Contra Costa Health Services spokesperson. Health officials only gets lab-reported test results, but many people use home tests that aren’t reported to the county. The data also doesn’t include the number of people who may have COVID but aren’t aware of it because they have no symptoms. 

Looking at the concentration of the virus in wastewater can be a more accurate representation of its prevalence. Across the Bay Area, those levels are rising, state data shows. From Nov. 1 to Dec. 1, viral levels in Contra Costa County wastewater samples increased by 160%. 

But someone who has symptoms and tests negative for COVID-19 could be carrying a different respiratory virus that also is contagious.

 “If you wake up in the morning and you’ve got a sore throat, cough, runny nose, fever and aching, it could be influenza, it could be COVID, it could be RSV,” Swartzberg said. 

He recommends getting a multiplex test from a physician, which is a swab test with PCR technology that can detect influenza, RSV, COVID, and other respiratory viral pathogens.

The circulation of these respiratory viruses is causing significant strain on the health care system throughout the state. Contra Costa County is at a severe hospitalization surge level, which is triggered when more than 1,188 people are admitted to hospitals for any reason. When a county reaches the severe level, patients might be transferred and hospitals may curtail non-emergent procedures and scheduled admissions to accommodate increased case volumes.

Contra Costa County would hit the critical level if over 1,337 patients are hospitalized. When a county reaches a critical hospitalization surge level, the state recommends local health officers consider stay-at-home orders. As of Wednesday, the surge was at its highest since June 2020, with 1,229 patients in hospitals throughout the county.

“We are seeing our hospital beds fill up right now,” Harper said. “We’re seeing people get sick from most of these circulating respiratory viruses. So it’s important for people to take care and be cautious.”

Swartzberg suggested strategies to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 and other viruses.

 “Have an agreement with everybody you’re going to be getting together with that no one will come if they have the slightest symptoms,” he said. “The second thing is that people can test before getting together. A good strategy with the rapid tests would be to test a couple days before or a day before, and then just a few hours before getting together. If those tests are negative and you’re feeling completely fine, and if you haven’t had a very significant exposure within the past five to 10 days, the chances of you being asymptomatically infected and spreading the virus are small.” 

Masking is no longer required, but wearing a K95 or N95 mask is still a good way to protect yourself and others.

In November, Health Services launched a new mail-order program for free at-home COVID-19 tests to curb the holiday spread.

“We really want home test kits to be a staple of everyone’s medicine cabinets along with your Band-Aids and aspirin,” Harper said.

In the first eight days after launching the program, Health Services received 12,000 orders. At first, it was sending out four kits per household. But because demand was higher than expected, it was cut down to two kits per household. 

“Tests can be pretty expensive,” said Avery Konnecke, a Richmond resident and operations manager who expressed interest in mail-order test kits. “Anytime anybody has any symptoms at work that could be COVID, we have people stay home unless they have a negative test result from a take-home test. Access to the take-home test would be the difference between someone working a day and not working.” 

Contra Costa residents can order free COVID-19 test kits by filling out an online form or calling 833-829-2626. County-run libraries also are offering two free COVID-19 test kits per household. More information on the coronavirus, including how to get a vaccine, is on the Health Services website.

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