In-Depth: BA.5 surge puts San Diego County in COVID 'high-risk tier'

Posted at 3:50 PM, Jul 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-15 10:18:03-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Thursday, the CDC moved San Diego County into the "high-risk category" because of the rising number of COVID hospitalizations.

According to their website, the CDC tracks community levels of the COVID-19 based on geographic regions to determine the impact of the virus in communities, and to allow individual jurisdictions to implement preventive strategies based on the latest local data.

Meantime, much of California falls under the high-risk category, driven by the new omicron sub-variant, BA.5.

Hospitals in Los Angeles County have seen the number of COVID deaths double since last month, climbing from about 50 per week to about 100 deaths per week, the highest rate in months.

In San Diego County, deaths have remained flat since February, but based on the number of hospital admissions, we might be just a few weeks behind LA, says UCSD's Dr. Robert Schooley.

“As of earlier, in June, we had a couple of 100 people in San Diego's hospitals at any on any given day. We're now pushing up closer to 400 a day,” said Dr. Schooley. “I am worried that this increasing number of hospitalizations means we'll see the death rate pick up before too much longer."

Most of the new cases in California and around the country are the new BA.5 subvariant of omicron, raising the question of whether it causes more severe disease.

RELATED: San Diego nears 'high' COVID tier as major events approach

New studies show BA.5 has picked up molecular tricks not seen since the delta variant.

Japanese researchers found BA.5 can flourish in the lungs like delta used to. And some new research out this week from scientists in Australia shows that once BA.5 enters a cell, it can churn out many more copies of itself.

“It just makes a lot more virus. Some people believe this will cause more severe disease,” said UC San Francisco Dr. Peter Chin-Hong. “Some people have anecdotally reported more painful sore throat with BA-5, but I'm reassured by data from other countries.”

Dr. Peter Chin-Hong says countries like South Africa and the UK, where BA.5 hit sooner, did not see more hospitalizations or deaths than previous waves.

And early research from the UK offers clues that vaccine protection against BA.5 "likely remains comparable" to what we've seen against omicron.

“You can have a really scary-looking virus. But if you're really protected, with boosting in particular these days, it doesn't matter how scary the virus is, your T cells and B cells that have memory are going to kick the virus out,” said Dr. Chin-Hong

BA.5 is arriving at a time when many people have waning immunity.

Six months after your booster with the Pfizer vaccine, UK scientists estimate the shots are 70% effective against hospitalization from omicron. But the protection against infection or symptoms are between zero and 10%.

Both Dr. Chin-Hong and Dr. Schooley says it's time all adults got access to a second booster, not just people over 50.

“I personally think it's time for that and that government needs to move on and get that done," said Dr. Schooley. "It doesn't make sense to keep shuffling our feet and waiting to have a second booster available to the adult population."

The CDC recommends universal indoor masking for counties in the high risk tier.

LA County officials say if they stay in the high risk tier for 2 weeks, they will reimpose indoor mask mandates, potentially July 29. But San Diego County's health department told ABC 10News it will follow guidance from the state, not the CDC.