In-Depth: San Diego doctors warn of another winter COVID surge

COVID case numbers higher now than a year ago
COVID-19 hospitalizations
Posted at 6:11 AM, Nov 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-04 10:08:50-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - New numbers from San Diego County have some doctors warning of another winter surge, even after a year of vaccinations.

"This is exactly the set-up we had last year before the December, January surge," says Dr. Seema Shah, the County Medical Director for Epidemiology and Immunizations.

An ABC 10News In-Depth analysis of county data found San Diego has higher numbers in a handful of critical COVID-19 metrics than it did at the same time last year, despite having more than 81% of its eligible population fully vaccinated and 90% partially vaccinated.

According to the data, San Diego County had a 7-day average of 465 new COVID-19 cases per day for the week ending on October 27, 2021. County data from October 31, 2020, showed a 7-day average of 360 new cases per day.

The COVID-19 case rate is also higher. On October 27, 2021, the county had a rate of 12.2 cases per 100,000 people. That's nearly twice as high as October 31, 2020, when the case rate was 6.6.

"That's worrisome," says Dr. Shah, who points out most of the cases the county sees now are from unvaccinated people. "Last week alone, we saw over 3,500 cases. And we shouldn't be there."

Other numbers show the impact those extra cases can have on the healthcare system. The current hospital capacity is 78%. A year ago, that number was 72%.

And there have been 141 deaths from COVID-19 from October 1-26. There were just 100 COVID deaths in all of October 2020.

While all of those numbers pale in comparison to San Diego's COVID-peak from last January, they're significantly higher than they were in June when the State of California lifted all restrictions related to the Blueprint for a Safer Economy.

"We have certainly been riding the roller coaster over the last 18 months or so," says Brett McClain, the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Sharp Healthcare.

Sharp has run data analytics on all of its patients since the pandemic began. Based on the numbers they're seeing now, McClain says they expect hospital capacity to go up by 10-20% over the next two months.

He cites a return to in-person work and school, the reopening of the economy, the emergence of the delta variant, and more people going out to eat, shop, and travel, leading to the rise in numbers, even with vaccines.

"Unfortunately, we see mini-surges coming over the next 30-45 days," says McClain.

But some other metrics in the county data suggest any surge that comes won't be as bad as last winter. Sharp Healthcare considers "Test Positivity Rate" as their most important predictor for the future of the pandemic.

That number is at 2.4% as of October 27. On October 31 last year, it was 3.0%.

"I think we're in a better place than we were last year," says Dr. Christian Ramers, who believes a winter surge will be mild compared to last year.

He points out that the 7-day average metric is higher because more tests are going on right now. The county averaged 21,567 tests per day for the week ending October 27, 2021. That's nearly double the same period last year when the county averaged 11,446 tests.

Ramers say more tests mean more people will know they're infected and take the necessary safety measures like isolation.

He also says the vaccines will keep most of those cases from leading to hospitalizations or deaths, unlike last year. And new treatments like monoclonal antibodies give the healthcare system better tools to fight the disease.

"The vaccines basically take what can be a fatal disease for a lot of people and make it a mild or moderate disease," says Dr. Ramers.

Still, Dr. Shah says people in San Diego need to get their vaccinations if they haven't already and continue taking precautions against infection if they have.

"We need to get back to the basics," says Dr. Shaw. "Wear your mask with indoor gatherings and get tested if you're sick."