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In-Depth: Data shows omicron surge in San Diego fueled by high case rates, few severe outcomes

Hospitalizations, deaths far below previous surges
Posted at 6:09 AM, Feb 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-03 10:34:36-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - San Diego hit record high numbers for COVID-19 cases during the recent omicron surge, but a deeper dive into county data show the surge could have been far worse when it comes to "severe" outcomes.

The San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency first confirmed the presence of omicron in San Diego on Dec. 8. Since then, there have been 311,842 new cases of COVID-19 reported to the county. That means around 44.4% of all COVID cases in San Diego have happened over the last two months.

At the same time, hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and deaths haven't risen as sharply.

According to county data, since Dec. 7, hospital admissions have risen by 2,072 people. ICU admissions have gone up by 90. Deaths have increased by 365.

Compared to the same period last year, those numbers are low.

From Dec. 7, 2020, to Feb. 1, 2021, there were 144,605 new cases. That's less than half of this winter's surge. But in that same time, there were 5,304 new hospitalizations, 378 ICU cases, and 1,541 deaths.

Put simply, during the recent omicron surge, San Diego saw more than twice the number of COVID cases as last year but less than 1/4 the amount of "severe" outcomes.

"I'd say we dodged a bullet there," says Dr. David Bazzo, the Interim Chair of the UC San Diego School of Medicine and Health.

Dr. Bazzo says a combination of San Diego's high vaccination rate and the omicron variant's less severe infection kept the hospital system from being overwhelmed.

But, he says the record-high number of cases still put a tremendous amount of stress on the "upfront" areas of the medical system.

"(We had) a lot more ER visits; a lot more urgent care visits; a lot more testing; a lot more phone calls from primary care physicians, trained to keep track of their patients make sure that they're getting better and not getting worse," says Dr. Bazzo.

Now that the peak of the omicron surge has passed, there is hope the extra infections will lead to higher "natural immunity" levels throughout the county. That could help protect San Diego from future surges.

A 2021 study from the UK Biobank found that 99% of people infected with COVID still had antibodies in their system three months later. 88% of them had antibodies six months later. But that study came out before the delta or omicron variant emerged.

Other studies show the combination of vaccines and natural immunity offer even more protection.

But Dr. Bazzo warns that doesn't mean healthy people should seek out the virus.

"If you haven't had the disease, don't go and try to get it because you think it's going to make you better," he says. "Because that could backfire."

Dr. Bazzo says infected people could still suffer complications from the virus, like long-COVID or a hospitalization. He says getting the vaccine is enough to have protection.

And he says each surge makes us more prepared for the next one.

"We learn from what's just happened," says Dr. Bazzo. "Then we try to apply that knowledge moving forward."