In-Depth: Experts say COVID winter surges offer warning for California

Posted at 6:25 PM, Nov 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-23 23:38:22-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - California currently has one of the best COVID-19 case rates in the country, but infectious disease experts warn the cooling weather could rapidly alter the pandemic landscape and threaten hospital capacity -- something that’s already happening in other states.

As of Tuesday, 62.8% of Californians are now fully vaccinated, good enough for the 14th highest rate among U.S. states. Just a few states over, Colorado has an identical 62.8 percent vaccination rate. Its hospitals are overrun with COVID cases.

Last month, Colorado switched to crisis rules for its medical staffing. Based on current projections, there’s concern hospitals could have to begin rationing care by the end of next month.

“Time and time again, when you underestimate this virus, you get burned and we are at risk of that same thing happening to us in California going into the winter,” said Dr. Christian Ramers of Family Health Centers of San Diego.

Dr. Ramers said a nearly 63% vaccination rate still means roughly one-third of the population is susceptible. With waning vaccine immunity, a smaller group is at risk of a breakthrough. In Colorado, 80% of hospitalized COVID patients are unvaccinated.

Infectious disease experts say Colorado may offer a preview of California’s winter since the state cools off sooner.

“People are moving indoors more quickly, earlier than us, and you’re seeing what a real winter surge looks like in a place with decent vaccination rates,” Dr. Ramers said. “We could be right there after the holidays.”

To be sure, Denver’s average winter temperature is 19 degrees colder than San Diego’s, but UCLA epidemiologist Dr. Anne Rimoin says southern California’s more densely crowded communities pose their own risk factors.

With people spending more time indoors, Dr. Rimoin said vaccinations have to be fortified with other preventative measures, like rapid testing and masking.

“We’re not going to be able to vaccinate our way out of it. We’re not going to be able to test our way out of it. We’re not going be able to mask our way out of it,” she said. “We have to use all of the tools that are in the toolbox to be able to keep rates down.”

Even the most vaccinated state in the country, Vermont, is seeing the impact of winter. Over the last 14 days, cases increased 14 percent and hospitalizations swelled 20 percent.

Overseas, the United Kingdom has the third most active cases in the world. Its vaccination is higher than California’s overall, but the country is a case study in what can happen if an age group is overlooked, according to UC San Francisco epidemiologist Dr. George Rutherford.

“What the U.K. failed to do was vaccinate younger adolescents,” he said. “That’s the population that sustained transmission and is causing all the problems now.”

The U.K. authorized vaccines for 12 through 15-year-olds about four months after the U.S. Last month, school-age children in the U.S. were more than ten times as likely to be infected as the country’s seniors.

Public health officials in the U.K. estimate vaccinations in that age group rose from 17 percent in October to about 41 percent by mid-November, but they still lag well behind the rate in California.

“What’s at the root of this is not vaccine failure or waning immunity or anything like that. It’s failure to vaccinate,” Dr. Rutherford said.

New data out of Israel suggests boosters shots can significantly slow the spread, Dr. Rimoin said.

She said protection builds over several days, but there is a noticeable benefit within 48 hours of the shot, meaning it’s not too late for a boost before the holidays.