One month ago, millions of Californians celebrated the end of COVID-19 restrictions and mask mandates. But a new variant of the virus poses an outbreak threat that some experts say is only a matter of time.
Now, a version of the virus known as the Delta variant is spreading rapidly, popping up in hot spots across the United States. The variant recently surpassed all others to become the most common version of COVID-19 in the country.
In neighboring Nevada, the Delta variant is responsible for 60% of all sequenced COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks. Other localized outbreaks are starting to push U.S. infections up once more in areas with low vaccination rates such as Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri.
“I’d say there is always potential (for a case surge in California) as long as the virus is still ‘out there’ and there are still susceptible (people) in the population,” said Dr. B.B. Gerstman, professor emeritus of public health at San Jose State University. “That’s one of the reasons everyone needs to get vaccinated.”
In Santa Clara County, the Delta variant is responsible for just 85 total positive infections as of July 8. But some experts believe it’s just a matter of time before the region is hit with an outbreak caused by the variant.
“My advice: Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate,” Gerstman told San José Spotlight. “The vaccines are highly safe and effective.”
Santa Clara County officials told San José Spotlight that they continue to be concerned about the rise of virus variants across the country and are “monitoring the situation closely.”
“The most important method to protect the community from the Delta variant is to continue to increase our vaccination rates,” a county spokesperson said.
More than 76% of Santa Clara County residents ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, leaving just a relatively small chunk of shots to go before achieving the county’s long-touted and ambitious goal of fully inoculating 85% of residents by Aug. 1.
Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, professor of global health and infectious diseases at Stanford University, said while we know more about COVID-19 now than we did a year ago, it’s hard to predict what will happen with new variants of the virus.
“We have a remarkable opportunity now because we have three vaccines that we didn’t have a year ago,” Maldonado told San José Spotlight.
Recent research shows that if a fully vaccinated individual becomes infected with the virus, called a “breakthrough case,” they’re likely to have less serious symptoms and end up hospitalized compared to unvaccinated individuals. But more than 30% of Americans are still not fully vaccinated.
“Right now 99% of the COVID-19 infections we are seeing are happening in unvaccinated people,” Maldonado said. “And we have a variant that’s probably twice as infectious as the original virus. When you put all that together, what you’re going to see is continued transmission of this virus.”
Maldonado said until more people are vaccinated, “we’re going to continue to see small outbreaks,” as well as some surges and vaccine breakthroughs.
“Not a lot (of breakthroughs) but some,” Maldonado said. “It’s not going to be a surprise that we are going to see those things. Those are what we know we can predict right now.”
California’s positive infections increased slightly in recent weeks, and Delta variant cases are being recorded. But there’s currently not enough data to get a good sense of how prevalent some of the more transmissible versions of the virus are.
The state recorded just under 29,000 new total COVID-19 infections in June, but only analyzed about 5%—less than 1,500 test samples—for circulating variants.
As of July 7, more than 70,000 COVID-19 tests are sequenced, and only about 1,100 of those cases are Delta variants—about 1.5%. According to the state’s public health website, the number of samples analyzed for variants will be increased in the coming weeks.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 120,000 Santa Clara County residents have contracted COVID-19 and 1,702 have died. As of Wednesday, the seven-day rolling average of new infections is 62 cases per day, the highest average recorded since May 6.
“The focus continues to be our vaccination efforts as the best means to provide protection to our community from all variants of the virus,” said a county spokesperson. “The county of Santa Clara is the most vaccinated large county (1.5 million or more) in the United States with 76% of the public fully vaccinated and more than 82% that have received at least one dose, offering excellent protection against transmission in our community.”
Santa Clara County publicizes all reported variants of concern every week here: https://covid19.sccgov.org/covid-19-variant-dashboard.
Click here to find available walk-up vaccination clinics in San Jose.