Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the South Bay appears to be at a turning point as restrictions are peeling back. Still, county officials and local health experts are wary of returning fully to pre-pandemic lives.
“We anticipate that we will continue to see peaks and valleys (of infection) in the months and perhaps years ahead,” a county health official told San José Spotlight. “It is too early to say whether we are entering an endemic phase.”
Health experts said a pandemic happens when a disease spreads widely and rapidly across the globe, with exponentially rising cases over a large area. It then turns into an endemic when the virus becomes self-sustained in an area.
That means, technically, COVID-19 has been an endemic for quite some time in the U.S., said Dr. Jorge Salinas, an infectious disease expert at Stanford University.
“Endemic just means that the infection doesn’t require reintroductions from abroad. So yes, it’s been an endemic for a while,” Salinas told San José Spotlight. “What’s happened here is that we’ve made a societal determination—that we tried hard, but this thing is not going away and the risk will continue.”
Vaccinations play an important role in reducing the risk of serious illness and hospitalization—especially among young and healthy populations, Salinas said. But COVID will continue to pose risks to—and kill—vulnerable populations, county officials said. COVID’s official global toll surpassed 6 million deaths Monday.
“To some extent, endemic is a societal definition of when the excess deaths from a disease are an acceptable tradeoff for some other conditions that the society values,” a county official added.
Infections drop, rules relax
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last month that California will begin treating COVID-19 as a manageable, “endemic” risk, claiming the state has moved beyond the crisis phase. The move marked a momentous shift where restrictions relaxed so residents could resume a level of normalcy pre-COVID. Several other states have since followed suit.
In March 2020, Santa Clara County officials announced one of the first shelter-in-place orders in the nation to combat a disease that would infect more than 305,000 residents in the county, claim 2,158 lives and upend the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people.
Santa Clara County has maintained some of the most stringent rules in the Bay Area when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19. It was the only Bay Area county to keep its indoor mask mandate when California loosened its own order. The county lifted the mandate after hitting several metrics last week.
Community COVID transmission in Silicon Valley has declined significantly in recent weeks, as the seven-day rolling average of new COVID infections sharply dropped from 1,922 in early February to 247 as of Monday. Hospitalizations have also remained low and stable with 194 patients this week—a drop from more than 500 patients in mid-January.
The South Bay also has some of the highest vaccination rates in the nation, with roughly five of every six residents fully vaccinated and nearly 69% of the eligible population boosted.
COVID risk continues
But even with trends rapidly improving, county officials and local health experts said it’s still too soon to do away with all COVID safety measures.
“My worry is that people think now it’s at a safer level because it’s endemic, and that’s not true,” Dr. Marcelle Dougan, assistant professor of public health at San Jose State University, told San José Spotlight. “Even in mild cases, there’s an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease following coronavirus.”
A recent study published in Nature magazine also suggests people without the traditional risk factors developed elevated risk of heart conditions after battling COVID, Dougan added. Those who are immunocompromised, children, elderly and frontline workers will continue to be at a higher risk of getting sick—and dying—from COVID.
“I don’t think that people should feel that the war has been won and you can go on about your life as if it didn’t exist,” Salinas said. “The risk of getting COVID continues. If you’re young, healthy and triple vaccinated, you’re lucky because you’re likely to do well. But if you are unvaccinated or are immunocompromised, if you’re very young or very old, it’s a different story.”