The omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus has caused an unprecedented rise in new cases, but more data is suggesting that Santa Clara County has already seen the worst of it and may be on a slow road to recovery.
At a county Health and Hospital Committee meeting on Wednesday, Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody told supervisors that recent case rates — along with wastewater data — shows that the surge is finally easing. But she cautioned that the number of people testing positive is still far above anything the county has previously experienced, and that it will be a "drawn-out" recovery.
"We're early in the descent so the overall case rates are still extraordinarily high and the descent is not as rapid as the rise in cases was," Cody said. "The epidemic curve is not going to look like an ice pick."
County data shows a rapid ascent in cases starting at the beginning of the year, hitting a high of 6,406 cases on Jan. 5 — significantly higher than last winter and the delta variant surge combined. Since then, cases have gradually trended downward, with the latest reliable data on Jan. 14 showing 3,705 cases.
During the surge, the county saw a massive increase in COVID-19 testing, exceeding 35,000 tests on most days since Jan. 3. The positivity rate, calculated as a seven-day average, peaked on Jan. 10 at 17.1%, and has declined by a fraction of a percent to 16.7%, county data shows.
The results are muddied by the rapid rise in at-home COVID-19 testing, which is not reported to the county. Cody said the extreme demand for tests at county-run facilities has eased in recent days, caused in part by the increasing availability of antigen tests that can be taken at home. Earlier this week, the federal government began taking orders for free COVID-19 tests to households across the country.
Though the omicron variant is highly contagious and is more likely to infect vaccinated residents than previous strains, immunization status still plays a major role in who is getting sick. For those who are vaccinated, the latest case rates are 190 out of every 100,000 residents. For the unvaccinated, that rate increases fivefold to 1,103 cases per 100,000 residents.
Cody said COVID-19 patient hospitalizations are on the rise, but not to the level seen in winter 2021 when intensive care units were packed to the brim and even turning ambulances away. She said she does not expect conditions to get that bad again, and that the patients are typically staying in the hospital for shorter periods and are requiring less respiratory support such as ventilators. COVID-19 deaths are still relatively flat and are expected to remain low.
"I think our robust vaccination and booster rates have prevented many deaths, and so that is quite reassuring," Cody said.
Due to the high transmission rate of the omicron variant, health officials are changing their tune on masks. Though cloth masks were deemed sufficient throughout the course of the pandemic, Cody said she is no longer recommending them as a safeguard against the virus. Instead, she said residents should be wearing more protective N95, KN95 or KF94 masks, all of which have more effective filtration.
The guidance is more of a recommendation meant to educate the public, and is not an enforceable requirement. Though more protective and more expensive masks are now being recommended, Cody said mask choice should be based on how likely residents are going to be to actually wear them.
"The mask that you can wear comfortably without touching it is the best mask to wear, all things being equal," Cody said. "If you are tempted to take your mask off, you are not getting the protection. Compliance needs to be part of the equation."