Yet another potentially more infectious variant of the coronavirus has been identified in a growing number of cases in the Bay Area and across California, arriving as the state struggles to recover from a bumpy vaccination rollout and to contain a months-long surge.
In an urgent news briefing Sunday night, public health experts said they worry that the new variant could be more infectious than others currently circulating and that it may not respond as well to the two vaccines being used. But they stressed that more research needs to be done to make those determinations.
The variant, known as L452R, is not related to several other variants that recently have been identified around the world, including the U.K. variant that is known to be more infectious. But testing found that the L452R variant was responsible for a December outbreak at a Kaiser Permanente hospital in San Jose that has infected more than 90 people, along with several other large clusters, said Dr. Sara Cody, the Santa Clara County health officer.
Kaiser "was certainly a very unusual outbreak with a lot of illness and seemed to spread quite fast. We are trying to understand what the features of that outbreak are because of this new variant," Cody said Sunday. "Does this variant behave in some different way, or does it have to do with other factors? That is the question of the day."
The variant was first identified in Denmark in March, and has popped up a few times since then. But it erupted in California in December, said Dr. Charles Chiu, a UCSF virologist who does genetic sequencing of coronavirus strains for the state. The variant made up only 3.8% of all samples that were tested for the state from Nov. 22 to Dec. 13, but 25.2% of all samples from Dec. 14 to Jan. 3.
"This is why we're concerned: A variant that was pretty uncommon prior to early December since then is roughly 25% of all cases we're sequencing," Chiu said Sunday. The speed with which the variant appears to have taken hold in California could suggest that it spreads more easily, he said.
Most of the variant samples came from the Bay Area, including Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. But it was found in Los Angeles and other Southern California counties too, along with a handful of rural areas. A few cases also have been identified in other states, Chiu said.
Also, laboratory tests raise concerns that a specific mutation in the variant could make it better able to evade vaccines, Chiu said. That has been a major fear of many scientists as countries kick off major immunization campaigns in hopes of finally ending the yearlong pandemic.
News of the L452R variant came the same day that public health officials offered some encouraging updates about the pandemic in California. Vaccination rates have improved, state officials said, with about 40% of all available vaccine doses having been administered. Hospitalizations numbers have stabilized statewide as well.
California had administered 1.3 million vaccine shots as of Saturday, out of nearly 3.2 million doses shipped to local health departments and health care systems in several counties, the state said Sunday.
But in another hitch for the vaccine rollout, state officials said Sunday that a "higher than usual" number of allergic reactions to the Moderna vaccine had occurred at a community health clinic — they did not say which one — and as a result they recommended providers pause the use of that lot of Moderna vaccines — totaling 330,000 doses, or about one-tenth of California's current supply, some would have already been administered — while more research is done.
Case numbers and hospitalizations continue to level off in the Bay Area and beyond, showing signs of improvement after a deadly surge that left the death toll in the United States on the cusp of reaching 400,000 American lives lost as of Sunday.
"All of the numbers are going in the right direction for multiple metrics," said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert with UCSF. "Interestingly, hospitalizations and deaths have also been leveling off, and hospitalizations and deaths are the last thing to move and are less nimble. So the fact that they are leveling off — not really declining yet — is good news."
New cases reported in California dipped for six days in a row last week, as of Saturday — 31,874 reported Saturday, down from 53,387 last Monday. Bay Area counties reported similar trends.
The state reported 21,142 people in hospitals with COVID-19 Sunday, a 2.1% decrease from the previous day, according to state data. California also reported 432 deaths Saturday, down from 669 the previous day, though weekend numbers often reflect a lack of reporting by some counties.
The state's 14-day positivity rate — a closely watched indicator defined as the percentage of tests that come back positive — also appears to be on a downward trajectory since early last week. The state recorded a 14-day positivity rate of 12.5% Sunday, sliding from a peak of 14.0% on Jan. 8. Over the past seven days, that rate of positive tests improved to 11.3%.
While these are encouraging signs, Chin-Hong said, "I think this next week is going to be critical to really figure out if we're going to really be out of the woods, which I'm hopeful about."
The availability of intensive care beds remained well below 15% in the Bay Area region, one of five state-designated regions, according to state data. The Bay Area region, which includes the nine Bay Area counties plus Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, had 3.4% ICU availability as of Friday. Public health officials say ICU availability is crucial for public safety, so when a region's ICU availability drops below 15%, a state-ordered shutdown is triggered in communities. ICU availability remains at zero percent in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California regions.
California is closing in on a cumulative total of 3 million coronavirus cases recorded.
Chin-Hong on Sunday echoed warnings from the California Hospital Association and health experts that Californians must be watchful even as vaccines roll out and case numbers improve in some areas, and that mask-wearing and physical distancing remain crucial to stopping infection.
Chin-Hong said those protocols are crucial particularly as health leaders learn more about the new virus variants detected in several U.S. cities. He made his comments in reference to a U.K. variant that has caused global concern, before learning of the L452R variant announced Sunday evening.
"What it means is that we can't really rest on our laurels," Chin-Hong said. "We have to continue doing the same things we're doing, because if this variant really takes hold, like the CDC is saying, and becomes the dominant virus in the country, then by March, we will have less forgiveness by the virus."
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