The trends continue in a positive direction for the Bay Area's COVID-19 cases. Hospitalizations and deaths continue to slow down considerably, and two more local counties are expected to hit the "Orange" tier tomorrow, with the final three to move out of the "Red" possibly next week. But at the national level, signs are pointing to another big surge in cases — and California certainly isn't out of the woods yet.
Alameda and Napa counties are both expected to advance to the "Orange" tier for reopening on Tuesday, joining San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Marin counties in the second-least restrictive tier. That leaves only three more Bay Area counties — Contra Costa, Solano, and Sonoma — in the "Red" for likely a week longer.
Sonoma and Contra Costa counties were the last to reach the "Red" tier on Sunday March 14, which means the earliest they'd be eligible to advance again would be three weeks later, or Easter Sunday (April 4) — and that announcement could come later this week.
San Francisco, meanwhile, turned "Orange" in the state's metrics on the morning of March 24, and with numbers that already appear to qualify it for the "Yellow" tier, that change may occur as early as April 14.
Infectious disease experts continue to warn, however, against unrestricted indoor activities like dining or movie-going without masks on at all times — with about 40% of the Bay Area now fully or partially vaccinated, and with highly infectious variants proliferating in other parts of the country, it could only be a matter of time before we see new outbreaks or upticks in cases in California. Some experts even argue that plane travel is safer than indoor dining, and states are being too cavalier in allowing businesses to reopen indoors as vaccinations rates rise.
"No one should be dining indoors, vaccinated or not, right now,” as UC Berkeley infectious disease expert John Swartzberg, told the Chronicle last week. "Spending a prolonged period of time indoors with a bunch of strangers with everyone talking loudly is a perfect way to spread this virus."
The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Rochelle Walensky, gave a dire press briefing on Monday about the uptick in COVID cases that occurred at the national level last week.
"When I first started at CDC about two months ago I made a promise to you: I would tell you the truth even if it was not the news we wanted to hear. Now is one of those times when I have to share the truth, and I have to hope and trust you will listen," Walensky said, per CNBC.
"I’m going to pause here, I’m going to lose the script, and I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom. We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope, but right now I’m scared," she said.
The country saw an average of 63,239 new cases per day last week, a 16% uptick over the week prior. And Dr. Walensky warns that such upticks have, in the past year, portended exponential surges shortly thereafter. She said that the trajectory of infections in the U.S. looks all too similar to what Germany, Italy, and France saw just a few weeks ago, and those three countries are experiencing significant surges right now.
"I’m speaking today not necessarily as your CDC director and not only as your CDC director, but as a wife, as a mother, as a daughter, to ask you to just please hold on a little while longer," Dr. Walensky said, likely aiming her comments at states and cities where everyone has largely let their guard down and taken off their masks, and where the biggest spikes in COVID cases are being seen.
As the New York Times reported Sunday, Florida is averaging 5,000 new cases per day, an 8% jump over two weeks prior. And the UK variant is proliferating quickly there, especially among young people.
While only a small percentage of virus testing samples are being genetically sequenced to see if they represent new variant cases, the three main variants worrying experts remain in limited numbers so far around the Bay Area. As of late last week, officials had confirmed 19 cases of the UK variant, also known as B.1.1.7, in Santa Clara County, along with two cases of the South African variant, and one case of the immune-resistant Brazilian variant known as P.1.
The nine-county Bay Area is currently seeing a seven-day average of 369 new cases per day, down from an average of 589 new cases per day in the first week of March.
Open season for vaccine eligibility in California begins in two weeks, on April 15, with those age 50 and up eligible starting on Thursday.
And in good pandemic-related news, the CDC just released results from a real-world study of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines among Americans at high risk of COVID exposure, including frontline healthcare workers. In the study, fully vaccinated people were 90% protected from infection, and those with only one shot were 80% protected. And the results suggest that the vaccines prevent infection from the currently spreading variants, and prevent asymptomatic spread of the virus as well.