The death toll from the Omicron surge has come into better focus in the last couple of weeks, as hospitalizations and deaths connected to the peak of infections in early January have now been at least partly recorded. And here in the highly vaccinated Bay Area, the infectiousness of the variant still managed to take a bigger toll than the more severe Delta variant did last summer and fall — and there were just as many people in hospitals with COVID this January as there were last January, during the Alpha wave.
I know you are tired of reading these stories and you're likely fairly numbed to these statistics at this late date in the pandemic. But until we have that complete hindsight picture that won't be available until future years, the best we can do is take stock every month or two and at least not be ignorant to the ongoing misery that this virus — or these viruses — is causing here and everywhere.
It's true that in San Francisco, mortality from COVID has generally been well below levels seen in other cities across the country. But Omicron came for this region in the same dastardly way it did everywhere else, evading booster shots in some cases and making the unvaccinated sometimes very ill.
We can now see that, looking back to December 1, there have been 576 COVID deaths recorded in the nine-county Bay Area — many of which can be attributed to the Omicron variant, though some where likely still Delta. It's a toll that amounts to 64 deaths per week in the region, though, with larger numbers coming in over the past two weeks following the crest of the Omicron wave.
Comparing that to the Delta wave, looking at deaths over a 16-week period from July 24 to November 13, the Bay Area saw 911 total deaths, or 57 per week during that previous wave. That's an uptick of 12% per week, even in a region as highly vaccinated and boosted as ours, pointing to the sheer volume of infections and the mortality statistics that accrue from that volume.
This remains a far less grim toll than earlier variants took in the 2020/21 winter surge, when the Bay Area saw 260 deaths per week — more than 3,600 total dead between early December 2020 and early March 2021.
As the Chronicle reports this week, spikes in deaths from the Omicron wave have been evident statewide, with COVID deaths rising from 120 per day to 184 per day between January 24 and February 7. Here in the Bay Area, deaths have been occurring at a rate of about 19 per day over the past two weeks, up from about 11 per day previously.
Hospitalizations have, thankfully, continued trending downward over the last week, confirming that the Omicron surge did indeed crest in early January as the data showed — there has some anxiety around how much of an undercount of cases has been happening due to the prevalence of at-home testing.
COVID hospitalizations across the Bay Area hit 1,600 as of Monday, down 19% from a week earlier, and back down to levels that were seen in the first week of January. Peak hospitalizations in the region happened on January 20, when the Bay Area recorded 2,227 people hospitalized. That number is remarkably similar to numbers seen in mid-January 2021 in the Bay Area, which were in the 2,200 to 2,300 range during the Alpha wave — once again bearing out the truism that many times more cases of a less severe but still potentially deadly variant will land about as many people in the hospital, even in the post-vaccine era.
The number of hospitalizations in this wave may be somewhat misleading, though — and we should look at the very different death toll between January 2021 and January 2022 instead. A number of emergency medicine specialists around the country have noted that, during the Omicron wave and with most Americans vaccinated and only mildly symptomatic, there was a phenomenon last month of many people showing up in hospitals and ERs for other reasons and then unexpectedly testing positive for COVID. Those hospitalizations "with COVID" as opposed to "for COVID" haven't been fully parsed from the data above, and could represent a significant percentage.
Local experts caution, especially in the wake of news that California's indoor mask mandate is dropping away again next week, that things remain far from stable — and we shouldn't pretend there's no chance of getting sick just because case counts and hospitalizations are dropping.
"Make no mistake, there is a ton of infection out there," said infectious disease specialist Dr. George Rutherford during UCSF's Grand Rounds roundtable last week. "There are a ton of infectious people. And there’s a ton of disease that we’re still continuing to see."
San Francisco remains in the CDC's red tier for high COVID transmission, with 204 new cases per 100,000 residents in the last week — or about 29 per 100,000 per day.
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