COVID cases more than quadruple in Bay Area as we await data on holiday surge

COVID cases linked to the contagious omicron variant continue to rise in the Bay Area. Experts say the data looks like a vertical wall with cases rising so much, so quickly. 

Doctors believe we will continue to see cases rise through the holidays, similar to the big surge in 2020. But the good news is that omicron infections seem to be milder and more people are protected by vaccines than they were at this time last year. 

"With the other variants it was a much slower uptick, like delta and alpha, but this goes fast," said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at UCSF. "But the good news is that if you look at South Africa, it’s already starting to come down very dramatically. So it goes in very quickly, but it also leaves very quickly and that’s what I’m hoping will happen."

The latest data, from December 20 in San Francisco County, shows an average of 305 new cases a day. Just two weeks before that, the average was 81. 

It's a similar story across the Bay Area, and numbers are likely much higher because a lot of people who are testing at home are not being reported. And more cases will likely come out of Christmas gatherings. 

But Dr. Chin-Hong said there is a silver lining. 

"So far our hospitals are in good shape. We’re not seeing a ton of sick people with COVID going into the hospital. We’re seeing people diagnosed with infection, but that’s throughout the whole community, but not people who are ill in the ICU on a ventilator like one year ago. And it really speaks, I think, to high vaccination rates, increase in booster rates, and mask culture wearing in the Bay Area," he said.  

Where we're seeing a problem is testing. 

There were long lines of cars at drive-thru testing sites Tuesday, including at Skywest Golf Course in Hayward and Kaiser in San Jose. For days there have been empty shelves in pharmacies where at-home rapid tests used to be. 

"Yesterday we had to close a site at 12:30, because we ran out of tests. So our pharmacies are stretched, our county resources are being stressed," said San Mateo County Board President David Canepa. 

In San Mateo County, 254 cases were reported last Tuesday, compared to 41 new cases on Dec. 5.

"We’re seeing numbers now, to be quite frank with you, alarming to me," said Canepa. 

After seeing the empty shelves himself, Canepa said he knew the board had to make a change. On Tuesday, they approved increasing testing from 5,000 a week to 9,000 this week. 

"Counties throughout the Bay Area have to double down, and double down because we’re seeing a 6-fold increase in people who are testing positive. And the only way we’re going to meet demand is to make sure that we test people," said Canepa.

The Biden Administration is promising 500 million free at-home tests will be available online and delivered to your door in January. But Canepa said he's pleading with the administration to send tests now.

But Canepa said testing can not be the only level of protection, so he is encouraging everyone to get vaccinated and get their booster shot. 

"This is no time for people to be complacent. If you haven’t been vaccinated, now is the time, no judgment," said Canepa. 

While omicron seems to have milder symptoms, Dr. Chin-Hong said the risk of getting infected should not be minimized. 

"I just worry that the next variant might not be as mild as omicron. You know, it’s just a random set of mutations that happen to go a certain way and vaccines give you the best security, the best insurance against the future," said Chin-Hong. 

Chin-Hong said there's no need to cancel all New Year's celebrations, but he warns that people need to be responsible by limiting the amount of people in an indoor celebration. He said if you're in a risky setting, it's best to get tested 3 days later.