People wait outside a walk-in COVID-19 testing site at the New Parish in downtown Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Alameda County reported its steepest spike in COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic at the end of December. Health officials say the surge, which is ongoing, is being powered largely by the more-infectious omicron variant of the coronavirus that has quickly become the dominant strain spreading across the United States and the rest of the globe. 

Thankfully, Alameda County’s high vaccination rate, coupled with the fact the omicron variant is producing less severe infections, namely among the fully vaccinated, means fewer people have so far been hospitalized than in previous waves. 

But county health officials are still waiting for more recent data to come in, which will give them a better grasp of how widely the virus has spread in the community. 

Alameda County reported 2,013 COVID cases on Dec. 28, nearly a 60% increase from the previous high mark of 1,274 cases recorded in January 2021. As of Jan. 4, the last date reported, the county’s test positivity rate (measured over a seven-day period) was 16.5%, the highest it has been since the start of the pandemic. The previous high of 9.5% was also set in January 2021. Some zip codes, including several in East Oakland, have had rates triple the county average for months. 

Official infection rates don’t include results from at-home rapid tests that have become more common but are less accurate than the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests used by many health providers. 

Neetu Balram, the spokesperson for the county health department, said the sharp rise in cases began before the holidays, and health officials expect infection rates to increase as more test results come back. Officials are unsure to what extent holiday travel and gatherings contributed to the surge.

“We likely have not yet seen the peak of this wave,” Balram said. “Intensive care unit COVID-19 hospitalizations are also rising locally, and this may put our hospitals under stress in the coming weeks.”

That concern about hospitals extends beyond Oakland and Alameda County. On Wednesday, Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s secretary of health and human services, said that compared to this time last year, there are more children in hospitals seeking treatment for COVID, although most cases do not require treatment in the intensive care unit. 

“We are and continue to be concerned about our hospitals,” Ghaly said. 

Hospitalizations are on the rise

As of Jan. 4, there were 199 people hospitalized with COVID in Alameda County, 35 of which needed to be treated in an ICU, according to the county’s dashboard. That’s up from the recent low of 40 hospitalized and 11 in an ICU on Nov. 20. The county’s COVID hospitalization previously peaked on Jan. 17, 2021, with 458 people hospitalized and 115 of them in ICUs. 

Alameda County Health Officer Dr. Nicholas Moss said what county officials have been hearing from area hospitals and frontline healthcare providers is consistent with what’s being seen elsewhere in the country: Infections are less severe overall, but some unvaccinated people are still being hospitalized with severe symptoms. 

“Right now, hospitalizations are up quite a bit,” Moss said. “They haven’t yet exceeded what we saw on the summer wave, and we still are not close to where we were last winter. That could change.”  

Also at issue are hospitals’ ability to keep staff safe as they face regular exposure to the different variants and almost two years of working in “very difficult conditions,” Moss said. 

“We’re also concerned [about] the strain that it is putting on our healthcare system. We want people who have to go to the hospital, not just for COVID but for other things, to be able to do that,” he said. “We’ll just be watching our healthcare facilities closely. Hopefully, they can weather things in the coming weeks, particularly with all the staff getting exposed as well.”

In response to COVID hospitalization spikes and staff who have gotten sick, Oakland-based Kaiser Permanente said it has been employing traveling nurses, adjusting elective and non-urgent surgeries and procedures as needed, and using telehealth services along with in-person care.  

“We are closely monitoring the hospital census, available beds, outpatient appointments, staffing, supplies and equipment throughout California,” read a statement sent by Kaiser Permanente to The Oaklandside. “The situation remains dynamic, and we are prepared to respond to the ever-changing demands this pandemic may require.”  

But Moss said people who end up in the hospital with omicron-fueled COVID may face a stark reality: Not all COVID medications work on omicron and those that do are in “pretty short supply right now.”

“We’re talking dozens of courses in a county of 1.6 million people,” he said. “So it is important to know that it’s omicron for some of the medical treatments because it does limit our choices there, unfortunately.” 

Alameda County’s high vaccination rate increases protection

Health officials maintain the best way to protect yourself from the omicron or any other variant is to be fully vaccinated, which includes at least a second Johnson & Johnson dose and a third Pfizer or Moderna shot six months after the second dose. 

While residents in certain parts of Oakland face more dangers from COVID due to preexisting health conditions from a host of factors, one of the best defenses Alameda County has going for it when facing yet another more infectious variant is its high rate of vaccination. 

As of Wednesday, the county had reported that nearly 86% of eligible Alameda County residents have at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, while nearly 80% are fully vaccinated. 

Also Wednesday, the county reportedly reached another milestone: A majority (51%) of children aged 5 to 11 have now received at least one dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. That news came on the same day the CDC recommended Pfizer boosters for children aged 12 and older.

Moss said the county health department isn’t currently planning to re-enact more restrictions due to the spike in positive cases. But that hasn’t stopped some Oakland bars and restaurants from scaling back their operations voluntarily during the spike. 

Citing the most recent surge, California health officials on Wednesday extended the statewide indoor mask mandate to Feb. 15, one month after it was originally set to expire.

Besides being fully vaccinated with a booster and wearing masks indoors, health officials are encouraging people to avoid large gatherings and limit mixing with different households, especially indoors, for the next few weeks, if possible.

Moss said while other COVID spikes have lasted for months, this one could be much quicker, as evidenced by what happened in the Gauteng province of South Africa. There, available vaccines proved to be effective against omicron and infections peaked and started to decline in a matter of weeks, not months.

As during previous waves, Alameda County health officials say basic COVID precautions are some of the easiest and best ways to keep people safe. 

“There’s a lot of COVID around, but I think we’re in as good a position as anyone to weather it,” Moss said. “I do think our residents have done everything right to try to protect themselves and their families from this.”