Residents are beginning to wonder if the winter and fall will bring another COVID-19 increase as the weather cools.
SFGATE asked two UCSF experts if we will see a repeat of last year’s outbreak of the highly transmissible omicron variant. Both experts agreed that the chances of getting infected will rise as temperatures drop, which drives people indoors where the airborne virus spreads faster. They both agreed that although a few people may become very sick or develop long-term COVID, most people who contract the virus will only experience mild symptoms.
“We are now in a totally different time, because we have so much more tools to help even non-vaccinated people stay out the hospital, and there has already been so many waves COVID,” Dr. Peter Chinhong, a UCSF infectious diseases specialist, wrote in an e-mail. “This means that we won’t have as many deaths and hospitalizations as the past two winters.”
Chin-Hong stated that because most people have either infection-induced or vaccine-induced immunity, he has stopped using the term “surge” for rising infections. He prefers to use the term “increase in cases” instead.
He wrote, “Surge has become a fight word for some people because it gives them PTSD starting 2020 and 2021.”
According to Dr. Monica Gandhi, a leading expert in infectious diseases, COVID will not be going away. This means that we can expect to see cases rise every winter.
Gandhi sent an email stating that “[W]ith vaccines and boosters, the Bay Area will at some point have to decide how they live with [COVID]”, pointing out that it has been infected in 29 different species of animals as well as in humans. It does not possess the characteristics of an eradicable disease.
Which One Will Prevail This Winter?
As they have for many months, the vast majority of the infections in the Bay Area are still caused by variants within the omicron family. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the dominant variant, BA.5, accounted for 71% of all cases in the US. Closely related Covid Variants BA.4 and BA.4.6, account for about 13% each. The new booster shot contains genetic information from both the omicron strain and the ancestral strains of virus. It is expected to offer significant protection against all three variants.
Chin-Hong stated that experts are monitoring at least four descendants of the original Omicron variant. One of them, BF.7, has gone from being the third most prevalent strain to being the fifth most frequent in the U.S. according to the CDC latest report on variant proportions. BQ.1 (immune-evasive variant) and BQ1.1 are rapidly increasing and account for approximately 11% of all cases in the US.
Chin-Hong stated that “I am now just about as concerned about BQ.1 if not more than I was BF.7 due to its trajectory.” It seemed to have appeared out of nowhere and was quickly rising in charts – suggesting increased transmissibility for BQ.1 & BQ.1.1, compared with BA.5.
Chin-Hong stated that even if a new variant is discovered, people who have been vaccinated will be able to prevent serious illness, hospitalization, and death for many months, if not more, than one year, without additional boosters.
Is Any Of This Variant Particularly Scary?
Although it is true that many variants of the virus have developed an ability to evade antibodies, the body’s first line defense against infection, antibody production has slowed down over time. The vast majority of Americans are immune to the virus thanks to widespread vaccinations and large waves of infections in the past two and a quarter years.
You are more likely to contract the virus if your antibody protection deteriorates. Your body can produce specialized cells to combat COVID, and these cells are activated when you get a vaccine or an infection. Gandhi says that this “cellular immunity” is very durable and difficult to overcome by newer variants. Scientists discovered that 17 years after being infected with SARS in 2020, people still had cells capable of recognizing and fighting infection.