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Can California avoid a third devastating COVID-19 winter wave? Cautious signs of hope

Rong-Gong Lin II and Luke Money, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — For the last two years, Thanksgiving served as a sobering reminder of the COVID-19 pandemic’s staying power.

For each, the holiday essentially marked the turbocharged start of the severe fall-and-winter COVID-19 wave, which both resulted in the deadliest surges of the pandemic, killing thousands of Americans a day.

But there’s some guarded optimism that this winter might be different — or at least not as bad as the 2020 and 2021 surges.

“You never can definitively say what to expect,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s outgoing chief medical adviser for the pandemic. “But you should really take some comfort in knowing that we have within our wherewithal to mitigate anything that comes up our way.”

Some of the advantages we have this year is an updated COVID-19 booster shot that’s pretty well matched to the circulating strains of the coronavirus, ample supplies of at-home rapid tests, and general awareness of steps we can take to avoid illness, including masking up in indoor public settings, staying home when sick, and improving air flow by taking events outdoors, opening windows and turning up air filtration units.

When it comes to gatherings now, “I think there’s ways that we can really improve how we do it, rather than spend our time talking about whether we should or shouldn’t,” said California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly.

 

There’s even some promising news about the unrelenting emergence of coronavirus subvariants, none of which has dramatically raised alarm bells the same way the original omicron strain did when it stormed onto the world stage last Thanksgiving.

One note of optimism comes from Singapore, which recently experienced a big wave in coronavirus cases fueled by the omicron subvariant XBB, a recombinant of the sublineages BA.2.10.1 and BA.2.75. XBB has generated concern that vaccines may not be as effective against it.

“They had [an] increase in cases, but they did not have a concomitant major increase in hospitalizations,” Fauci said Tuesday. “So we’re hoping that a combination of people who’ve been infected and boosted and vaccinated — or people who’ve been vaccinated and boosted and not infected — that there’s enough community protection that we’re not going to see a repeat of what we saw last year at this time.”

Two other omicron subvariants, BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, accounted for about 57% of estimated coronavirus cases for the most recent week available, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both are descendants of BA.5 — a long-dominant strain that fueled a surge this summer.

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