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Early signs of rising COVID in California as new FLiRT subvariants dominate

Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — California may be headed to an earlier-than-normal start to the summer COVID-19 season, with coronavirus concentrations in sewage rising in some areas along with the statewide positive-test rate.

The trend comes as the latest family of coronavirus subvariants, collectively nicknamed FLiRT, have made significant gains nationally.

The FLiRT subvariants — officially known as KP.2, KP.3 and KP.1.1 — have overtaken the dominant winter strain, JN.1. For the two-week period that began May 12, they were estimated to account for a combined 50.4% of the nation's coronavirus infections, up from 20% a month earlier.

Instead of California seeing reduced circulation of COVID-19, as occurred earlier this spring, state health officials said that they estimate the spread is now either stable or slowly increasing.

"COVID-19 concentrations in wastewater have suggested increases in several regions across California since early May. Test positivity for COVID-19 has been slowly increasing since May," the state Department of Public Health said in a statement to The Times on Friday.

Over the seven-day period that ended Monday, about 3.8% of COVID-19 tests came back positive; in late April, that share was 1.9%. (Last summer's peak test-positive rate was 12.8%, at the end of August.)

 

Doctors at hospitals in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area are also seeing an uptick in coronavirus spread.

"We're certainly seeing a bit of a small increase. And this is all due to the so-called FLiRT variants," said Dr. Elizabeth Hudson, regional chief of infectious disease at Kaiser Permanente Southern California.

The increase has so far been seen primarily in outpatient cases at Kaiser.

"Anytime there's a new variant, then, unfortunately, the new variants will have the ability to [overcome immunity resulting from prior infection], and if it's been awhile since someone has been vaccinated, they obviously will not have the same level of protection as someone who was more recently vaccinated," Hudson said.

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