Coronavirus updates: COVID variant found near Sacramento renews call for ‘vigilance’

California remains in a precarious position within the coronavirus pandemic: Infection and hospital numbers have showed rapid improvement since mid-January, but the detection of troubling genetic variants of the virus in new places is keeping health officials on high alert.

Researchers and local leaders on Monday announced a COVID-19 variant known as B.1.1.7, originally found in the United Kingdom, has been confirmed for the first time in the Sacramento area.

The case came in a Yolo County adult who recently traveled outside the community, though it is unclear to where. The B.1.1.7 mutation was confirmed by a lab at the UC Davis Genome Center.

“Given that the B.1.1.7 variant has already been found in Southern California and the Bay Area, it is not surprising that it has now been detected in Yolo County,” Yolo health officer Dr. Aimee Sisson said in a statement. “However, detecting this more infectious variant locally is a reminder that even though case rates are declining in Yolo County, we must maintain our vigilance and continue using protective measures against coronavirus.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom during a Wednesday news conference said at least 153 cases of B.1.1.7 have been identified in California, most of them in San Diego County, which is where it was first found in the state in late December.

Scientists say B.1.1.7 appears to be much more contagious than other known variants and that it likely fueled the extreme surge that gripped the United Kingdom several weeks ago, prompting renewed lockdown orders there in early January. It’s still being studied whether it may also be deadlier than other variants.

The Centers for Disease Control reported in mid-January projections show B.1.1.7 becoming the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S. by March. At the time, it had been confirmed in 12 states; it has now been found in at least 33.

Fortunately, health officials believe based on early studies that Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines are effective in protecting against B.1.1.7.

Another variant called B.1.351, first found in South Africa, has shown signs of evading antibody protection. Rollout of AstraZeneca’s vaccine has been paused in South Africa after studies suggested it as ineffective against B.1.351; and the clinical trial for Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine showed it less effective in South Africa than in the U.S., though still significantly effective against severe cases of the disease.

Newsom said Monday the state is not aware of any B.1.351 cases in California. It has been detected elsewhere in the United States, according to the CDC.

To date, more than 3.35 million Californians have tested positive for COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic and at least 44,477 of them have died, according to the California Department of Public Health.

The daily rate of new cases, as a two-week average, has fallen from a peak of nearly 41,000 a day on Jan. 14 to below 14,500 by Tuesday’s update from CDPH, and the rate of diagnostic tests returning positive has cratered from 12.9% to 5.6%. Tuesday’s addition of 8,251 cases was the fewest in a day since Nov. 22.

The number of patients hospitalized statewide with confirmed COVID-19 cases is now below 11,200, nearly half the peak of 21,938 recorded Jan. 6. The total in intensive care units has dropped from 4,868 on Jan. 10 to 3,164 as of Tuesday’s update, a 35% decline in less than a month.

Tier list updated: El Dorado and Yolo counties’ rates improving

CDPH on Tuesday morning gave its weekly update to the state’s reopening tier list, which bases business and activity restrictions on counties’ recent COVID-19 test positivity and case rates.

One small county — Del Norte, where about 28,000 people live — was promoted from the strict “purple” tier to the looser red tier. Fifty-three of California’s 58 counties combining for more than 99% of the state’s population remain in the purple tier.

Only one of those 53, Plumas County, met the first of two consecutive weeks with improved metrics required to be promoted to the red tier in next week’s update. The main two criteria are a test positivity rate below 8% and a daily average below seven new cases per 100,000 residents.

Among those with more than 50,000 people, two of the three counties closest to joining the red tier were in the Sacramento area: El Dorado and Yolo counties, in addition to San Francisco, all had test positivity rates below 4.5%. El Dorado reported 10.5 new cases per 100,000, followed by San Francisco at 11.4 and Yolo at 13.7.

The weekly tier list data are also used for potential school opening decisions, which have less-strict thresholds.

Under the Newsom administration’s proposed campus reopening plan, elementary schools (transitional kindergarten through sixth grade) can apply to reopen in counties with fewer than 25 daily new cases per 100,000 residents. However, many teachers’ unions have said they won’t support reopening until teachers can be vaccinated; and some districts have said they will wait to meet the red-tier criteria of under seven cases per 100,000, which is required for grades seven through 12.

Sacramento County came in under the wire: CDPH reported Tuesday that the county had 24.8 new cases per 100,000 for the most recent data survey week.

Impassioned parents have held rallies in recent weeks calling for schools to open for in-person instruction and for parents to have more say in the decision-making process.

California heading toward 5 million vaccine doses given

CDPH reported Tuesday providers have administered about 4.91 million of the 7.39 million doses that have been delivered, which works out to almost exactly two-thirds of delivered doses going into arms.

Both those figures are total doses; according to the CDC data tracker, last updated Monday with a total of 4.68 million doses administered, about 3.8 million have received at least one dose and 848,000 have gotten both doses.

California’s COVID-19 webpage says the state is in Phase 1B of its vaccination campaign, which includes residents ages 65 and older along with essential workers in the fields of education, childcare, emergency services and food and agriculture.

Sacramento-area numbers: Six-county death toll over 1,900

The six counties that make up the bulk of the 13-county Greater Sacramento region — Sacramento, El Dorado, Placer, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties — have reported more than 142,000 combined positive cases and at least 1,921 virus deaths.

Following the statewide trend, the rate of new cases is slowing in all six of those counties; reports of deaths, which lag a few weeks behind infections, continue to pour in.

Sacramento County has confirmed 89,099 cases since the start of the pandemic, and at least 1,335 of those residents have died of COVID-19. The county added 324 new cases and 17 deaths Tuesday, following 1,071 cases and 16 deaths reported for the window of Saturday through Monday.

By date of death occurrence, December and January have been Sacramento County’s two deadliest months of the pandemic. Local health officials have confirmed 382 deaths for December and at least 266 in January. January’s total will continue to grow, as it can take weeks for death confirmations to be made official; three of the 17 deaths reported Tuesday happened in December.

Local health officials have also started confirming deaths for February. At least six residents died of the virus in the first five days of the month.

Prior to December, the county’s deadliest month of the pandemic was August, at 181 virus deaths.

The countywide total for hospitalized virus patients dropped from 292 in a Friday update to 237 by Monday and then 239 by Tuesday, according to CDPH. The county reported 71 patients in ICUs, up three from Monday, with 77 beds now available.

Placer County health officials have confirmed a total of 18,973 infections and 214 deaths. Placer, in a Monday update covering the weekend, reported 189 new cases and eight new fatalities.

Placer in a detailed monthly report released last Friday said at least 36 residents died of COVID-19 in January, though that total remains preliminary, following 80 virus deaths in December. The county reports 24 deaths in November, making the past three months the three deadliest of the 11-month pandemic.

State data on Tuesday showed 86 virus patients in Placer hospitals, up from 84 on Monday but down from 114 on Friday. The ICU total has dropped to 20 from 23 last Friday. Nine ICU beds remain available in the county.

Yolo County has reported a total of 12,012 cases and 158 deaths. The county on Monday reported 121 cases and no deaths for a reporting period including Sunday. Yolo on Saturday added 27 new cases and no deaths.

State data showed Yolo with nine virus patients in hospitals as of Tuesday’s update including six in ICUs, with three ICU beds now available. Nine COVID-19 patients is Yolo’s first time dipping into single-digits since Nov. 12.

El Dorado County has reported 8,762 positive test results and 86 deaths. The county on Monday reported 115 new cases and no new deaths for the three-day reporting window including the weekend, following 95 cases and one new death in Friday’s update.

El Dorado has reported a remarkable surge in virus deaths compared to the first several months of the health crisis: 82 county residents have died of COVID-19 between Nov. 25 and Feb. 1, compared to four from last March through mid-November.

State health officials reported El Dorado’s patient total going back up to eight, from six on Sunday and Monday, but with the ICU total holding at zero. Seven ICU beds are available.

In Sutter County, at least 8,582 people have contracted the virus and 92 have died. The county on Monday reported 66 new cases and one new fatality for the three-day period including the weekend.

Yuba County, which shares a health office with Sutter, has reported 5,513 infections and 36 dead. Yuba added four deaths along with 82 cases from the weekend.

The lone hospital serving the Yuba-Sutter bicounty region — Adventist-Rideout in Marysville — had 36 hospitalized virus patients as of Tuesday’s state data update, down by two from Monday for the lowest total since Nov. 28. The ICU patient rebounded from 10 back to 11, though, while the number of available ICU beds held at five.

The Bee’s Sawsan Morrar contributed to this story.