Ventura County's COVID-19 infection rates are rising again in a climb likely driven by Thanksgiving gatherings, public health officials said Tuesday.
The pace of infections slowed sharply before the holiday but spiked this week, rising to an average of 8.4 cases a day per 100,000 people, according to state health data posted Tuesday. The increase means the county's transmission rate — considered "moderate" just a week ago — has leaped back to "substantial," as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The infection rate is calculated on a seven-day delay. The timing indicates the spike likely stems from Thanksgiving celebrations, said Rigoberto Vargas, director of the Ventura County Public Health Department. He said unvaccinated people are being infected at a pace about 20 times higher than vaccinated people.
"We do expect both rates to increase due to gatherings and the holiday weekend," Vargas said at a county Board of Supervisors meeting.
COVID-19 hospitalizations across the county also are growing but remain far below previous peaks, with 45 COVID patients receiving care on Monday.
The rising metrics mean the county's mandate requiring masks in public places indoors could continue into January. The county's health officer, Robert Levin, has said he will not lift the order until a series of benchmarks are reached, including pushing the case rate back to no more than 7 infections a day per 100,000 people. The rate would have to be maintained for at least three weeks.
Supervisor Kelly Long pointed out the current rise is nowhere near the surge that flooded hospitals with COVID-19 patients a year ago. She urged Levin to replace the mandate with a masking recommendation that allows people to choose whether to cover up.
The mandate is hurting businesses and preventing some of them from reopening, she argued.
"People should have the choice. How do we get businesses back moving?" she said.
Levin said vaccinations, social distancing and masking remain the way to control the spread of the disease. He said the mandate may be one reason case levels are not rocketing like they did a year ago.
"I'd hate to say that because we’re low we can release masking when the masking itself may be responsible for why our numbers are low," he told Long.
The county's rising transmission still appears driven by the delta variant. Officials expect the new omicron variant to be reported within the county as it has in Los Angeles County.
Scientists are scrambling to get a better understanding of the variant. Absolute answers have not emerged but omicron is "very likely" more contagious than other forms of COVID-19, Levin said.
Initial reports from South Africa suggest illnesses linked to the variant may be less serious. The infections have largely affected younger people including children, Levin said.
It's too soon to know if vaccines protect people from omicron. Levin asserted the shots are still the best tool.
"The message is please get vaccinated. Please get your booster," he said.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, Levin expressed confidence life will eventually return close to what it was before COVID-19 but said he does not know how quickly that day will come.
"It’s a crystal ball question. When will life return to normal? I don’t know the answer," he said.
Tom Kisken covers health care and other news for the Ventura County Star. Reach him at email@example.com or 805-437-0255.
SUPPORT LOCAL JOURNALISM: To see more stories like this, subscribe here.
This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: COVID-19 rises in Ventura County in wake of Thanksgiving gatherings