California Covid-Related Hospitalization Surge May Be Calm Before Record-Breaking Storm, According To New State Forecast

California is seeing a surge in hospitalizations, up 59% in a little over a week, and the state’s latest ensemble forecast says it’s only the beginning.

On December 31, state data showed 5,835 patients hospitalized with Covid. Eight days later, the total had jumped to 9,275 — data was not published for January 1 due to the New Year’s holiday. On Friday alone, the state added 608 new patients with Covid.

The ensemble forecast on the California Covid Assessment Tool predicts that hospitalizations related to Covid will rise to 23,528 by February 6, a 153% increase over today’s number. That would eclipse the previous record of 21,938 set January 6, 2021. How does that happen if Omicron is, as most experts say, less virulent than previous strains? The answer may lie in the variant’s increased transmissibility.

The state’s 7-day average test positivity rate has been skyrocketing. It’s up 3.6% in the past week to an all time high of 21.6%. That’s 60-plus percent higher than the peak of last winter’s surge. It means one in every five people tested in the state are positive. It also comes on a day when the state registered a record number of 528,039 tests. Test positivity generally declines with more testing. An increase in positivity along with testing generally indicates the full spread of infection is not being captured.

On Friday, the state data dashboard indicated an average of 124.5 new cases per 100,000. That’s up significantly from the 109.2 per 100,000 recorded on January 9, 2021. More concerning may be that it’s up 16% from the 107.1 per 100,000 recorded just the day before. For a figure that’s a 7-day average, that kind of jump in 24 hours would seem to indicate rapid spread of the virus.

Those record numbers were likely influenced in part by the near-record number of cases reported in California on Friday, at 103,606. But the case and test positivity rates are both 7-day averages, which tends to smooth out one or two day bumps. The state’s most-populous county, Los Angeles, reported a record number of new cases on Friday, at over 43,000.

So while a smaller proportion of infected people end up in the hospital due to Omicron, the variant seems to be filling hospitals by infecting a massively greater proportion of people at one time. Most of those people, according to state data from mid-December, are unvaccinated. From December 13, 2021 to December 19, 2021, unvaccinated people were 10.1 times more likely to be hospitalized with Covid than fully vaccinated people.

What’s more, the surge in hospitalizations is not the result of a backlog, as the census is kept up to date by hospitals in the state, a much more streamlined process than gathering case numbers from the thousands of test administrators statewide.

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