The number of hospitalized COVID patients and deaths in Fresno County has plateaued. However, health officials say that the numbers aren’t declining fast enough to avoid a winter surge.
“There’s a part of me that wants to be very optimistic and hope that it’s not that bad,” said Dr. Rais Vohra. “But looking at the numbers, it’s hard to draw any other conclusions.”
The county’s interim health officer says he is concerned about the number of people who have not received boosters or remain unvaccinated.
“We’re already starting with an extremely impacted healthcare system,” said Vohra.
Holidays Could Jumpstart Another Winter Surge
With the end of Halloween weekend and other fall/winter holidays approaching, large gatherings among friends and family could accelerate COVID-19 cases and reignite the pandemic locally.
“We have approximately three weeks left before Thanksgiving weekend, and we know that’s historically been when we start to see a real uptick in the number of respiratory viruses, whether that’s influenza, RSV, or COVID,” said Vohra.
Data reported by the Los Angeles Times shows December 2020 produced the most COVID-19 cases in Fresno County and heavily impacted hospitals through the early months of 2021.
COVID-19 Cases and Hospitalizations High in Valley
Positive cases are again climbing in the San Joaquin Valley. As of Monday, Fresno County had 291 people hospitalized with COVID-19. That’s the third-highest total in California behind San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties.
And, as of last week, according to the LA Times, Valley counties were reporting some of the state’s highest per-capita infection rates. Under that metric, Kings County was second, Madera County No. 7, Tulare County No. 8, and Fresno County No. 13. Merced and Kern counties followed at Nos. 14 and 15.
An average of 374 cases per day was reported in Fresno County — a 25% increase over the number reported two weeks ago.
However, the numbers only tell one story. Vohra explains that Fresno County hospitals also remain jammed because of non-COVID cases.
“I think we’ve kind of gotten used to looking at the graphs and the numbers and the curves of COVID,” said Vohra. “Regardless of what their (hospitals’) COVID volume is, which is arguably quite high compared to the rest of the state, they remain very busy with everything else that’s not COVID. None of that is going to slow down.”
Vohra says the lack of access to healthcare in the Valley continues to partially fuel the pandemic.
“So, just it’s going to become a perfect storm and that’s what worries me,” said Vohra. “That’s what makes me say that even though the rest of the state seems to be doing pretty well, our case transmission rates being what they are and our hospital numbers being what they are, we really are trying to message all of our clinical partners to brace yourselves and really try to prepare.”
Valley Vaccination Rates Lower Than State Average
Despite Fresno County’s efforts to combat vaccine hesitancy through rural outreach, education and mandates have not pushed the vaccination rates to where they need to be, Vohra said.
In California, 73% of residents are fully vaccinated and 7.8% are partially vaccinated.
But only 52.1% of Fresno County residents are fully vaccinated. The rate for Tulare County is 45.7% and Kern County is 45.2%. However, Fresno County’s vaccination rate among those 65 and older is 84%.
Health officials hope to see an increase in vaccinations when there is full approval to vaccinate children 5- to 11-years-old. A final decision is expected this week.
“Right now, it’s really just kind of a wait-and-watch situation,” said Vohra. “In the meantime, just really taking advantage of the next three weeks to get as many people vaccinated as possible — that’s really the last best chance we have to really avoid a catastrophic winter surge.”