In the past week there has been a lot of good news for virus-ridden California. The graph charting the number of new cases in the state looks like a downward staircase, from 42,655 on Thursday to 30,699 on Saturday to 22,403 on Wednesday. That’s a near 50% drop in less than a week.
The state’s director of public health, Dr. Mark Ghaly, pointed out that “ray of light” on Tuesday. “For the first time in some time we’ve had decreased numbers,” he said, before warning residents not to let down their guard. That warning may turn out to be warranted.
On Wednesday, the state recorded its second-highest total of Covid-19 deaths ever, at 694. That metric has remained stubbornly high, even as overall cases, hospitalizations and virus-related ICU use have declined. Deaths are, however, a lagging indicator and even that number may soon begin to drop.
A bigger worry may be virus variants that could again spike numbers across the board, even as the state makes headway. Chief among those are the new strains of the virus that have been discovered in the state recently.
Over the weekend, Los Angeles Public Health Department announced that the much-talked-about UK variant of Covid-19, known as B.1.1.7, had been identified in the region. B.1.1.7 is thought to be up to 50% more transmissible than the more widely-spread form of the virus. The number of LA residents infected with the UK variant was thought to still be small.
Then, on Monday, the California Department of Public Health revealed that another lesser-known strain had been circulating in the county as well.
Dubbed CAL.20C, the variant is thought to have arisen in the state in July, but only began spreading significantly in November.
According to the New York Times, CAL.20C was found in over half the California test samples genomically analyzed in mid-January. The number of those samples analyzed, it should be noted, is vastly smaller than the total number of daily Covid-19 tests in the state.
But Eric Vail, the director of molecular pathology at Cedars-Sinai, told the Times that CAL.20C may have played a part in the surge in cases that overwhelmed Southern California’s hospitals earlier this month. “I’m decently confident that this is a more infectious strain of the virus,” said Dr. Vail.
Originally, researchers identified a mutation in the standard-issue virus strain which they called L452R. Dr. Vail and others soon realized that the samples they were seeing that carried the L452R mutation also consistently carried four other mutations. Thinking this was a unique variant, they identified any sample with all five mutations as CAL.20C.
Dr. Charles Chiu, a virologist and professor of laboratory medicine at UCSF who, in concert with state authorities, has been genetically sequencing California test samples to identify new variants said on Sunday that very early indications are the L452R might be less susceptible to the currently approved vaccines, but much more investigation is needed.
Asked if he was worried about that possibility, Dr. Ghaly said, “Absolutely,” but noted it is still far too early to make declarations with any certainty.
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