Seven of the nine Bay Area counties have reported recent upticks in cases, and the regional total has been increasing too. Public health and infectious disease experts said it’s not yet clear what’s causing the surges, and the explanations likely vary by county.
Health officers said they anticipated some increases as they expanded testing and loosened shelter-in-place restrictions. Anecdotally, they say they’ve seen cases among construction workers — who were allowed to resume working about four weeks ago — and people in essential jobs.
The new reports may not be cause for alarm just yet, but authorities say they’re closely investigating new cases to identify potential outbreaks.
“I do think we’re likely seeing some evidence of the loosening that happened around May 4, when we allowed construction. And I think there is some intervention fatigue happening,” said Dr. Erica Pan, the Alameda County health officer. “It’s what we anticipated. What we didn’t anticipate is how much this would happen.”
Pan added that the bumps in cases are not leading her to consider retightening local stay-home orders. “This alone is not making me think we need to go backwards,” she said. “But it is making me think very cautiously of next steps.”
California’s total case count is approaching 100,000, but new cases are flattening somewhat. On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced further easing of statewide shelter-in-place restrictions. The state order now allows for in-store retail sales and resumption of religious services, and counties that are on a fast track can begin allowing barbershops and hair salons to reopen.
Statewide, 13,400 new cases were reported last week, about a 10% bump over the previous week; in the Bay Area, about 1,400 new cases were reported last week, an increase of nearly 40%.
Deaths have fallen dramatically across the state over the past few days: 16 fatalities reported on Sunday and 16 on Monday, the lowest counts since March 29. Deaths climbed back up to 34 on Tuesday.
Bay Area death reports have been similarly up and down: Last week the region saw two days in a row of no COVID-19 fatalities, creating cautious optimism among local residents; the next day, 14 deaths were reported.
The conflicting data — spikes in some places, dramatic declines in others — underscore the challenges public health officials still face when trying to frame an accurate picture of coronavirus outbreaks across counties and statewide. But they also demonstrate how unpredictable the virus still is, and the need for caution as communities move to reopen their economies, officials said.
“We’re not even out of the first wave of this pandemic,” Newsom said in a news briefing Tuesday. “While we are moving forward, by no stretch of the imagination is this virus behind us. I just could not be more precise in terms of my recommendation that all of us be sober about the reality of this disease and the lives that have been lost.”
Alameda County officials said they’re still trying to tease apart their recent reports and explain the recent increase in cases. The county now has 2,986 cases, more than any other in the Bay Area. Santa Clara County, which was hit earliest and hardest by the coronavirus, reported 2,652 cases as of Tuesday.
Three of Alameda County’s highest case-count days were last week, contributing to its biggest week ever, with 453 new cases. Santa Clara County’s peak days were at the end of March and early April. But Alameda County also has been pumping up testing at a faster pace than other parts of the Bay Area, in part because it had some of the lowest rates to begin with.
More concerning for Alameda County than the case counts is that hospital numbers, which aren’t influenced by testing, also have been rising. Alameda County reported 91 people hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Monday — the most since mid-April.
“The bottom line is, there is some disturbing trends here,” said John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert with UC Berkeley. “It’s too short of a time to really know if this is going to continue. But of course they make one a bit concerned.”
Public health officials said that as the region continues to reopen more of the economy, increases in cases are expected. The key is to identify cases quickly through testing, and then prevent those individuals from infecting others.
In Contra Costa County, which also has reported small increases in recent days, Deputy Health Officer Ori Tzvieli said public health officials are developing triggers — such as surges in 911 calls for respiratory stress or spikes in ventilator use — that could alert them to new case clusters.
“Any time we open up (the economy) we are on the lookout,” Tzvieli said. “We’re setting up automatic triggers because a lot of us look at this data every day, but we’re always worried we’re going to miss something.”