COVID-19 update: New Tulare County infections show signs of slowing, but danger signs persist

James Ward
Visalia Times-Delta

Tulare County may see the wave of new COVID-19 infections and deaths fueled by the more virulent Delta variant that started in August subside after three months of ever-increasing grim news which saw local hospitals stressed to the breaking point. 

In the Tulare County Health and Human Service Agency's weekly COVID-19 report released Nov. 17, 631 new infections were recorded ending on Nov. 16. The county had been averaging more than 1,000 new infections a week since early August. 

Sadly, HHSA also reported 19 new COVID-19-related deaths for the week ending on Nov. 16. Since August, the county's weekly COVID-19 death toll has hovered around 20. 

Since the start of the Delta-variant fueled COVD-19 surge in early August, 168 people in Tulare County — including one child younger than 17 — have died from coronavirus-related causes. Deaths are a lagging indicator of the disease, and about 90% of deaths were in unvaccinated people. 

In early August and November, Kaweah Health declared an emergency — known as a Code Triage — as both COVD-19 and other patients filled available staffed beds. 

Hospital leaders attributed the situation to low vaccination rates across the central San Joaquin Valley. 

Since the pandemic started in March 2020, 68,773 Tulare County residents have been infected with COVID-19, and 1,034 people have died from complications of the virus.  The death rate in Tulare County is 1.5 per 100 infections. That means for every 200 infections, three people have died in the county.

Medical and public health experts say vaccination is the best way to avoid severe illness and death from COVID-19. 

In Tulare County, 47% of people living in Tulare County are fully vaccinated as of Nov. 15, one of the lowest rates in the state. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers someone fully vaccinated two weeks after they've been given a single-dose shot (Johnson & Johnson) or a second shot (either Pfizer or Moderna).

Tulare County has administered more than 485,087 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, as of Nov. 15, according to data from the California Department of Public Health. That's up 1.81% from the previous week's tally of 476,483 COVID-19 doses administered.

Winter surge worries 

While new COVID-19 infections show signs of slowing down in Tulare County, medical experts warn that another coronavirus wave may hit California as the weather cools and more people meet indoors for the holidays. 

Another possible warning sign: Unvaccinated adolescents have been the driving force behind a stubbornly persistent Delta surge in Britain, a potential warning sign for California if inoculation rates don’t improve considerably among this age group, health experts warn.

Dr. George Rutherford, a UC San Francisco epidemiologist and infectious disease expert, said unvaccinated 10- to 14-year-olds are driving the pandemic in the United Kingdom, with case rates among these ages significantly higher than any other group.

Rutherford was citing data from a New York Times analysis, which said that in mid-October, school-age children in England were 15 times as likely to be infected with the coronavirus as 80-year-olds. The analysis noted that England ended mandatory mask-wearing in mid-July, and officials did not recommend vaccinations for 12- to 15-year-olds until mid-September, four months after they were available for those ages in the U.S.

The U.K.’s surge in coronavirus cases has been uneven — climbing rapidly from mid-June to mid-July, then decreasing sharply before yo-yoing into a second peak in mid-October. There have been some signs of waning since the middle of last month, but cases remain well above the pre-delta levels.

A lack of vaccinations among wide swaths of adolescents as COVID-19 restrictions were lifted has resulted in the virus continuing to spread in the U.K., Rutherford said at a recent UC San Francisco campus forum.

“This is a consequence of failure to vaccinate. And the population that they failed to vaccinate are young adolescents,” Rutherford said. “This is being driven by younger adolescents largely, and they’ve just started a new campaign to vaccinate 12- to 15-year-olds. And only 21% of them are currently fully vaccinated.”

The U.K.’s challenges demonstrate how its overall vaccination efforts — while better than California’s — are still not high enough for herd immunity, when sustained coronavirus transmission is interrupted.

In the U.K., 67% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data; California has 62% of its population fully vaccinated. Across the U.S., that rate is 59%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many health officials — including Rutherford — have said that a substantial number of children will need to be vaccinated if communities are to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19.

A stubbornly high level of transmission also presents the risk of spawning dangerous new variants, such as delta, which fueled the latest wave in Tulare County.

COVID-19 rates increase in California 

California’s coronavirus case rate is now higher than it was in a month ago, when the state was averaging about 5,500 new cases a day. Most recently, an average of about 6,300 new cases have been reported daily.

There is still hope that some areas might avoid a terrible winter surge, and rates will remain stable or could possibly decline. “But it requires everybody in our community to really be cautious and careful,” said Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, a deputy health officer in Orange County.

Health officials say that, contrary to earlier in the pandemic when adults were the major spreaders of the virus, it’s now known that children can be effective spreaders of the coronavirus, especially with the emergence of the Delta variant.

Children can be infected and show no symptoms yet still transmit the virus, which can be problematic to family and friends “because you can expose everyone in your household without knowing it," Chinsio-Kwong said. 

“So they do have the potential to transmit it to a grandparent who may be at higher risk or to an immunocompromised family member,” she said. Gathering safely “does require everyone to get vaccinated if they are eligible,” she added.

Unvaccinated people are particularly at high risk for becoming super-spreaders because when they are infected, they shed far higher amounts of virus than those who are vaccinated and suffer breakthrough infections, she said.

Unvaccinated Californians are roughly seven times more likely to contract COVID-19, 10 times likelier to end up in the hospital and 17 times more likely to die from the disease than their vaccinated counterparts, state data show.

Wire services contributed to this report. 

James Ward covers entertainment, news, sports and lifestyles for the Visalia Times-Delta/Tulare Advance-Register. Follow him on TwitterGet alerts and keep up on all things Tulare County for as little as $1 a month. Subscribe today.