The latest Omicron-fueled coronavirus surge that emerged rapidly in December with skyrocketing numbers of new cases and hospitalizations could be on its way out almost as quickly as it came despite the continued high levels of transmission in the community.

“It appears that we may have peaked and hopefully passed the worst of the Omicron surge,” Santa Barbara County Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso said during a COVID-19 briefing at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday. “However, COVID-19 case and positivity numbers remain well above pre-Omicron records, meaning that we are still at (the) highest levels of transmission that we have ever seen.”

Santa Barbara County’s case rate per 100,000 people as of Jan. 20 was 181.2, and while still higher than the county has experienced with previous pandemic surges, that figure was roughly 30% less than the peak case rate of 256.2 cases reported just 10 days prior.

Based on modeling and trends from other countries that were hit by the Omicron variant before its arrival in the United States, Do-Reynoso said the county can expect a further decrease in the numbers.

Seventeen states across the country are reporting decreasing cases during the past two weeks, she added.

“We may have passed the peak locally for the Omicron surge. We are just hoping that it is going down very rapidly and that we will be at a really safer and better place in the very near future,” said Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg, adding that the near future could be mid- to late February.

Do-Reynoso also presented the county’s case rate by vaccination status as of Jan. 13, which showed that unvaccinated residents were four times more likely to become infected by the virus than vaccinated individuals.

“The unvaccinated case rate has a significantly steeper increase compared to vaccinated, which is beginning to trend downwards,” she said.

As of Monday, a little more than 70% of the county’s eligible population was considered fully vaccinated, according to the county’s COVID-19 Data Dashboard.

Even though the hospitalization rate seems lower for people infected with the Omicron variant compared with previous variants of the virus, the large volume of new cases has resulted in record-breaking numbers of hospitalizations.

The county’s coronavirus hospitalizations increased 309% in one month and far surpassed the hospitalization values the county saw during last summer’s surge, Do-Reynoso said.

After meeting with the CEOs of the county’s hospitals, Do-Reynoso said that 25% to 33% of the COVID-19 patients hospitalized came to the hospital for another reason and were found to be infected by the virus after testing, while the remaining patients came specifically because of COVID-19.

“The fact is that, yes, we know that with this Omicron surge, the percentage of hospitalization and correlating percentage of death is not like previous surges. It is less severe and it has less severe outcomes,” Do-Reynoso said. “But the fact is that when you have 25 to 33% of your COVID cases hospitalized come with it not because of it, it still impacts the hospital with regards to the attention and the resources to treat the COVID state.”

For example, eight patients who went to the hospital to deliver a baby were found to be positive upon testing, and those eight patients required extra resources to support their COVID-19 state, Do-Reynoso said.

County hospitals have had to cancel or selectively choose and restrict elective surgeries on a case-by-case basis because of the increased coronavirus hospitalization admissions, she added.

Do-Reynoso shared data comparing the number of cumulative cases and deaths in California to Arizona, Florida and Texas — states that have had more relaxed coronavirus policies and strategies — in order to help people understand the “overall impact of a disease on a population.”

Between January 2020 and Jan. 23, 2022, Florida has reported the largest number of cumulative cases per 100,000 people at 24,899, followed by Arizona at 24,078 and Texas at 20,466, according to Do-Reynoso. California falls below those states significantly with 19,160 cases per 100,000 people.

In terms of deaths during that same period of time, Arizona reported 352 deaths per 100,000 people, Florida reported 298, Texas reported 265 and California again reported the lowest figure at 197, Do-Reynoso said.

As the world goes into the third year of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Ansorg outlined what it would take to reach an “endemic” phase.

An endemic means that a disease has a constant presence in a population, but it is manageable and does not cause enough illness to disrupt normal life or overwhelm the health care system, such as the flu or measles, Ansorg explained.

“They are endemic, they are a nuisance, sometimes they cause deaths or problems, but they never overwhelm the hospital system and they don’t make us (have) to change policies to keep people safe,” he said.

The SARS-COV-2 virus will never be eradicated, it will remain in the population at some level and cause periodic waves of infection similar to the common cold or mumps, Ansorg said.

For an infection that relies on person-to-person transmission to remain for a long period of time, every infected person must pass it on to at least one other person, and with more people immune to the virus, fewer people will become infected, he continued.

Ansorg outlined five strategies to reach an endemic state:

» High vaccination rates with boosters.

» Readily available anti-viral medications to help cure people who fall severely ill from the virus.

» Newer vaccines that protect against all variants (Ansorg said he does not anticipate this happening within the year).

» Easy access to self-testing and isolation if results come back positive.

» Social distancing and masking until the Omicron surge is over.

When those five “ifs” happen, Ansorg said, the county is on track to reach an endemic state sometime this year.

“If we have high vaccination rates, with boosters as high as possible, if we have more readily available easy-to-take antiviral medications, if maybe we get newer vaccines … and if we continue to get even better testing and more available testing, and isolate ourselves, then we should really be on track to reaching an endemic state sometime this year,” he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.