The Bay Area is experiencing a gradual but pronounced uptick in coronavirus cases — one that is both troubling and expected as more businesses open their doors — providing yet another example of the deadly illness’ staying power.
It could mark the beginning of a third prolonged increase in coronavirus cases as weather begins to turn toward winter, which will keep more people indoors where the disease spreads more easily, and as the holiday season and family gatherings approach.
It also is happening quietly amid a presidential election that has captivated the nation’s attention. This rise in cases is not garnering the level of media coverage and, perhaps, public concern that earlier ones did — but on a national level the numbers are hitting new records daily.
The uptick in the Bay Area began in mid-October. California and the Bay Area in particular, though, are faring better than most other states that are seeing a much more dramatic rise in cases.
In the week that ended Oct. 31, the most recent complete week for which there is data, the nine Bay Area counties reported nearly 3,800 new cases — up 34% over the roughly 2,800 cases in the week that ended Oct. 17, two weeks prior.
California also reported a 34% increase in new cases during the same period, reaching 28,300 cases the week ending Oct. 31, compared with 21,200 cases the week ending Oct. 17.→
Nationwide coronavirus cases reached another grim milestone on Friday: 121,890 new cases and 1,210 new deaths recorded, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
More than 9.7 million people in the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus, 962,651 of them in California. The virus has killed more than 236,000 people across the country — including 17,906 in the Golden State.
In California, the number of people hospitalized for the coronavirus had been falling since its late July peak, when there were about 8,500 people in hospitals with COVID-19 symptoms. But the number began ticking up again the last week of October, from just under 3,000 to nearly 3,500 as of Thursday, according to state data.
But, public health experts said, it’s not quite time to fret locally.
“It’s not nearly as bad here as it is across the country,” said Dr. George Rutherford, an infectious disease specialist at UCSF.
Rutherford said the increase in cases is happening in the same group of people who have always been susceptible to contracting the virus — essential workers and those who live in high-density areas. If the Bay Area started seeing explosive growth, infection rates would be rising in different populations, he said.
“What worries me is Thanksgiving,” Rutherford said. “It’s a time when families and friends get together and have big, extended events which involve eating and drinking, which means you have to take off your mask. It’s going to be tough.”
But health officials need to balance the potential dangers of widespread gatherings with the reality that the country’s mental health is also suffering, said Dr. Monica Gandhi, another UCSF infectious disease specialist.
“As someone who thinks about public health, I have to balance the idea that people need to see each other,” Gandhi said. “They’re very lonely and families need to be together.”
The vast majority of people in the Bay Area trust their public health officials, Gandhi said. She’s worried that messages urging people to avoid interacting with family during the holidays might be a quick way to un-earn that trust.
Gandhi said an increase in cases was to be expected after San Francisco began moving toward less restrictive reopening guidelines last month. The city has since paused its reopening plan, after concerns about cases spiking.
“There are going to be upticks, then we’ll dial it back,” Gandhi said. “This is the dance we’ll have to do while we wait for a vaccine.”
She credits the relative success of the Bay Area and the rest of California in keeping infections low to clear statewide messaging and metrics coming from the governor’s office.
“I was really disturbed prior to this summer, because we’ve obviously had a haphazard federal response,” Gandhi said. “What I really liked over this summer was putting into place the tiers, and being extremely clear with what defines the metrics within those tiers.”
Both Gandhi and Rutherford said they’ll be paying attention to any demonstrations or celebrations coming as a result of the presidential election, which had not been decided Friday night. Data remains unclear about whether nationwide protests against the death of George Floyd contributed to a rise in cases, they said.
But there is one positive sign: There have not been any upticks in cases of the seasonal flu, which, combined with the coronavirus, could overwhelm the health care system, Gandhi and Rutherford said.