COVID in California: Hybrid immunity protects better than infection alone – San Francisco Chronicle

Bar patrons at the Four Deuces watch football in San Francisco. Businesses are trying to get back to normal, but highly infectious strains of the omicron variant of the coronavirus still stalk the country.
UPDATE: Here are the latest updates on COVID in the Bay Area and California.
The highly infectious XBB.1.5 subvariant of the coronavirus is picking up steam in the West on the heels of sweeping across the Northeast, CDC data show. The CDC is also tracking virus hospitalizations, with its new combined dashboard showing COVID, flu and RSV admissions remain on a downward trend since the recent peak in December.
Latest updates:
Hybrid immunity — the response when a person has been both infected and vaccinated — offers a substantially higher and sustained level of protection against hospitalization or severe disease due to the omicron coronavirus variant compared to a previous COVID-19 infection alone, according to a new study published in The Lancet. World Health Organization researchers analyzed data from 26 other studies on the subject and found that individuals with hybrid immunity had a 95% lower chance of the worst outcomes of the disease up to one year after their initial infection, while those who were previously infected but unvaccinated had a 75% lower risk over the same period. Similarly, hybrid immunity lowered the odds of reinfection by 42% after two shots for up to a year, and by 47% for six months after receiving a booster dose. For unvaccinated individuals, that protection fell to 25% one year after infection. The authors wrote that the results demonstrate “the advantages of vaccination even after people have had COVID-19.”
Dr. Bob Wachter, UCSF’s chief of medicine and a prominent Bay Area voice on the pandemic, called a new report on the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines “superb,” noting that it debunks “the fallacy that they’re causing significant harm.” The analysis written by epidemiologists Katelyn Jetelina and Kristen Panthagani and published Tuesday aims to put to rest the unfounded rumors that regularly appear after the deaths of prominent individuals — most recently singer Lisa Marie Presley and soccer reporter Grant Wahl — citing the vaccines as the primary cause. “We have more evidence than for any other vaccine or disease in the history of humans that the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines greatly outweigh the risks.” the authors wrote. Presenting data from a variety of sources, they meticulously address the latest round of misinformation around vaccines. “There are rare vaccine tragedies, and they need to be taken seriously,” they said. “But do not confound these rare tragedies with thinking they are common occurrences. And certainly don’t forget that COVID-19 vaccines saved millions of lives across the globe and will continue to do so.” Wachter added as a footnote that “this misinformation technique — pinning all bad outcomes on vaccines — comes right out of the misinfo playbook. In fact, I predicted its use in Dec. 2020, just as the mRNAs were rolling out. Sad that it works as often as it does. It kills.”
Google searches, Twitter posts and other online activity usually used to cull data for advertisers could also be used as an early warning system for COVID-19 surges, according to a team of scientists from Northeastern University. In a paper published Wednesday in Science Advances, machine learning expert Mauricio Santillana said internet users’ “digital traces” can be adapted to alert public health officials to sharp increases in COVID-19 at the county level one to six weeks ahead of a major outbreak. “What we aspire to do is to use the same information that Google or Amazon or any of these big firms use to send ads to you” to inform public health decisions early on in an outbreak, Santillana said in a press release. The research team used machine learning methods that included information from outbreaks in 97 U.S. counties between Jan. 1 2020 and 2022, zeroing in on an uptick of search terms that included fever, clinician searches for COVID-19 treatments. “The goal is not necessarily to quantify how many infections there are but to quantify when sharp increases in infections will happen,” said Santillana, who collaborated with scientists from Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Oklahoma State University and other organizations.
Orange County has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit for $1.7 million to pay business owners for government fees collected when they were shut down during the pandemic. The plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit filed last year claimed the county collected property taxes and permit fees while they were required to follow COVID-19 restrictions that limited or shut down their operations, reports ABC7. The Board of Supervisors recently approved the settlement total. The firm that represented the business owners, Shant Karnikian with Kabateck LLP, has filed similar suits across California. San Diego County recently settled a similar case for $4.5 million.
An estimated 900 million Chinese people have been infected with COVID-19 through Jan 11, representing 64% of the country’s entire population, according to a study released over the weekend by Peking University. That figure bucks the official tally of 503,000, according to an analysis of the outbreak by Michael Toole, an associate principal research fellow at the Burnet Institute in Australia, for SBS News. Chinese government data shows there have been almost 60,000 deaths of people with coronavirus infections in hospitals in the past five weeks since it abandoned its strict zero COVID policy, but under the country’s narrow definition of COVID-19 deaths, officials say the virus caused only 5,500 of those deaths. The toll does not include the number of people who died at home or in aged care facilities, and the government has not released updated numbers on cases or deaths since Jan. 12.
“The world may not see the full impact of the surge in China for another month or so,” Toole writes. “During the Lunar New Year period, an expected 2 billion trips will be made within China. This will transmit the virus to remote rural villages where there is minimal health care and no genomic sequencing facilities. So, the virus could infect an immunocompromised individual who may harbour the virus for months. This could result in a mutation that emerges as a more transmissible variant.”
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell tested positive Wednesday for COVID-19 and is experiencing “mild symptoms,” the Federal Reserve announced. The 69-year-old Powell is “up to date” with all COVID vaccines and boosters, the Fed said, and is working from home. “Following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, he is working remotely while isolating at home,” the central bank said in a statement shared by the Associated Press. The Fed’s next interest rate-setting meeting is Jan. 31 to Feb. 1, a timetable that could allow Powell to recover in time to participate in person. An alternative plan would be to return to holding the meeting virtually, which the Fed did for months during the height of the pandemic.
The fast-moving XBB.1.5 strain now accounts for just under 16% of coronavirus cases in the western region of the United States, which includes California, more than doubling in one week as a proportion of COVID circulating, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Saturday. The subvariant’s prevalence in the west has not caught up to its dominance in the Northeast, but rose significantly from 7.6% of cases on Jan. 7. Nationwide,  XBB.1.5 — a highly transmissable iteration of the omicron variant — accounted for 43% of cases in the most recent data, compared to just under 28% the prior week. The BQ.1.1 subvariant still is most dominant in the West region, accounting for 39% of cases.
The World Health Organization has labeled the XBB.1.5 subvariant the “most transmissible” variant yet, and urges travelers to wear masks on international flights to help slow its spread.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice tested positive for the coronavirus Tuesday, hours after he met with West Virginia University athletic director Wren Baker and Hall of Fame basketball coach Bob Huggins, the governor’s office said. It marked the second time that the Republican governor tested positive, following a positive result in January 2022, the Associated Press reports.  The 71-year-old Justice, who is fully vaccinated and boosted against the virus, had a sudden onset of mild symptoms. He was isolating at home and was under the care of several physicians, the governor’s office said in a statement.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday launched two new dashboards to track respiratory virus trends nationally. The Respiratory Virus Hospitalization Surveillance Network tracks laboratory-confirmed hospitalizations associated with COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). It uses data from a network of acute care hospitals in 13 states covering more than 29 million people and includes an estimated 8-10% of the U.S. population. The second site provides a combined view of emergency department visit data for multiple respiratory conditions. Both dashboards show that virus-related admissions for the season peaked in early December and are currently on a downward trend.
The newly Republican-led House Oversight and Accountability Committee will hold a Feb. 1 hearing into waste and fraud involving the millions of dollars in aid the government has dispensed to help people who lost work due to the pandemic, the Washington Post reports. The committee is seeking to learn how much was scammed from the unemployment insurance program. The new committee chairman, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., said the committee will be exploring “hundreds of billions of dollars in spending under the guise of pandemic relief.”
A Washington Post investigation found that government efforts to aid Americans who lost work during the pandemic opened the door for as much as $163 billion in fraudulent or mistaken payments. Comer has sent a letters to the Labor Department and its top watchdogs, to understand the extent of the misspending, the Post reported, and he pressed California, New York and Pennsylvania to turn over records related to their administration of federal unemployment benefits, citing cases where states paid out benefits to suspected.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Tuesday said he is seeking in the coming legislative session to permanently ban COVID-19 vaccination, masking and vaccine passport requirements in his state. Appearing in Panama City Beach alongside Florida Surgeon Gen. Dr. Joseph Ladapo, the governor said the legislation “will permanently protect Floridians from losing their jobs due to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, protects parents’ rights, and institutes additional protections that prevent discrimination based on COVID-19 vaccine status,” WFLA reports. The proposal also supports “freedom of speech” for medical professionals, unlike the California rule specifically restricting the spread of misinformation by physicians.
“We need to lead with this by making all of these protections permanent in Florida statute which we are going to do in the upcoming legislative session,” DeSantis said. The Florida Supreme Court recently approved DeSantis’ petition to investigate alleged harms as a result of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna. “We are going to work to hold these manufacturers accountable for this mRNA [vaccine] because they said there was no side effects, and we know that there have been, and there have been a lot,” DeSantis said at a private event in December.
Aidin Vaziri is a staff writer at The San Francisco Chronicle.
Rita Beamish is The San Francisco Chronicle topic editor.