COVID in California: Latest booster seen as substantially curbing hospitalizations – San Francisco Chronicle

A worker holds a sign at a Los Angeles press conference after Sen. Alex Padilla receives a COVID-19 booster shot. Data shows that people who did not get the latest booster were far more likely to require hospitalization for COVID than boosted people.
As public health officials feared, a surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations materialized in the period following the gatherings around the New Year and Christmas holiday season. And Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data found that in November, people who did not get the latest COVID booster were significantly more likely to be hospitalized with COVID.
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Walgreens stores in California reported a coronavirus positive-test rate of 41.7% on Monday, down from a pandemic peak of 49.3% on Dec. 31. The retailer uses data from both PCR and rapid antigen tests to track the state’s positivity rate, which is slightly higher than the national rate of 37.9%. By vaccination status, the rate among people who received their last vaccine dose more than 12 months ago was 42.8%, compared to 29.4% among those who had their most recent dose within the past three months. Walgreens provides on-site COVID-19 testing at more than 5,000 of its stores across the U.S. The California Department of Public Health on Thursday reported a statewide positivity rate of 12.6%, but that figure does not include the large proportion of results from rapid antigen tests conducted at home and not submitted to public health officials.
On Monday, the National Institutes of Health announced that it has awarded eight research grants to develop new technologies for early diagnosis of severe illnesses resulting from coronavirus infection in children. The recent awards follow grants issued in 2020 to foster methods for diagnosing children at high risk for multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, which can impact some children after COVID-19. “These highly innovative technologies and tools have the potential to greatly improve the care of children with SARS-CoV-2 infection and other fever-causing illnesses,” said Bill Kapogiannis, of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which oversees the grants. Among the awardees is Charles Chiu at UCSF for his research on the discovery and clinical validation of host biomarkers of disease severity and MIS-C with COVID-19. 
The bivalent COVID-19 vaccine booster substantially reduced hospitalizations among older patients in a real-world setting, according to a study published Monday by researchers in Israel, reports Reuters. The data showed an 81% reduction in hospitalizations among people age 65 and older who had received the updated booster compared to those who only completed their primary vaccination series. The study, conducted between September and December, used data from 622,701 people, 85,314 of whom received the booster shot. “Hospitalization due to COVID-19 occurred in 6 bivalent recipients and 297 participants who did not” receive the shot, according to the researchers. They saw similar improvements in mortality rates. “Death due to COVID-19 occurred in 1 bivalent recipient and 73 participants who did not” receive the shot, the authors wrote.
Nearly 90% of people in China’s third most populous province have been infected with COVID-19, according to official sources. Kan Quancheng, director of the health commission for central Henan province, told a press conference that “as of January 6, 2023, the province’s COVID infection rate is 89%,” according to AFP. Henan province has a population of 99.4 million people, indicating that about 90 million have now been infected by the virus. Quancheng added that emergency department visits peaked on Dec. 19 and the area has seen a steady downward trend in hospitalizations since.
China on Sunday reopened border crossing points to Hong Kong, in one of the most visible signs of China easing border restrictions imposed almost three years ago, with travelers arriving from abroad no longer required to undergo expensive and time-consuming quarantines. The move came even as the virus continues to spread in China amid what critics say is a lack of transparency from Beijing. Those crossing between Hong Kong and mainland China, however, are still required to show a negative COVID-19 test taken within the last 48 hours — a measure China has protested when it was imposed by other countries. Hong Kong has been hit hard by the virus, and its land and sea border checkpoints with the mainland have been largely closed for almost three years.
The seven-day average of weekly new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. increased 16.2% to 67,243 compared with the previous average of 57,847,  the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday. Hospitalizations increased at a similar rate over the same period, with the daily average of admissions for patients with COVID-19 reaching 6,519, a 16.1% increase from the previous week’s average of 5,613. The number of people dying daily due to the virus also rose to 390, an 8.3% increased compared with the previous average of 360. Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator, told CBS on Friday that improved uptake of the bivalent vaccine booster should help stem the worsening trends, which may be caused by the growing prevalence of the immune-evasive XBB.1.5 omicron subvariant.
The National Institutes of Health announced it will begin a pilot program to provide people with free testing, consultation and treatment for COVID-19 in their homes. Communities around the country will be selected to participate based on need, socioeconomic factors and access to health care, the Hill reported. NIH said it plans to offer the Home Test to Treat program to up to 100,000 people in the U.S. over the next year. “The Home Test to Treat program allows those who are sick an alternative to venturing out for testing or treatment, potentially reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the community,” said Bruce Stromberg, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.
China has suspended or closed the social media accounts of more than 1,000 critics of the government’s policies on the COVID-19 outbreak, as the country moves to roll back harsh anti-virus restrictions, the Associated Press reports. The popular Sina Weibo social media platform said it had addressed 12,854 violations including attacks on experts, scholars and medical workers and issued temporary or permanent bans on 1,120 accounts. The ruling Communist Party abruptly abandoned its tough lockdowns, quarantine measures and mass testing last month, leading to a surge in new cases that have stretched medical resources to their limits. The party allows no direct criticism and imposes strict limits on free speech. The company “will continue to increase the investigation and cleanup of all kinds of illegal content, and create a harmonious and friendly community environment for the majority of users,” Sina Weibo said in a statement dated Thursday. Criticism has largely focused on heavy-handed enforcement of regulations, including open-ended travel restrictions that saw people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes sealed inside without adequate food or medical care. 
American adults who did not receive an updated COVID-19 bivalent booster were nearly three times more likely to require hospitalization for an infection in November, according to data published Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For unvaccinated individuals over the age of 18, the rate of hospitalization was about 16 times higher compared to those who completed their primary vaccine series and received the updated booster. The rate of hospitalization following a COVID-19 infection was highest for people between 18 to 49 years old, with vaccinated but unboosted individuals in that age group 3.2 times more likely to be hospitalized, and the rate 29.9 times higher for those who are unvaccinated.
The Food and Drug Administration is warning immunocompromised Americans that it does not anticipate that the drug Evusheld will neutralize XBB.1.5, the coronavirus omicron subvariant that is currently estimated to account for 28% of circulating variants in the U.S.
“Evusheld may not provide protection against developing COVID-19 for individuals who have received Evusheld and are later exposed to XBB.1.5,” the FDA said in its bulletin. “However, we are awaiting additional data to verify that Evusheld is not active against XBB.1.5. We will provide further updates as new information becomes available.” AstraZeneca’s Evusheld is primarily used as a preventive therapy for the immunocompromised,
Last month, physicians at UCSF were told to stop prescribing Evusheld and another monoclonal antibody treatment, bebtelovimab, because they are no longer effective against aggressive virus strains. “With new subvariants, these agents are no longer effective,” said Bob Wachter, UCSF’s chief of medicine.
A federal judge has sentenced a University City business owner to prison and ordered him to repay more than half-a-million dollars that he took in from bank and COVID-19 pandemic-related fraud. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Le Mell Harlston pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to five counts of bank fraud and nine counts of misuse of a Social Security number. U.S. District Judge Stephen R. Clark sentenced him on Friday to 30 months in prison and ordered him to repay $650,000. Harlston used a Social Security number assigned to a Kansas City-area minor and an unassigned number to apply for loans and lines of credit at credit unions and banks. He also applied for a series of government loans designed to help business owners weather the pandemic using another minor’s Social Security number on the application. 
Rita Beamish is The San Francisco Chronicle topic editor.