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‘Winter is coming,’ Newsom warns, as COVID threat persists

Gov. Gavin Newsom turned to a familiar phrase Tuesday to issue a word of warning about the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic in California.

“Winter is coming,” he said during remarks at the California Economic Summit in Monterey. “COVID is not taking the winter off.”

Newsom is far from the first official to cast a wary eye on winter’s approach and express concern about what it might mean for the state.

California has yet to shake off the last vestiges of the months-old Delta coronavirus wave, and there are worrying indications that conditions are heading in the wrong direction in some parts of the state.

“Last week, we literally were planning out our winter surge strategy — prepositioning assets in anticipation of what’s going to happen in the next few weeks, making sure we have staffing, not only within the state, but that we have organized and potential staffing that we’ll have to bring in from out of the state,” Newsom said.

He added: “I don’t want to tell you that, because I don’t want it to be true. But the data bears this out.”

After all, as Newsom has noted before and reiterated Tuesday, California found itself in a similar position this time last year, only to see conditions deteriorate rapidly.

On Nov. 8, 2020, California reported a seven-day average of about 6,200 new coronavirus cases a day. One month later, the state was reporting more than quadruple that number: 26,000 new cases a day. And in early January, that number jumped to more than 45,000 new cases a day.

Daily reported caseloads didn’t consistently fall back below 10,000 until mid-February.

Current case rates are roughly the same as last year at this time. For the seven-day period that ended Sunday, California was reporting about 5,700 new coronavirus cases a day, according to data compiled by The Times.

Statewide, both infections and COVID-19 hospitalizations have plateaued following months of decline.

But in some areas with lower vaccination rates — including Riverside, San Bernardino and Fresno counties — hospitalizations have risen in recent weeks. Even in Orange County, where vaccination rates are relatively high, COVID-19 hospitalizations are up since Halloween.

“With cases ticking up in most parts of the state, we cannot let our guard down, and we cannot underestimate this deadly virus,” Dr. Tomás Aragón, director of the California Department of Public Health and the state’s public health officer, said in a statement Monday.

Already, there are some warning signs that cooler temperatures elsewhere in the United States and across the globe may be helping fuel a resurgence of the coronavirus.

“We know why, because [of] the seasonality to COVID,” Newsom said. “It’s not particularly difficult after a couple of years to understand. You see those trends in Europe. You see those trends extend in other parts of the globe. Unfortunately, that’s what’s happening here.”

Officials and experts largely agree that California is unlikely to experience the same devastating surge as last winter, largely because of how many residents are already vaccinated against COVID-19.

Roughly 69% of Californians have received at least one dose, and nearly 63% are fully vaccinated.

However, there are still millions of residents statewide who have less protection against the coronavirus.

And, given the evidence that vaccine immunity can wane over time, officials stress it’s important for everyone eligible — particularly those who are at higher risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms — to get a booster shot.

“We’ve got to keep those boosters up. And we’ve got to be mindful that the job’s not done; you can’t spike the ball,” said Newsom, who got a Moderna booster to his original Johnson & Johnson vaccination in late October.

State data show unvaccinated Californians are continuing to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Unvaccinated individuals are roughly seven times more likely to get COVID-19, nearly 10 times more like to require hospitalization and 18 times more likely to die than their vaccinated counterparts.

“Vigilance is our best defense against another challenging COVID-19 winter,” Aragón said. “Get vaccinated if you haven’t yet.”

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