CHICO — When it comes to the deadliest respiratory disease in a century, local health officials are breathing easier, as coronavirus numbers and the severity of the illness continue on a downward trajectory.
Spread of COVID-19 in Butte County dropped over the past month, from a peak of 29 newly reported cases on Dec. 7 to nine cases total last week (Jan. 1-6). Hospitalizations also are down countywide, from 48 on Dec. 7 to 33 on Friday (the latest update from Butte County Public Health), and the last reported death from coronavirus came Dec. 18.
Such is the trend in Chico, where hospitalizations at Enloe Medical Center are around half of the early-winter peak. Dr. Marcia Nelson, Enloe’s chief medical officer, says the hospital is treating between 10 and 15 COVID patients a day, compared to two dozen a day during the Thanksgiving holiday. At her family medicine practice, Nelson is seeing a decline as well.
“I would say we’re at a steady state with COVID,” she said Friday morning at her Enloe office. “Compared to pre-2020, it’s still an additional respiratory illness that can be very significant and even lead to patient deaths. In my private practice, I still have patients calling in several times a week with COVID — or other respiratory illnesses.
“Now it’s more common for people to say, ‘I’ve had two or three negative COVID tests and still feel crummy; let’s see what’s going on.’ That’s a change from about a months ago, when most of it was COVID. And that mirrors what I’m seeing here at the hospital.”
Butte County Public Health Director Danette York sees the same pattern. COVID is “holding steady” since the surge in hospitalizations and other reported cases in early December. That period coincided with an earlier-than-usual rise in influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which can prove fatal to infants, young children and seniors.
At the high point in the past month, Enloe treated 12 RSV patients in a day. Friday, the hospital had none, along with just four flu patients, which Nelson said is “not a spike.”
All three diseases in what health officials labeled a “tripledemic” are down countywide, York said. (Flu and RSV aren’t tracked in the same way as COVID.)
Butte County is 59.1% vaccinated and boosted, on par with the statewide rate of 60.9%. This includes the 20.4% who have received the latest, bivalent vaccine formulated to protect against the original COVID virus plus Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5. Bivalent vaccination statewide is at 22.5 percent.
York calls the county’s vaccination rates “great news” as part of the public health push for prevention. She and Butte County Public Health still promote measures such as washing hands thoroughly and wearing face masks indoors in public places.
Both York and Nelson have observed a far lower proportion of local residents with masks.
“As a public health professional, it is a bit concerning,” York said, “but I think we’re at a place in the response where COVID is becoming more normalized. We treat it as what it is, an infectious disease, just like we do other diseases.
“Is the pandemic over? No, and (COVID) is likely to stay around or come around on a regular basis. We continue to see more variants. People have to make their own choice, and many people will choose to wear a mask to protect themselves, or others, whereas some people will not.
“We have to really understand where people are coming from when they make their own choice.”
Nelson emphasizes inoculation, both for COVID and flu; a vaccine for RSV is still under development.
“What I have chosen to do personally, and what I hope other people do, is get vaccinated,” she said. “That’s something at least we have control over, which gives us power when we’re talking about these serious and lethal infectious diseases. So, I have chosen to get every COVID booster, including the bivalent, that is available — and my flu vaccine — and then I just use common sense (to decide about masking) whenever I’m in a public place.”
York stresses a mantra at Butte County Public Health: “Prevention is the best medicine.”