California this week crossed over 10 million official COVID-19 cases. So does that mean 3 out of 4 of the Golden State’s residents have really avoided the virus so far?
No way, experts say.
There have likely been 44.6 million COVID cases in the Golden State since early 2020, more than the number of residents, according to estimates from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle. And the high-end of their modeling says there could have been up to 52 million infections.
But because many cases are asymptomatic, and most were not confirmed with a PCR test, the bulk of cases go uncounted.
A study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed the percentage of adults in the U.S. with infection-induced immunity levels reached 25% by December 2021, suggesting 1 in 4 people had been infected with COVID before our worst-ever surge this winter. That’s about 80 million people. But the country as a whole had racked up only 55 million official cases at that point.
And the number of confirmed COVID cases has doubled since then. The researchers looked at antibodies in blood bank donors, nucleocapsid antibodies in particular, which come from an infection rather than vaccinations. Antibodies wane over time, so those estimates are also an undercount.
The portion of people who have been able to avoid the virus shrinks every day. So are we all destined to get infected, over and over again?
“Almost everybody will get infected,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. With the virus showing no sign of slowing down, causing two giant surges in the past year, the outlook for avoiding the virus altogether is bleak. “COVID will be with us for the foreseeable future.”
And reinfections are on the rise, now accounting for more than 10% of recent cases.
But the number of cases, counted and uncounted, will only continue to grow, as the number of people who have avoided infection shrinks, and the number of reinfections grows.
There’s no question the state’s official tally is increasingly considered an undercount with so many positive at-home test results going unreported. Still, perhaps our more-relaxed attitude for catching the latest immunity-evading, yet less-deadly variants of the virus are playing a part in how quickly the millions add up.
The last million cases tallied by the state’s public health department took only two months, compared to the million before (from 8 million to 9 million cases) which took twice as long. We hit our first million cases in early November 2020, nine months since we first learned the virus was spreading among us.
The good news is that each case is coming with less risks now than a year or two ago. In 2020, there were 2.5 million cases, and 33,000 deaths. But so far, in the first seven months of 2022 there have been 75% more cases, nearly 4.5 million, and but only 15,000 deaths, less than half of the 2020 death toll.
Early in the pandemic a lack of access to sufficient testing made the case counts a vast undercount of how widespread the virus was. But by January 2021, more than half of cases were being caught. Fast forward to this year, when rapid at-home tests became easy to access,, case counts became even less complete.
By the time official case counts were on the rise during this winter’s omicron surge, the estimated percent of all cases being captured in official counts dropped below 10%, the lowest since late March 2020, when tests were still in short supply. And the percentage dropped below 10% again for several weeks in March and April as the second omicron surge took hold.
Nowadays, there is a simpler gauge.
“As long as you keep hearing that your friends have COVID,” Swartzberg said, “you know that there is an awful lots of case going on.”
Contributed by local news sources