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Senior citizens are hit hard as COVID-19 surges across California

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Dr. Janina Lord Morrison, chief physician for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, visits a home to administer COVID-19 boosters. The department runs a program that provides vaccines to those who are homebound.

There has been a troubling spike in coronavirus-positive hospital admissions among seniors in California, rising to levels not seen since the summer Omicron surge.

Hospitalizations have roughly tripled for Californians of most age groups since the autumn low. But the jump in seniors in need of hospital care has been particularly dramatic.

Rising hospitalization rates are a reason health officials are urging people, especially seniors, to get the updated COVID-19 booster shot and, if they test positive and are eligible, to access therapeutic drugs that likely will reduce the severity of any illness.

Only 35% of California's vaccinated seniors age 65 and up have received the updated booster since it became available in September.

Among eligible 50- to 64-year-olds, about 21% have received the updated booster. The rate is 12% for younger adults, 9% for adolescents and 8% for 5- to 11-year-olds. The updated booster rate for all vaccinated Californians age 5 and up is 18%.

"We are doing a pathetic job of protecting seniors (and age 50+) from severe COVID in California," tweeted Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla.

Immunity against COVID-19 weakens over time. The booster is especially important for older people, who are at higher risk for severe illness and death.

"The people who are dying today are principally people who are unvaccinated or haven't gotten an up-to-date vaccine," Xavier Becerra, the U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, said Thursday in an online forum with the Public Policy Institute of California.

COVID-19 deaths in the state have remained stable at 100 to 200 a week. However, there is concern that increases in cases and hospitalizations could lead to more fatalities.

Of all age groups, 70-plus is the only one that is seeing its hospitalization rate in California exceed that of the summer Omicron peak, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New coronavirus-positive hospitalizations have doubled in just 2½ weeks to 8.86 for every 100,000 Californians age 70 and up. The summer peak, in July, was 8.36; the autumn low, just before Halloween, was 3.09.

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During the seven days to Friday, 2,450 COVID-positive Californians age 70 and up were admitted to hospitals — 44% more than in the prior week.

Meanwhile, the hospitalization rate for 60- to 69-year-olds has doubled since Nov. 11, from 1.28 to 2.59. The summer peak for that age group was 3.03.

Concerned about the rise in cases and hospitalizations, state health officials issued an alert to remind doctors that there are plenty of drugs available for newly infected people.

"There is ample supply of COVID-19 therapeutic agents, but they have been underused — especially among populations disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, including communities of color, low-income communities, and residents of long-term care facilities," the California Department of Public Health said.

The drugs can reduce the risk of hospitalization and death by 88% among unvaccinated people and by 45% among vaccinated or previously infected people, the agency said.

Other therapies against COVID-19 are becoming effectively useless. On Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it was no longer authorizing the monoclonal antibody bebtelovimab to treat the disease because it's not expected to work against the Omicron subvariants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1.

CDC data released Friday estimate that BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 account for 62.8% of coronavirus cases nationwide. The parent strain, BA.5, now accounts for just 13.8% of cases.

The coronavirus outlook has deteriorated rather suddenly since Thanksgiving around swaths of California.

On Nov. 17, all but one of California's 58 counties — Imperial — were in the low COVID-19 community level as defined by the CDC, which measures case and hospitalization rates. On Thanksgiving Day, three more counties — Fresno, Madera and Del Norte — joined Imperial in the medium category.

On Thursday, 23 counties entered the medium level: Los Angeles, Orange, Santa Clara, Sacramento, Stanislaus, Sonoma, Monterey, Placer, Merced, Marin, Yolo, Butte, El Dorado, Kings, Nevada, Mendocino, Tehama, San Benito, Tuolumne, Siskiyou, Glenn, Mariposa and Sierra.

About 22 million people, 55% of Californians, live in counties now at the medium level.

If you feel sick after your booster shot, that could be a good thing. Veuer’s Elizabeth Keatinge has more.

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