As California enters its third year of the pandemic, COVID-19 continues to pose a serious death threat. But the number of victims — and their demographics — have changed markedly from the first two years.
Given herd immunity achieved through mass vaccination and protections created from previous infections, Californians overall are much less likely to die from Covid in 2022, when the omicron variant dominates, than during the first two years of the pandemic, with other variants at stake.
Still, each week the virus kills hundreds of Californians, hitting hardest among the unvaccinated.
In July, the virus remained a leading cause of death in the state, behind heart disease, cancer, stroke and Alzheimer’s, but surpassing diabetes, accidental death and a host of other illnesses. debilitating.
In the first seven months of the year, some 13,500 California residents died from Covid, according to preliminary data from death certificates from the state Department of Public Health. By comparison, the virus killed about 31,400 people in 2020 and nearly 44,000 in 2021.
Covid dropped out of the top 10 causes of death for a brief period in the spring, only to re-enter this summer as the omicron variant continued to mutate. In July, even with more than 70% of Californians fully vaccinated, Covid was the fifth leading cause of death, cutting short more than 1,000 lives, according to state data.
It is clear that the vaccines made a difference. Covid death rates have dropped in recent months as vaccines and prior infections provided much of the population with significant protection against severe disease, said Dr. Timothy Brewer, a UCLA professor of medicine and epidemiology. .
Brewer said that the omicron variant, while more transmissible than previous strains, appears to be a milder version of the virus.
Research is still underway, but preliminary data suggests that omicron is less likely to cause serious illness and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which notes that the severity of symptoms may be affected by the vaccination status, age and other health conditions.
The drop in deaths was especially striking among California’s Latino population.
In 2020 and 2021, Latino residents accounted for 47% of COVID deaths in California—about 35,400 deaths—even though they represent 40% of the state population. By comparison, Latinos accounted for 34% of Covid deaths from January to July 2022, according to state data. That translates to about 4,600 deaths.
By contrast, the proportion of non-Hispanic white residents of COVID deaths increased from 32% in the first two years of the pandemic to 44% in the first seven months of 2022. This equates to 24,400 deaths in 2020-21 and about 6,000 in the first seven months of 2022. Non-Hispanic whites make up about 35% of the state’s population.
The researchers point to several factors to explain the change. During the first two years of the pandemic, a large number of workers considered essential were Latino, and had to report in person at work sites, while many non-Hispanic white residents had jobs that allowed them to work from home, according to the Bureau. of the Census.
“They were just more exposed,” said Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California-San Francisco. “They do essential jobs and have to leave the house to go to work.”
A telecommuting imbalance remains, but today the vast majority of workers, both Hispanic and non-Hispanic white in California, come to work in person.
Seciah Aquino, deputy director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, said efforts to ensure testing, treatment and vaccines were available to underserved communities of color also had an impact.
And because Latino communities have suffered so much during the pandemic, many California Latinos are still wearing masks, Aquino said. “They stay home if they are sick. And they continue to abide by those policies even though the narrative is changing,” he added.
“Now, the vaccination rates already reach practically everyone, except children, and those under 18 years of age. We go back to what we had already seen, and that is that age continues to be the greatest risk factor for death, “said Brewer.
More than 86% of Californians age 65 and older have completed their immunization series. But the protection offered by vaccines diminishes over time, and since many seniors got vaccinated early, enough time passed between their second vaccination and the omicron wave in early 2022 for them to be most vulnerable.
More than a third of Californians age 65 and older had not received a booster in early 2022, when omicron peaked, and about a quarter still have not received a booster.
There have been geographic shifts in Covid prevalence throughout the pandemic: Outbreaks hit one area while another rages, and then another community serves as the epicenter a few months later.
Residents of the San Francisco-Oakland metro area accounted for 7.8% of the state’s deaths in 2022 through early September, up from 5.4% in 2020-21. The area is home to 12% of the state’s residents. The Sacramento metro area has also accounted for a higher share of Covid deaths this year: 6% in 2022 vs. 4.5% in 2020-21.
At the same time, residents of the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim metro area accounted for 42% of COVID deaths in 2022, down from 43% in 2020-21. The area is home to about 33% of the state’s residents. A similar decline occurred in the nearby Riverside-San Bernardino metropolitan area.
It seems that age could be a factor in the geographical changes. Census data indicates that San Francisco and Sacramento have a higher proportion of residents age 75 and older than Los Angeles and Riverside.
It is unclear whether this change will be long-lasting. Covid deaths increased in July at a faster rate in Los Angeles County than in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The data also shows that vaccination remains one of the most important factors in preventing death from covid. From January to July, unvaccinated Californians died at about five times the rate of vaccinated Californians.
But the difference has narrowed. From April to December 2021, unvaccinated California residents died at a rate roughly 10 times higher than those who were vaccinated.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is the newsroom of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation), which produces in-depth health journalism. It is one of the three main programs of KFF, a non-profit organization that analyzes the health and public health problems of the nation.