A waning 2020 delivered a final kick on the way out Thursday with the county health department announcing 62 additional COVID-19 deaths, a new single-day record arriving on New Year’s Eve.
And there was an extra reason for concern. The county public health lab, working with local researchers, confirmed three more cases of the United Kingdom coronavirus strain Thursday, bringing the total to four, including the initial case involving a man in his 30s announced Wednesday.
Officials said none of the four are related and had no contact with each other before testing positive.
The three additional cases confirmed Thursday were all men. Case investigators have interviewed two of the three who reported no recent travel outside the country. Two of the three new cases were in their 40s and the third was in his 50s. The third case for whom travel information was not available had not yet been interviewed.
They live in La Mesa, Otay Mesa, Mission Beach and the Rancho Bernardo-Carmel Mountain area.
The county public health lab was still awaiting the results of genetic testing to confirm whether a close contact of Wednesday’s first UK strain subject, who was said to have been experiencing symptoms of coronavirus infection, also has the UK strain.
Dr. Eric McDonald, medical director of the county’s epidemiology department, said Thursday evening that the subject, a woman also in her 30s who is the spouse of Wednesday’s UK case, has been admitted to a hospital after testing positive for coronavirus. Genetic testing being performed by Scripps Research will be necessary to confirm that the UK strain was involved, but that seems very likely at this point.
“I would be shocked if it doesn’t come back with whole-genome sequencing that confirms it,” McDonald said.
He said the three additional UK cases confirmed through genetic testing Thursday were actually tested between Dec. 20 and Dec. 22. Helix, a local company that the county contracts with for testing, looked through its records after the first case appeared and discovered the results as having the telltale “s drop” signature that marked Wednesday’s case.
Having cases from different parts of the county that did not know each other, he said, shows that this strain, which is thought to spread more easily than other variants, has been among us for some time.
“This didn’t just spread to that many different parts of the county among people who don’t know each other in the past two weeks,” McDonald said. “The dispersal of these cases geographically tells you that it has probably been in the county for a longer period of time.”
With 99 deaths announced in just the past two days, December is by far the deadliest month of the pandemic. According to county records, 488 deaths have been recorded in December, more than twice the previous monthly record of 197 tallied in July.
The most recent deaths announced Thursday range in age from 45 to 100 with three in their 40s. As is always the case, the deaths announced on any given day did not all occur the day before the announcement. It can take days or weeks for death certificates and causes of death to be finalized before they are reported to the public.
Taking the latest group into account, records show that a total of 28 deaths occurred on Dec. 22, tying Dec. 18 for the deadliest day of the pandemic.
McDonald said he reviews each and every death certificate before the county releases new numbers. Seeing so many in December, he said, has been particularly harrowing.
“Every one of those is a person and has a family,” McDonald said. “What this means is that there are more and more San Diego families that are coming to grips with the fact that this is a real and deadly pandemic.”
Deaths are what epidemiologists call a “lagging indicator,” generally occurring weeks or months after infections take hold. As such, a spike in deaths does not, in and of itself, say all that much about how a pathogen such as the novel coronavirus is spreading in a community. The number of new positive cases coming in daily provides a more immediate sense of the current pace of infection.
The final COVID-19 report of 2020 lists 3,083 new cases, once again jumping over the 3,000 mark after three straight days below that mark. The result could signal the arrival of a new wave of cases connected to Christmas celebrations, given that the average incubation period for the virus — the amount of time spent in the body before symptoms generally begin to appear — is about 6 days, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pressure continues to mount on local hospitals with 1,580 total COVID-19 patients in beds across the county Wednesday. COVID-positive patients occupied 35 percent of the 4,504 total beds in use. Intensive care admissions held steady at 621 with 386 having a COVID-19 diagnosis and 235 without.