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Health expert: 2023 will be about finding a new balance in COVID-19 response

Bay Area health experts offer 2023 prognosis on COVID-19
Bay Area health experts offer 2023 prognosis on COVID-19 03:11

BURLINGAME -- When he's not busy in his office at Mills-Peninsula Medical Center, infectious disease specialist Dr. Kim Erlich is on the hospital floor with patients.

"Like every facility in California, we have been seeing an increase in the number of patients presenting with COVID, either to the emergency department, the outpatient clinics, or being admitted to the hospital," he said.

However, he says there are differences this year than in previous years.

"The patients who are presenting are not nearly as sick as they used to be, say three years ago," Erlich told KPIX.

Aside from that, there are treatment options readily available.

"Paxlovid has been a game changer," he said. "The drug is superior to no treatment at all in preventing somebody from having to come to the emergency department or getting admitted to the hospital."

But, he says learning to live with COVID doesn't mean pretending it doesn't exist anymore. To him, it means finding a balance between taking safety precautions and going about daily life.

"We continue to strive to find the right balance where we may be recommending masks to everyone in certain environments, and certain businesses may require masks – as they're allowed to do – to protect their own employees. Finding that balance is what we're going to be looking for over the next 12 months, I suspect," he said. "Even though it doesn't seem to cause the same kind of severe disease it used to, that is, the virus that is circulating is somewhat attenuated and less pathogenic, we may have to live with COVID in our environment for the next several years."

COVID is still prevalent in the Bay Area, according to Professor Alexandria Boehm, an expert on wastewater. She runs the "SCAN" project, where her team conducts extensive surveillance for COVID-19 and other pathogens in wastewater from all across the Bay Area.

"The concentrations that we're observing in the wastewater are quite high," she said. "They're similar to what they were in the last surge during the summer of BA.4 and BA.5. But the levels are not going up – they're pretty steady or they're declining, which is good news – but they are still present and they are still quite high."

The newest and most contagious COVID variant yet, XBB 1.5, is mixed in, according to Boehm.

"It's definitely here. Based on indirect information, it seems like it could represent half of the cases," she said.

Seeing what she sees in the data, here's her approach to 2023.

"I like to mask when I go into crowded public spaces like grocery stores," she said. "When I'm not in crowded spaces and when I'm outdoors, I don't mask."

It may be a new year, but Erlich shared advice he's said for the previous few.

"Try to stay safe, get vaccinated, wear masks when appropriate, and stay home when you're sick," Erlich said.

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