COVID Transmission Rates In the Red Signal Risk to Shasta County’s Vulnerable

Despite transmission rates that have almost quadrupled over the last month, Shasta County is still considered low-risk according to relatively new metrics, because new cases haven’t yet significantly affected hospitalizations or hospital capacity. High transmission rates are most dangerous to the vulnerable. Here’s what you should know about how you can help reduce risk in Shasta County right now.

Our COVID coverage is currently supported by a grant from the United Way of Northern California. Grant funding does not determine the nature of our coverage or otherwise impact our editorial independence.

Millions of Americans suddenly found themselves living in areas considered at low risk from COVID in late February. That’s when the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) released a new way of mapping metrics for the pandemic in a move that some have criticized as confusing and misleading but that national officials say will help the country regain a new normal.

The new metrics are why Shasta County’s current risk level is still assessed as low, despite case rates that have more than quadrupled since early May, from 36 cases per 100,000 then, to 120 per 100,000 now. But while case rates are no longer used by the CDC as the main way to assess community risk, the rising rates do signal increased risk to the public, Shasta County Health and Human Services officials told Shasta Scout by email Thursday — especially to those most vulnerable to the disease, including the elderly, people with medical conditions, and those who are currently or recently pregnant.

Two Systems For Assessing Community Risk

The CDC’s new nationwide assessment system, which was rolled out a few months ago, is known as the COVID-19 Community Level. It differs from the old system because it includes both overall case numbers and what the CDC calls “meaningful consequences.” It’s a reflection of how COVID prevention guidance is changing in response to the presence of new variants which are both more transmissible and generally less severe than the original virus. It’s also designed to account for the impact of vaccinations, which reduce both the likelihood of contracting the disease, and of dying from it.

Under the old system, which is known as the COVID-19 Data Tracker Integrated County View, risk was measured more simply as a function of case rates. That’s because the variant of COVID that first appeared in the United States carried a much higher likelihood of progressing in severity enough to cause hospitalization and death. And without access to COVID vaccinations during those early days, everyone was more vulnerable to those severe outcomes.

Both systems use color codes to describe risk levels, but because of the different ways they measure risks the maps can show strikingly different results. 

According to the new system, which measures case numbers, hospitalizations and available beds, Shasta County is currently in the green zone, with low community risk. But a look at the old tracking system, which measures how fast the virus is spreading, shows the county’s risk level as “substantial,” meaning people’s chances of contracting the disease locally right now is significantly increased.

The current method assessing community risk from COVID shows the county in the green, or low risk zone. of Source: ShastaReady
The old method of assessing COVID risk shows the community’s risk level in the red. Source: CDC

Is Local Risk High or Low? It Depends Who You are.

Despite those rapidly increasing COVID rates, overall county risk continues to be assessed as low because relatively few of those new cases have required hospitalization.

Because the virus has changed over time to become both more contagious and less deadly, and because of the protective effect of vaccinations, increasing case rates don’t correlate as closely with hospitalizations and death as they used to, making most people’s risk of becoming dangerously sick from COVID relatively low right now. But that risk is somewhat different in Shasta County, where local vaccination rates hover around 54 percent of the population as compared to 77 percent statewide.

It’s also true that COVID hospitalizations usually lag behind infection rates by several weeks, meaning a surge in local hospitalizations could be right around the corner. “Historically,” local public health staff said, “an increase of cases has correlated with an increase in hospitalizations with a one-to-two-week lag.”

Public health staff are also closely watching the progression of disease risk in other California counties because Shasta County’s rural nature means spikes in infections and hospitalizations often follow weeks after those seen in more populated areas of the state. “When nearby counties fall into high-risk metric with new or old metrics,” local public health staff said, “it has historically followed for us to go into those same high-risk metrics.”

“We hope that we will not follow that same path this time, but we encourage the public to practice protective measures that work best for them, wearing masks, socially distancing, and to vaccinate and boost if applicable, especially for those most at risk.”

That’s particularly important for the most vulnerable, they said, and for other community members who wish to protect them.

Source: CDC

Local epidemiologists emphasize that the science around COVID continues to evolve and deepen and there is much still unknown about how the recent high transmission rates in Shasta County might affect the community.

“With the current strain being similar to [the one that caused] the last surge, omicron, and our current vaccination levels higher in our most at risk population we hope that our hospitalizations and deaths will stay low this surge,” a representative of public health wrote, “but that is not a guarantee of low hospitalization and deaths for the next variant or subvariant that circulates.”

What Else You Should Know:

Annelise Pierce is Shasta Scout’s Editor and Community Reporter covering government accountability, civic engagement, and local religious and political movements. You can contact her at [email protected] 

Do you have feedback on how we are covering COVID-19 or other topics?  Email us, or join the community conversation at Shasta Scout’s Facebook page. Do you have a correction to this story? Submit it here.

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