Marin wastewater data show array of COVID-19 variants

COVID-19 was more prevalent in Marin County in December than it has been since public health officials started collecting wastewater data to measure transmissions, officials said.

Data collected on Dec. 26 support what health officials have seen in recent weeks, with 24 outbreaks across Marin and at least 10 omicron variants circulating through the community. More cases are expected to appear following the holidays, said Dr. Matt Willis, Marin’s public health officer.

“To me, that’s a sign that we’re definitely seeing more transmissions in our community,” Willis said Friday.

“The fact that it’s not accompanied by a surge in hospitalizations tells me that infections are causing on average a less severe illness,” he said. “Even so, it’s definitely a concern considering the more diversity of variants emerging.”

Monitoring wastewater is increasingly seen as the most effective of way of gauging the level of transmission in communities.

Spikes in infections show up in wastewater long before PCR testing data becomes available because of delays in people getting tested and processing times. In addition, with more people using rapid antigen tests, positive results often aren’t reported to public health departments. Wastewater data also capture asymptomatic people who might be infected without knowing it.

Dr. Lael Duncan, deputy public health officer, said 24 facilities, including congregate living sites and long-term care centers, reached outbreak status in December. An outbreak is defined as three or more infections in a concentrated setting.

Also, the Marin County Jail had an outbreak traced to the end of November that infected 46 inmates and two staff members, public health officials said.

The omicron XBB.1 variant emerged in those outbreaks, officials said. XBB.1 is more immunity-evasive than other recent dominant variants, including BA.5 variants, BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, Duncan said.

“CH.1.1 is another variant of interest, newly identified in Marin. We are watching with attention due to specific mutations of concern,” Duncan said. “So far, one specimen only has tested positive for this variant.”

Willis said the good news is that the wastewater data show a plateauing of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV,  a seasonal menace that can pose a serious risk to infants and seniors.

Most people will experience RSV as a common cold. But for children who are less than 6 months old and adults 80 and older, RSV can be life-threatening. It can develop into lung infections such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis. In serious cases, young children need to be treated in a pediatric intensive care unit.

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