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Coronavirus

California Doctors Say Surge In COVID-19 Cases Mirrors The Height Of The Pandemic

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

California's COVID cases and hospitalizations have more than doubled in the last week. The state now averages more than 8,000 new confirmed infections per day. The delta variant is spreading so fast, doctors say it's sparking flashbacks to last winter's peak. Lesley McClurg from member station KQED in San Francisco has this report.

LESLEY MCCLURG: Just a little over a month ago, it looked like California might be in the clear.

DINORA CHINCHILLA: We had no patient - no COVID patients for a while.

SAMAN KANNANGARA: I did have a break for about three weeks with no - really no COVID in the hospital.

NICOLE BRAXLEY: ...Where it was like COVID updates - none. And everyone's like, yay, let's talk about something else.

MCCLURG: And then, the delta variant hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The hypertransmissible delta variant is now the most common COVID strain here in California.

MCCLURG: Los Angeles is once again the hotspot.

CHINCHILLA: I'm, like, running around like a chicken without a head.

MCCLURG: Dr. Dinora Chinchilla is a pulmonologist specializing in critical care in LA County. She says she can hardly keep up with her current patient load, all of whom have COVID-19.

CHINCHILLA: It's just that when they come in, they get so sick.

MCCLURG: The situation is hauntingly similar to last winter.

CHINCHILLA: It gives me, like, tremendous anxiety to think that we're going the other direction again.

MCCLURG: Later that day, Chinchilla texted to say she lost two patients, both of whom were unvaccinated. White House COVID-19 adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci stresses 99% of recent deaths are people without shots. Delta is even taking hold in places like San Francisco, where more than 77% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated. Some of those people are even getting sick. It's very rare, but some are even landing in the hospital, mostly seniors.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBULANCE SIREN)

MCCLURG: Liz McCusker recently took care of one. She's a nurse at St. Francis Memorial in San Francisco.

LIZ MCCUSKER: He was such a lovely gentleman. He'd gone down the path of, you know, having a vaccine and taking care of himself but developed these symptoms and was really very sick. It's just sad to see that again.

MCCLURG: The man was in his 80s. He developed a violent cough that never got better. He died.

MCCUSKER: It's sort of a reminder of we're not out of the woods yet.

MCCLURG: Delta is at least two times as contagious as the first strain that circulated in the U.S., but it also might be more potent. Dr. Saman Kannangara is starting to see that unfold in his patients. He's an infectious disease specialist also at St. Francis.

KANNANGARA: The admitted patients do tend to be sicker and have more severe infections.

MCCLURG: Are you worried at all about your own health?

KANNANGARA: I am. I'm masking almost all the time now, except when eating or drinking, so indoors, outdoors.

MCCLURG: Kannangara says our best way out of this mess is more vaccinations. Nicole Braxley is an ER doctor at Mercy San Juan Hospital in Sacramento. She says her unvaccinated COVID-19 patients have endless reasons, excuses and often regret.

BRAXLEY: Yesterday, a man told me that he was not vaccinated because COVID was a political hoax that somebody made up. I had another gentleman that I had to admit for COVID, and I said, are you vaccinated? And he said, no, but can you give it to me today? I've been meaning to get it. Right? It's too late. Like, the decision's already been made, and the damage is done. And so now, we just have to admit the patient and hope for the best.

MCCLURG: The U.S. has plenty of vaccines. About two-thirds of the country has received at least one shot so far.

BRAXLEY: There are places in the world and people in country that literally can't - they would give their right arm to get a vaccine, right? (Crying) Yeah, it's a bummer. Sorry.

MCCLURG: Baxley's tears surprised her. She says that's not usually her style, but she says it's been a long year. Researchers working with the CDC project if current case trends continue by October, 4,000 people could be dying in the U.S. every day. That's almost as bad as it was last winter. For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.