During a news briefing with the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) earlier this month, Dr. Nguyen, who directs the state’s Population Health Division, stressed the realities of this winter surge.

The LA County Department of Public Health has been closely monitoring hospital figures as it weighs in on whether to re-impose a universal indoor mask-wearing mandate, which is currently required in medical buildings. Masking continues to be a great preventative measure and continues to be “strongly recommended,” by the county in places that are indoors, but most people aren’t wearing masks because they aren’t currently mandated. But, even without the mandate, the country is recommending residents wear them considering the current elevated rate of transmission.

At the state level, Nguyen, speaking on behalf of the CPH COVID-19 Treatments Task Force, has been optimistic noting that after three years of living in this pandemic there are now vaccines available that weren’t available at the start of the pandemic.

But the challenge remains because of too many people who have “normalized” living with it. They have stopped listening and “tuned out. We know that most folks aren’t accessing testing and vaccination,” said Nguyen.

Another mistake people are making is, even after knowing that they’ve been exposed to COVID-19, they don’t stay home, especially if they don’t feel symptoms.

“They should stay home and test and if they have COVID,” said Nguyen, “then seek treatment, wear your mask, especially in crowded places, especially around young kids who can’t wear masks, wash your hands and cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze [to avoid spreading it to others].”

“When I reflect back on the last three years of this pandemic, you know, early on, we didn’t really have much, and we were scrambling to get even testing up and running.

“We needed to develop testing, then we developed vaccines and we’ve had an amazing scientific breakthrough. And now we have treatments. But folks are understandably COVID fatigued, and many have stopped listening even though we know the rates are increasing.”

COVID-19 Has Mutated

Too many people aren’t staying informed and are still unaware that this virus has mutated. Doctors emphasize the need to update your care with current booster shots that have been adjusted to handle the new strains.

There are still people who may have received the very first vaccination and never returned to have boosters and believe they are still protected by that old vaccination. Only 12% of Americans have received the newly updated boosters.

“This is the first winter surge of a three-year pandemic where we actually have treatments that are highly effective, readily available, and free to anyone over the age of 12,” said Nguyen.

“COVID rates are increasing,” she said but “we know the general masses are not aware of the availability of COVID treatments.”

“We are seeing increases in hospitalization rates, but the challenge,” Nguyen emphasized “is that most people aren’t accessing the treatments and aren’t aware … even though the new treatments are life-saving.”

“We’ve had this early and fast rise in RSV and flu cases. So all of these viruses, winter respiratory viruses, are overwhelming our hospitals. COVID-19 treatments can stop it from getting serious. They either come in pill or IV form, the vast majority of folks take the pill which is great,” she said.

Available Treatments

The treatments now available include Paxlovid, or its alternative Molnupiravir, which are antivirals and are free to everyone, even those who lack health insurance or are undocumented. Remdesivir, which is given via infusions, is not free: costs vary with the level of insurance coverage. All three treatments are time-sensitive. Paxlovid or Molnupiravir must be started within the first five days after symptoms start; Remdesivir must be started within seven days.

According to Nguyen, receiving treatment at the onset of symptoms can prevent the severity of the infection by 50% to 88%. Even among those who are vaccinated, it decreases the risk of long-term COVID, by 45% to 50%. Paxlovid treatment in 2022 alone averted an estimated 16,000 – 48,000 severe hospitalizations in California and an estimated 10,000 deaths.

All of the available treatments work best when treatment begins early and can prevent getting “long COVID.”

“Don’t wait till the illness gets worse,” said Nguyen. “If you start feeling a runny nose, cough or generally not like yourself, act fast and take a COVID test. If you test positive, seek treatment right away. In Vietnamese, there is this word that is difficult to translate, but it conveys the concept of regret and what a shame [it would be] of missing this opportunity where we can actually do something about this surge.”

Diana Martinez contributed to this article.