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As cases increase, the Bay Area is California's COVID hotspot

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Right now, the Bay Area is California's COVID hot spot. Cases have more than doubled in the last two weeks. It's the fifth wave to hit the region, but doctors say this one is different. Lesley McClurg from member station KQED explains why.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: When cases started to rise again, Lisa Petras was rattled. She keeps a close eye on COVID data.

LISA PETRAS: We were really concerned because the vibe of everything's over and let's take off our masks and go party, that actually made me feel a lot less safe than I felt over the past couple of years.

MCCLURG: Then her own social calendar started to dwindle.

PETRAS: We had had several friends come down with COVID over the past couple weeks or so.

MCCLURG: Including many clients in her psychotherapy practice in Oakland. Petras wanted to lay low, but there was one event she couldn't cancel - the menu tasting for her upcoming wedding.

PETRAS: It was literally the first time in 25 months since the pandemic began that we ate indoors. And we didn't feel comfortable with it at all.

MCCLURG: A few days later, her throat was scratchy. By that evening, she was coughing and then up all night fighting chills and shaking.

PETRAS: And it reminded me of the exact symptoms that I had when I got the vaccine. And I was like, uh-oh.

MCCLURG: She tested positive.

MARIA RAVEN: I just think it's everywhere. I got it a couple weeks ago.

MCCLURG: Dr. Maria Raven is the chief of emergency medicine at UCSF.

RAVEN: I didn't think it was possible because I think I've been exposed so many times, but I finally got it. At some point, I think it's going to hit almost everybody.

MCCLURG: Two of Raven's colleagues at her hospital just tested positive. In Marin County, this surge is higher than last summer's delta peak. It's likely driven by a loosening of restrictions hitting just as a highly transmissible subvariant is spreading. Though Raven says it's not driving a significant uptick in hospitalizations.

RAVEN: Not the numbers that we were seeing a couple months back.

MCCLURG: She's referring to the omicron tidal wave that crushed the country over the holidays. Now its subvariant, called BA.2, is taking hold. And even though it's more contagious than omicron, it does not appear to cause more serious disease.

RAVEN: You can go about your normal life. You have done the right things. You have gotten vaccinated. So go out. Go out to dinner. Just move on.

JORGE SALINAS: People can continue going to work, taking public transportation, even socialize.

MCCLURG: Jorge Salinas is a hospital epidemiologist for Stanford Health Care. He stresses that this wave hasn't peaked yet.

SALINAS: And we just, as always, need to be slightly careful - wearing a mask in crowded indoor spaces.

MCCLURG: For example, the BART public transportation system in the area is again requiring masks on all trains. Salinas says the region has a layer of protective immunity from high vaccination rates combined with the fact that so many people have caught the virus by now. Plus, if someone does get really sick, there are several treatments available.

SALINAS: So that changes things, makes this a slightly less concerning virus than it was two years ago.

MCCLURG: Yet just because we have to learn to live with COVID doesn't mean it's going to be easy. Even a mild bout when you're boosted can be rough. The virus hit Lisa Petras worse than she expected.

PETRAS: I mean, it sucks just as much as getting, like, the worst flu you've ever had sucks. I can't imagine what this would be like if I wasn't vaxxed.

MCCLURG: She feels badly that she just passed COVID to her fiancee. Petras says the only potential silver lining to laying in bed is the fact that they will both have extra immunity for their summer wedding.

For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in Oakland.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "DIVISION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.