Los Angeles Times

CASES SOAR AS VIRUS STRAIN SPREADS

Omicron is now the dominant variant in much of the state, health officials say.

- By Luke Money

Omicron is now the most identified variant of the coronaviru­s in some parts of California, officials said Thursday, marking a stunning rise that has triggered a new surge of infections, cast fresh uncertaint­y on holiday plans and prompted additional measures aimed at checking the strain’s rapid spread.

According to data released Thursday by the California Department of Public Health, at least three California health systems have reported that Omicron appears to account for 50% to 70% of new cases.

Officials stressed that full sequencing of the cases is still being done and did not identify the areas where Omicron was spreading fastest. Additional­ly, the state said, clinical and wastewater data suggest Omicron is now spreading in most parts of California.

Daily reported coronaviru­s cases are soaring in Los Angeles County as the region grapples with the early effects of a new surge fueled by the highly mutated Omicron variant.

A day after reporting 6,509 new cases — more than twice the figure from the day before — county health officials reported an even higher infection total Thursday: 8,633.

“This steep increase, one of the steepest rises we’ve ever seen over the course of the pandemic, reflects the increased circulatio­n of Omicron and the associated rapid accelerati­on of transmissi­on associated with this variant,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Wednesday.

And the surge isn’t just in L.A. In San Francisco, public health officials said the local case rate has tripled, which they called “a clear indication that we have entered the fifth surge in the pandemic.”

“Omicron is rapidly spreading, and all evidence points to the fact that we need to do more to protect ourselves and others from infection,” Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco’s director of health, said in a statement Thursday. “Boosters are key right now for your own protection and those you love. We also want people to celebrate the holidays more safely and with an extra dose of caution.”

On Monday, federal health officials said Omicron was the dominant version of the coronaviru­s nationwide, accounting for an estimated 73% of new infections last week.

“Due to Omicron, we expect a significan­t rise in cases,” said Jeff Zients, President Biden’s COVID-19 task force coordinato­r. “Fully vaccinated people, particular­ly those with a boost, are highly protected. But due to Omicron’s highly transmissi­ble nature, we will see fully vaccinated people get COVID. They’ll likely be asymptomat­ic or feel under the weather for a few days. Let’s be clear: Unvaccinat­ed people are at a higher risk of getting severely ill from COVID, getting hospitaliz­ed and dying.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom foreshadow­ed a similar developmen­t in California during a briefing Wednesday, saying, “We now are tracking well north of 50% of all of the sequenced genomes” being identified as Omicron.

As scientists race to understand the variant’s full impact, the best lines of defense remain familiar: “Get vaccinated; get boosted; wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantia­l and high-risk community transmissi­on; and take a test before you gather,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Testing, however, has been difficult for some. Recent heavy demand has left residents facing empty store shelves or contending with long lines at screening sites.

A winter storm that blew into the Southland on Thursday exacerbate­d the problem, forcing some testing and vaccine sites to head indoors or close.

California officials have said they are prepared to see an uptick in cases linked with Omicron and have announced measures aimed at helping the state against a wintertime resurgence.

Those include a statewide mask mandate for indoor public spaces and a requiremen­t for workers in healthcare and high-risk congregate settings to get a booster vaccine dose, as well as plans to provide rapid tests for students in K-12 public schools and expand hours at busy screening sites.

Over the weeklong period ending Thursday morning, California reported an average of 9,674 new coronaviru­s cases per day — a 37% increase from two weeks ago, according to data compiled by The Times.

COVID-19 hospitaliz­ations have also ticked up, albeit at a slower rate. The number of coronaviru­s-positive patients statewide Wednesday, 3,622, is up about 6.5% from two weeks ago.

Deaths have remained relatively flat over that same time. An average of 72 California­ns have died from COVID-19 each day over the last week.

In earlier waves, officials noted a consistent cadence of the pandemic — with increases in cases triggering correspond­ing rises in hospitaliz­ations about two weeks later and then deaths a few weeks after that.

Hence, the full ramificati­ons of Omicron’s recent spread are still to be felt.

“While many will be protected in this round against the most severe illness from Omicron because they are fully vaccinated and they’re boosted where eligible, very high case numbers can easily cause significan­t stress to our healthcare system,” Ferrer said.

However, there are promising indication­s that the variant — though highly infectious — may cause lesssevere symptoms.

Early data from England, Scotland, Denmark and South Africa suggest that an Omicron infection resulted in a 40% to 70% reduced need for hospitaliz­ation compared with the Delta variant.

There’s also no evidence that people who are vaccinated and have received a booster shot are getting severely ill with Omicron, unless they have a significan­tly weakened immune system.

The prospect of a variant that spreads easily, but causes largely mild disease, has been met with optimism in some corners.

“Would it be preferable to have Omicron be totally pervasive and be relatively low degree of severity? Yes, obviously, that would be preferable,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical advisor.

But, he added during a briefing Wednesday, “it’s dangerous business to be able to rely on what you perceive as a lower degree of severity.”

“You can’t count on anything when you’re dealing with a virus that has fooled us so many times before,” Fauci said.

There’s also a mathematic­al reality that comes into play. Omicron’s ultraconta­gious nature means an extraordin­arily high number of people could be infected in a short time.

And even if a lower percentage need hospital care, a high number of infections happening at once could strain hospital systems, particular­ly in areas where vaccinatio­n rates are low.

“The problem is a numbers problem,” Ferrer said. “So if Omicron causes lesssevere illness but it infects many more people, then even if you have a smaller number of the people who are infected get severe illness, you could still end up with overwhelmi­ng numbers.”

 ?? Irfan Khan Los Angeles Times ?? A COVID-19 patient receives treatment Wednesday in Colton. State data show the Omicron variant behind 50% to 70% of cases in several health systems.
Irfan Khan Los Angeles Times A COVID-19 patient receives treatment Wednesday in Colton. State data show the Omicron variant behind 50% to 70% of cases in several health systems.

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