Health officials have detected the first potential cases of the COVID-19 omicron variant in Tulare County.
Two recently collected samples showed traits that are consistent with the new variant of the coronavirus that experts say is more contagious but less severe than previous strains, the Tulare County Public Health department announced Friday morning.
The cases will not be confirmed omicron for several days until scientists can sequence the virus' genome, county health officials said.
The announcement did not say where in the county the potential omicron patients lived, or whether they had recently traveled. Their vaccination status was also not immediately released.
“Considering the national trend, we’ve been aware of the variants being present in our state, as well as surrounding counties,” Tulare County Public Health Officer Dr. Karen Haught said in a statement. “We need to continue the important safety measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, and it is especially important for everyone to get vaccinated, get their booster vaccines, and wear a face covering or mask while in any public indoor setting.”
Just over half of eligible Tulare County residents have been vaccinated as of this week — among the lowest rates in the state.
The first Central California case of the omicron variant was found in Fresno County this week, and health officials say the more virulent disease is probably already in Tulare County or will be soon.
"Now is a critical time to protect our communities and prevent this highly contagious strain of COVID from spreading to our vulnerable populations," David Luchini, the director of Fresno County's public health department said in a news release.
While models show that omicrons' death and hospitalization rates are more than 90% lower than delta's, the new variant is so infectious that it may still put a severe strain on hospitals.
This means San Joaquin Valley and Tulare County hospitals, which are already crowded, might be overwhelmed if there is a surge in omicron cases.
"Everyone eligible for a vaccine needs to have one as soon as possible, and those due for a booster dose should get one as soon as they can," said Rais Vohra, Fresno County's interim health officer, in the release. "The added protection of a booster will be needed to reduce infections and prevent severe illness this winter."
The most promising omicron news came out of Europe this week: A study of real-world data published Wednesday by the Imperial College of London suggests that omicron cases have up to a 20% reduced risk of any hospitalization compared to the delta variant, and up to a 45% reduced risk of overnight admissions.
The highly contagious omicron variant is evident in 50% to 70% of new coronavirus cases in parts of the most populous state heading into the holidays, California health officials reported.
It is now being “detected at increasing proportions in wastewater in multiple regions throughout California,” the California Department of Public Health said.
At least three of the state’s health systems have reported that about 50% to 70% of their coronavirus cases are consistent with omicron, the department said without naming the systems.
Orange County had more than 650 positive tests reported Thursday compared with about 400 on a given day last week, and Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, the county’s deputy health officer attributed most of the increase to omicron.
A workplace holiday party with about 50 people in Davis, west of Sacramento, led to an outbreak of at least 16 cases, at least 10 of whom were identified as having omicron, Yolo County officials said. All 16 were fully vaccinated and eight had received their booster.
Public health officials similarly said at least 28 vaccinated people tested positive after a holiday party in Marin County, north of San Francisco, and they believe it involves the omicron variant.
Gov. Gavin Newsom held out that hope as he urged people to get vaccinated or their booster shots.
“We’re all exhausted by this,” he acknowledged. “But we have something we never had in the past, and that’s the power of these life-saving vaccines and the power to get boosted to get through this arguably fifth wave of this pandemic.”
Contributing: James Ward
Joshua Yeager is a reporter with the Visalia Times-Delta and a Report for America corps member. He covers Tulare County news deserts with a focus on the environment and local governments.
This article originally appeared on Visalia Times-Delta: BREAKING: First potential Omicron COVID-19 cases detected in Tulare Co