Omicron variant likely to bring spike in COVID cases, hospitalizations, officials warn

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GLENDALE, CA - December 01 2021: People wait in line for Covid-19 jabs at a pop-up vaccination clinic run in partnership with the Armenian American Medical Society outside the Glendale Galleria on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021 in Glendale, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times
People wait in line at a pop-up vaccination clinic run in partnership with the Armenian American Medical Society outside the Glendale Galleria in early December. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Responding to new alarms about worsening COVID-19 conditions, health officials offered up a troubling forecast about increased hospitalizations and the spread of the new Omicron variant in California and beyond.

The majority of California’s confirmed Omicron cases — 38 — have been recorded in Los Angeles County, which on Saturday reported 3,730 new cases of the coronavirus from all variants, mostly Delta, its highest single-day total in months and more than double the number of new cases reported Wednesday.

As of Thursday, the county was averaging just over 1,587 daily cases over the past week, an increase of nearly 19% from two weeks before, according to The Times’ tracker. The county’s daily positivity rate for those who seek testing also has crept up, from a seven-day average of 1.2% Sunday to 1.7% Saturday, health officials said.

Orange and Riverside counties on Friday reported their first cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant. In Orange County, the variant was found in a fully vaccinated man who experienced mild illness after traveling to another state, public health authorities said.

Officials believe Omicron will become the dominant variant in the U.S. soon, with cases continuing to rise. Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden's chief advisor on the pandemic, told CNN the nation should be prepared for big spikes in hospitalizations and deaths.

"We are going to see a significant stress in some regions of the country on the hospital system, particularly in those areas where you have a low level of vaccination,” he said.

Asked about holiday travel on NBC's "Meet the Press," Fauci added: I think people just need to be prudent. Clearly, when you travel, there is always a risk of increased infection. That just goes with respiratory illnesses. But if people need to travel and want to travel for the obvious family reasons, during this holiday season, if you're vaccinated and you're boosted and you take care when you go into congregate settings like airports to make sure you continually wear your mask, you should be okay,"

He said there will be breakthrough infections among the vaccinated. "There's no doubt about that. The difference between a vaccinated and boosted person who has an infection, and someone who has an infection who's never been vaccinated -- a major difference with regard to the risk of severity," he added.

Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health told CBS: "A big message for today is, if you've had vaccines and a booster, you're very well protected against Omicron causing you severe disease. So anybody listening to this who is in that 60% of Americans who are eligible for a booster but haven't yet gotten one, this is the week to do it. Do not wait."

The variant, which has spread rapidly around the world since it was first identified in South Africa last month, appears to be fueling surges in other countries and on the U.S. East Coast. In areas of New York and New Jersey, Omicron is estimated to account for 13% of new coronavirus cases, compared with 3% nationally. New York public health officials on Friday reported the state’s highest single-day total of new coronavirus cases since the pandemic began.

Nationally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention forecasts there could be more than 1 million new coronavirus cases recorded the week of Christmas. By contrast, around Halloween, there were 500,000 new weekly cases.

Outbreaks of the virus have forced the postponement of sporting events, including the Rams' game against the Seattle Seahawks scheduled for Sunday, which was moved to Tuesday, and the Ducks' game against the Calgary Flames slated for Tuesday, which has not yet been rescheduled.

California is already dealing with a holiday surge from the Delta variant.

Statewide, COVID-19 hospitalizations are up 16% since Nov. 24, and in much of Southern California the increases are worse.

“Unfortunately, we’re seeing indications of a winter surge on the heels of the Thanksgiving holiday,” said L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer this past week. “Case rates and daily hospitalization admissions are steadily increasing, and we anticipate that they will continue to increase as we enter the winter holidays.”

The Omicron threat adds another layer of concern.

Omicron has now been detected in all sewage areas monitored by Santa Clara County, the home of Silicon Valley, meaning the variant “is present, at some level, in all parts of the county,” said local public health director Dr. Sara Cody last week.

“What I see is perhaps one of the most challenging moments that we’ve had yet in the pandemic. And I think it’s challenging because it’s not what we were expecting,” Cody said. “We’ve all come to learn to live with COVID over the last two years, and we’re all a bit tired. But I want to let you know that when I look around the corner, I see a lot of COVID and a lot of Omicron.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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