LOS ANGELES — An explosion of new coronavirus cases fueled by the rapidly spreading omicron variant has triggered a sharp uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations across California, prompting renewed warnings and calls for caution from public health officials.

The recent metrics “make it crystal clear that we are heading into very challenging times over the winter holidays,” said Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

“While many will be protected against the most severe illness from omicron because they are fully vaccinated and boosted where eligible, very high case numbers can easily cause significant stress to the healthcare system if even a small percentage of those infected require hospital care,” she said in a recent statement.

 

Cases spiking

In L.A. County, new coronavirus cases dramatically increased in the lead-up to Christmas.

On Tuesday, 3,052 new cases were reported; on Wednesday, 6,509; Thursday, 8,633; Friday, 9,988; Saturday, 11,930; and Sunday, 8,891. And officials warned that those eye-popping counts over the weekend are actually an undercount because of delays in reporting over the holiday.

At its peak during last winter’s surge, L.A. County was averaging about 16,000 new coronavirus cases a day. But the latest wave could easily top that, Ferrer said.

“If our case numbers continue to increase at a rapid pace over this next week, we could be looking at case numbers we have never seen before — well over 20,000 cases a day by the end of this year,” she said Wednesday.

The percentage of coronavirus tests in Los Angeles County coming back positive has risen dramatically. For the seven-day period that ended Sunday, 10.8% of coronavirus tests had positive results. By comparison, for the seven-day period that ended on Dec. 20, 3.4% of tests returned positive results.

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

 

Hospitalizations

Los Angeles County’s COVID-19 hospitalizations have also increased significantly since Dec. 1, from 569 to 904 on Christmas Day, an increase of 59%.

But the latest number is far below what it was a year ago, when vaccinations had just been introduced and were in sharply limited supply. On Christmas Day 2020, there were 6,815 people with COVID-19 in L.A. County’s hospitals, up from 2,572 on Dec. 1, 2020. At its peak on Jan. 5, L.A. County logged 8,098 COVID-19 hospitalizations, a time that coincided with overwhelmed hospitals and overflowing morgues.

Currently, Southern California’s COVID-19 hospitalizations are increasing faster than the San Francisco Bay Area’s.

Since Dec. 1, the hospitalization rate in Southern California has risen by about 41%, from 7.7 hospitalizations for every 100,000 residents to 10.8.

By contrast, the Greater San Francisco Bay Area has seen its rate climb by 26%, from 3.8 to 4.8. Experts say it’s cause for concern when the rate is 5 or greater.

The Inland Empire has among the highest COVID-19 hospitalization rates in Southern California; San Bernardino County’s rate is 20, and Riverside County’s is 15. San Diego County’s rate is 11; Los Angeles and Ventura counties, 9; and Orange County, 8.

Some experts are expressing hope that areas with high vaccination and masking rates will not be devastated by a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of the University of California, San Francisco Department of Medicine, wrote Friday that while coronavirus case rates are rising sharply in San Francisco, hospital numbers remain low.

The bad news, Wachter said, is that omicron is spreading quickly in San Francisco. The good news is that omicron appears to lead to milder illness, particularly in vaccinated populations, Wachter wrote on Twitter.

Dr. Anthony Fauci on Sunday told ABC that recent data from Britain show that, in its omicron wave, a lower percentage of newly infected people are needing hospitalizations.

“Interestingly, the duration of hospital stay was lower, the need for oxygen was lower,” Fauci said on ABC’s “This Week.” Still, because omicron is causing such a high volume of new infections, the variant could find many more people who haven’t been immunized and could still result in hospitals becoming overwhelmed.

Unvaccinated people “are the most vulnerable ones when you have a virus that is extraordinarily effective in getting to people and infecting them the way omicron is,” Fauci said in the televised interview. Omicron “might still lead to a lot of hospitalizations in the United States.”

 

Geographic differences

Wachter said he’d be far less upbeat in areas with lower vaccination rates. San Francisco has one of California’s highest vaccination rates, with 88% of the population having received at least one dose. But other areas of the state have lower rates; L.A. County’s is 76%; Orange County, 75%; Ventura County, 74%; Fresno County, 65%; Riverside County, 64%; San Bernardino County, 60%; and Kern County, 56%.

“I’d be ... far more scared if I wasn’t vaxxed and boosted. The unvaxxed are playing a risky hand,” Wachter wrote.

In San Francisco, Wachter said that still expects a bump in hospitalizations, but it “seems unlikely it’ll be overwhelming here.”

In Los Angeles County, officials have expressed concerns about the rising case numbers.

Ferrer said last week that L.A. County can manage rising case numbers without the hospital system being overwhelmed, if more people get vaccinated and boosted, wear masks in indoor public settings and outdoor crowded areas, and avoid large indoor gatherings.

 

Testing

Amid the ongoing surge, L.A. County officials announced they would take steps to expand testing, effective Friday — such as extending the hours of operation at testing sites across the county, “additional week and weekend dates,” as well as more mobile testing units dispatched to “hard-hit areas.”

The county health department is also relaunching a home test collection program in which residents can request an at-home nasal test swab kit and have it delivered by FedEx within two days.

County health officials said that demand for testing has climbed as residents prepare for holiday celebrations.

“L.A. County residents are doing right by getting tested as a precaution before gathering, if they have been exposed and at the first sign of symptoms,” Dr. Christina Ghaly, director of the county’s Department of Health Services, said in a news release. “We will continue to closely monitor testing needs and adjust capacity as needed in the coming weeks.”

California is also preparing to provide rapid tests for students in K-12 public schools and expand hours at busy screening sites.

“After our kids have enjoyed the holidays ... we want to make sure they come back in as good a shape as they left, meaning we want to make sure that we are testing our kids and preparing them to come back,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week.

Newsom emphasized California’s commitment to keeping schools open for in-person instruction — a pledge reiterated in a joint statement his office released Wednesday morning from education-related organizations including the California State Parent Teacher Association, California Teachers Association, SEIU California, the state charter schools association and the California School Boards Association.

 

Other steps

Seven UC campuses have delayed in-person returns, and all UC and Cal State campuses will require boosters for eligible students.

The state also announced that health care workers will be required to get COVID-19 vaccine boosters in hopes of protecting both the medical community and the vulnerable populations they serve.

The University of Southern California announced Friday that classes will take place remotely for the first week of the next term and that students and staff will be required to show proof of COVID-19 booster shots as soon as they are eligible. USC residence halls will remain open, but all students will need to test negative for COVID-19 before moving into campus housing and before in-person instruction resumes. USC also is delaying its spring new student convocation for about two weeks. It originally was scheduled for Jan. 7.

The university said it would announce deadlines for requiring COVID boosters for students, faculty and staff. UC students also be required to get boosters, though it is up to each site to carry out the mandate. Cal State University also issued a COVID booster mandate for students.

Some cities are taking their own preemptive steps. Oakland has moved to join Los Angeles, San Francisco, West Hollywood and Berkeley in requiring proof of vaccination to patronize indoor restaurants and gyms. And in San Jose, the mayor has said he wants to require all city employees to receive booster shots as a condition of employment and anyone who enters city-owned facilities to do the same.

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