Variant: Delta (red) has squeezed out all other variants to this point. Courtesy image

Los Angeles officials are making adjustments to some rules as they prepare for the new omicron Covid variant to spread but they believe many existing measures will continue to protect against the evolving disease.

Omicron is of concern to officials due to its large number of mutations in key regions of the virus and that raises the possibility of increased infectivity, potential immune evasion, resistance to treatment and increased illness severity. The county tests about 25 percent of its positive cases to determine which variant the patient has and has found four cases in the area so far. All of the cases identified were fully vaccinated and one person had already received a booster dose. All of these four cases had mild infections and as of Dec. 9, 21 states have reported a total of 71 confirmed cases.

Barbara Ferrer, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said it’s very early stages in terms of learning about omicron’s characteristics, early data does suggest that this variant is spreading rapidly and it may spread several times faster than delta. She said most cases worldwide are not severely ill although it’s much too early to generalize from the available data.

“We will understand a lot more about the kinds of infections omicron can cause when we see how it affects older people, people with underlying health conditions and unvaccinated populations,” she said.

The early data also suggests omicron has some ability to blunt parts, but not all, of the immune system response. She said the county is watching the figures to see if it will increase as delta did before it and her office will make some new recommendations next week tightening testing rules for nursing homes and increasing testing capacity at homeless shelters.

“Although we’re not yet sure what the impact of omicron will be, we do know how to slow the spread of COVID,” she said. “Regardless of the strain, our most effective tool remains vaccination. So we do encourage everyone five and older not yet vaccinated or boosted to do so as soon as possible.”

Ferrer said unvaccinated individuals are always more susceptible to disease with unvaccinated individuals reporting a case rate of 165 cases for every 100,000 unvaccinated people. The rate for vaccinated individuals without a booster is 43 per 100,000 and boosted residents have a rate of 7 per 100,000.

She said masks are also an important tool while vaccines adapt to different variants.

“While scientists worldwide are working to determine how effective the vaccines are against omicron, all residents across LA County need to continue adhering to the masking requirements,” she said. “So always wear a mask when you’re indoors, or you’re at large outdoor mega-events regardless of your vaccination status, or that is a requirement we also strongly recommend that individuals wear a mask when they’re at any crowded indoor or outdoor events, or they’re with people who are unvaccinated or at high risk of severe illness.”

The county is tracking omicron as they prepare for a possible winter surge in cases. Early indicators suggest the county could be at the very beginning of a surge and while officials are wary of any increase in cases, the county is better prepared if problems occur.

Barbara Ferrer said the good news is Los Angeles has relatively high vaccination rates and low hospitalization figures as cases climb but she said hospitals remain understaffed and that minority populations continue to lag in vaccination rates making them more likely to catch Covid if transmission increases.