With new case counts reaching 6,509 on Dec. 22, more than double the number reported the previous day, it is clear that the Omicron surge has arrived in Los Angeles County.
“This steep increase, one of the steepest rises we’ve ever seen over the course of the pandemic, reflects the increased circulation of Omicron,” said Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer. “These numbers make it crystal clear that we’re headed into a very challenging time over the holiday.”
If numbers continue to increase at this rapid pace, the County could be recording case counts of well over 20,000 a day by the end of the year. This would surpass the levels seen in the winter surge of 2020, and represent the largest Covid surge seen in L.A. County to date.
Ferrer balanced this alarming prediction with reassurances about what is different this year from last, namely the widespread availability of vaccines, boosters and rapid tests.
“I do not at this point anticipate that we move into a lot more restrictions across the board,” said Ferrer. “I don’t think it’s necessary right now, because we do have these new tools that we didn’t have last year.”
In order to stave off the worst effects of the surge, Ferrer urged all residents to get vaccinated, get their booster, mask up indoors and test before and after attending group events.
“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, if even a small percent of those infected experience and require hospital care,” said Ferrer.
While hospitalizations and deaths have yet to spike, Ferrer said it is too soon to tell what Omicron’s impact on the healthcare system will be as these indicators lag behind surges in case counts.
Glimmers of hope can be gleaned from initial studies on Omicron that indicate that vaccines do still provide protection against severe illness and suggest that in general Omicron may be less likely to cause severe illness.
Early data from the United Kingdom showed that while the risk of reinfection with the Omicron variant was five times higher than other with variants, the Omicron variant infections more often result in mild illness. Ferrer said that it is too early to definitively conclude that Omicron causes less severe illness as there is not sufficient data on the effect of Omicron on unvaccinated and high risk individuals.
A study out of South Africa, where Omicron originated, found that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine had a 34 percent effectiveness at preventing Omicron infection and a 70 percent effectiveness at preventing Omicron hospitalization.
The South Africa study also supported a growing body of data indicating that booster shots provide increased protection against Omicron, in this case increasing the rate of the Pfizer vaccine’s effectiveness against infection from 34 percent with two doses to 75 percent.
Initial data out of L.A. County aligns with this finding. As of Dec. 11 the rate of infection for unvaccinated residents was 272 per 100,000 residents, compared to 68 per 100,000 for vaccinated residents and just 12 per 100,000 for boosted residents.
“This data supports other findings from around the world, suggesting that boosters offer a layer of protection that’s critical to maintaining high levels of antibody defense,” said Ferrer.
In light of these findings, Governor Newsom recently announced a mandate that all healthcare workers receive their booster dose by Feb. 1, 2022. Newsom also announced plans to distribute around 6 million at-home tests, so that every student K-12 can be tested when they return from winter break.
“I know that we’re all exhausted and we’re depleted by this long lasting pandemic. We’re going to need to find our reserves and be realistic about what it’ll take to get through the latest challenge,” said Ferrer. “When this winter break comes to an end, we want our children to be able to restart school safely and we want our most vulnerable loved ones and friends to be healthy and safe.”