Los Angeles County continued preparing Tuesday for the anticipated appearance of the newly identified Omicron variant of COVID-19, circulating information to health care providers about risks of international travel and protocols for submitting samples to be tested for the new mutation.
But the county’s public health director said despite the appearance of the newly designated “variant of concern,” no immediate changes to the Health Officer Order are anticipated that would tighten infection-control regulations.
Barbara Ferrer told the county Board of Supervisors the county already has “really sensible precautions in place,” most notably the requirement for people to wear masks indoors and at large outdoor gatherings. She said if the county didn’t already have that mandate in place, “we’d be suggesting it” in response to the Omicron variant, which was first identified in South Africa and has now spread to at least 16 countries. It has not yet been detected in the United States, but health officials believe it is already present. Ferrer said the county might make some changes to rules governing visitation and testing at skilled nursing facilities, particularly if Omicron is found to be more resistant to current COVID vaccines. The county could also potentially re-impose quarantine requirements for people who may have been exposed to COVID, regardless of vaccination status.
“There are steps we’re taking to prepare our county, starting with providing residents and our partners with updated information on Omicron and precautionary safety measures,” Ferrer told the board. “Today, L.A. County is sending an advisory to all of our health care providers detailing information on assessing risk associated with travel and directions for submitting samples for sequencing (to identify variants).”
Ferrer said the county is also working with the state to “provide information and offer a rapid-testing option for international travelers at LAX,” and to ensure travelers arriving from Omicron-affected countries in South Africa are aware of federal requirements for quarantine and testing.
“While we don’t know for certain the impact of Omicron, we’re clear that there are immediate action steps we can each take to protect each other and continue to slow transmission COVID-19,” Ferrer said. “The most effective tool remains the vaccines.”
Ferrer said she sympathizes with residents anxious to see an end to pandemic-related health regulations, and the dread that comes with news of another COVID variant that could extend mask-wearing and other precautions.
“We hate wearing our masks. We hate rules. We hate everything about this pandemic,” Ferrer told the board. “And we’re right there with everybody else on that. This has been an extraordinarily long and challenging time, and people are right to feel fatigue.
“I think the best way to put all of this in perspective is we actually have a lot more powerful tools at hand than we did last year. And so while we’re fatigued, just as a reminder, (during the last) winter surge, we neither had a lot of rapid testing available, nor did we have vaccines available, nor did we have on the immediate horizon some fairly decent possibility for therapeutics that are targeted for COVID. We have all of that right now.”
In the wake of Omicron, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday stepped up its vaccine recommendation, urging everyone aged 18 and over to get a booster shot. The CDC had earlier recommended the shots for those aged 50 and up, and only suggested it for younger adults.
According to the most recent figures, 82.5% of Los Angeles County residents 12 and over have received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, and 74% are fully vaccinated. Of the county’s overall population of 10.3 million people, 71% received at least one dose, and 63% were fully vaccinated. Of the roughly 5.99 million residents who were fully vaccinated as of Nov. 16, 75,249 have subsequently tested positive for the virus, for a rate of 1.26%, Ferrer said. Of the vaccinated population, 2,528 have been hospitalized, for a rate of 0.042%, and 422 have died, a rate of 0.007%.
The county on Tuesday reported another 28 COVID deaths, raising the virus-related death toll to 27,166. Another 843 new cases were also reported, giving the county a cumulative pandemic total of 1,527,132. According to state figures, there were 562 COVID-19-positive patients in county hospitals as of Tuesday, down slightly from 569 on Monday. The number of those patients in intensive care was 165, up from 159 a day earlier. The rolling average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus in the county was 2.9% on Tuesday, up from last week’s daily rate of about 1%. County health officials attributed the increase to the significant drop in overall testing due to schools being closed for the holidays. Many schools mandate weekly COVID testing for students and staff.