Saying the Omicron variant will quickly become the predominant local strain of COVID-19, Los Angeles County’s health director said getting more people vaccinated will be key to preventing widespread serious illnesses that could overwhelm hospitals.
Barbara Ferrer told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been proven to offer strong protection against severe illness from the Omicron — and other — COVID variants. But she said unless the vaccination rate improves, hospital beds could quickly fill.
“Even if Omicron causes half the severe disease Delta does … it can still be a major threat for our hospital systems and our residents,” Ferrer said.
She pointed to modeling done by researchers at UC Berkeley that tracked possible hospitalization rates statewide due to the spread of the Omicron variant. She said the statewide predictions indicate that with current vaccination levels, the possible hospitalization numbers are “still pretty much a nightmare scenario for our state and L.A. County.”
“We need to work right now to increase vaccinations and booster uptake,” Ferrer said. “These are key.”
Dr. Christina Ghaly, director of the county Department of Health Services, noted that even if hospitalization numbers from a winter surge fall short of those from last winter, hospitals this year do not have the same level of staffing, thanks to factors such as retirements, moves of staff from inpatient to outpatient services and the loss of some staffers who failed to meet a statewide vaccination mandate.
“Hospitals will be stressed and overwhelmed far earlier than they were last year,” Ghaly said.
According to the most recent figures, 78% of eligible Los Angeles County residents aged 5 and up have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 70% are fully vaccinated. Ferrer said more than 2 million residents have received an additional or booster dose of the vaccine.
But she said there are still 2.2 million eligible residents who have not received a shot, and 3.1 million people are currently eligible for booster shots but haven’t received them.
“We urgently need to get more people protected by vaccines,” she said.
Ferrer said studies and statistics show that people who receive the booster shot have significantly stronger protection against getting infected and against severe illness that would land them in a hospital. She said a South Africa study found that a booster shot of the Pfizer vaccine doubles the protection level offered by the original two doses.
According to state figures, there were 748 COVID-positive patients in Los Angeles County hospitals as of Tuesday, up from 741 on Monday. There were 174 of those patients being treated in intensive care, up from 172 a day earlier.
The number of Omicron variant cases identified in the county rose above 100 on Tuesday, while the county’s daily number of newly confirmed infections topped 3,000 for the fifth consecutive day.
The county reported 3,052 new cases, raising the cumulative total from throughout the pandemic to 1,570,230. Another 25 virus-related deaths were also confirmed, for a pandemic total of 27,473.
The rolling average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 3% as of Tuesday, up from 1.2% two weeks ago.
“This increase is another sign of increased community transmission,” Ferrer said.
Ferrer said that successfully negotiating the winter surge in cases will involve targeted strategies to prevent spread among vulnerable populations, such as skilled nursing facility residents and the homeless, increased routine testing and quick response to outbreaks.
County data on Monday indicated that Hawthorne-based aerospace company SpaceX was home to the largest documented COVID outbreak locally, with 132 infections reported. The second closest outbreak reported by the county was a FedEx facility in Los Angeles, where 85 cases had been reported. A FedEx representative said, however, that number reflected cases dating back as long as six months ago, and the current number of cases affecting the facility “is very low.”