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COVID-19 Update: Omicron Surging – the Bad, the Good, and the Local

Image is based on data from LA County, using a graphing tool courtesy of Mike Herf. Herf’s interactive graph can be customized for various neighborhoods, and his site also helps identify neighborhood schools, workplaces, and public spaces that have reported cases of COVID-19. Click to see a larger version of the image.


It’s been a while since we checked in on the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it’s either over or off our radar.  So with the new Omicron variant now spreading like wildfire, the daily news is accelerating again, and we thought it was time for an update.  In short, the highly contagious Omicron is bringing new case numbers like those we haven’t seen since last winter…even in our local neighborhoods.  But in addition to the not-great news of Omicron’s rapid spread, there is also some good news about the tools we now have to fight it…and some local perspective as well.


The Numbers


Of course, the not-so-good (OK, pretty bad) news at the moment, is the speed with which Omicron is spreading.  As the graph above shows, we are currently seeing case rates ramping up rapidly, to their highest points in more than six months, with no signs of it levelling off.  And the speed at which new cases are accelerating (i.e. the angle of the upward slope) is even more severe so far than the rate of last year’s surge, as shown in the graph below:


The same graph as above, showing the peaks and valleys over an even longer time frame, since May, 2020. (Click to see a slightly larger version of the graph.)


And this is true across LA County, not just in our local area.

In her weekly address to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors yesterday, LA County Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer reported that 73% of new COVID-19 cases nationwide are now the Omicron variant, and “Omicron multiplies and gets transmitted [about three times] faster than Delta.” Omicron also shows “reduced immune protection both from vaccines and prior infections” and has about five times the re-infection rate of Delta, Ferrer said.  And finally, it also seems like it may be just as severe as the deadly Delta strain.

Ferrer said the current case rate still relatively low in much of U.S. , but some places, like New York City, are spiking.  In fact, she said, NYC cases per day are now at the highest they’ve been since the beginning of the pandemic, with the number of cases there (see blue arrow below) tripling in less than a week — news Ferrer called “sobering.”  Luckily, though, new cases in LA County (yellow arrow) are still below the national average, though they, too have “increased three-fold since the beginning of last week,” Ferrer said.



Ferrer also reported that LA County test positivity has also risen, from 1.2% to 3% in two weeks, though hospitalizations have been holding fairly steady for the last few days.

But while new cases of the Omicron variant are definitely starting to surge, Ferrer also reported that so far, there are no hospitalizations or deaths yet in LA County specifically due to Omicron…though that is likely due to the fact that both hospitalizations and deaths lag behind new cases by at least a couple of weeks, and Omicron is still very new here.

It’s worth noting, however, that while this was yesterday – when new cases reported were just over 3,000 for the fifth day in a row – today’s news is much grimmer.  In a press release this afternoon,  just before our Buzz publication time, the Health Department announced that today’s tally for new cases is 6,509…more than double yesterday’s total.



“This steep increase, one of the steepest rises we have ever seen over the course of the pandemic, reflects the increased circulation of Omicron and the associated rapid acceleration of transmission associated with this variant,” said the statement.

And today’s positivity rate was also 4.5%, up from just over 3% in the last few days and just 1.9% a week ago.


The Good News


But while Omicron’s rapid rise definitely seems intimidating at first glance, Ferrer also conveyed a lot of good news yesterday, especially when it comes to the effectiveness of vaccines.

For example, Ferrer reported that the MNRA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna), combined with booster doses, do provide significant protection against Omicron.  In a recent South African study, she said, two doses of the Pfizer vaccine were only 34% effective in preventing infection from Omicron, but the effectiveness rose to 75% for two doses plus a booster…with 70% effectiveness for preventing hospitalization among the infected.



Also, Ferrer reported that while new cases are rising sharply among the non-vaccinated, and starting to tick up significantly among those who are fully vaccinated but have not yet received a booster dose of the vaccine, case rates so far have risen only very slightly among those who have had a booster shot, and are still at about the same level they were back in September.



Also, vaccines seem to be even more effective at preventing hospitalizations, said Ferrer.  In fact, according to the chart below, unvaccinated individuals with COVID-19 are now hospitalized at 25 times the rate as those who are fully vaccinated.



And death rates for vaccinated individuals are 20 times less than they are for unvaccinated COVID patients:



So Ferrer said LA County’s goal remains to get as many people vaccinated – and now, also, boosted – as possible, to fight Omicron and other strains (including Delta) that are still with us, too.

Currently, reported Ferrer, more than 74% of all LA residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 66% are fully vaccinated.  But this still leaves more than 2 million LA County residents who have yet to be vaccinated at all…and more than 3 million who are now eligible for booster shots, but haven’t yet received them.



Stressing how important it is to get more people vaccinated, Ferrer presented another graph showing how hospitals could be affected if the more contagious Omicron variant proves either as severe or less severe than Delta, with and without certain kinds of inventions.  According to the chart, below, if Omicron is as severe as Delta and we do nothing, hospitals would be overwhelmed (number of patients above the dotted black line below)  by early to mid January.  If Omicron proves to cause less severe illness, overall, than Delta, and we take no additional measures to fight it, hospitals would still be overwhelmed by mid to late January, which is “still a nightmare state for our local health care system,” Ferrer said.

But if we reduce the number of people we’re in contact with, Ferrer said, and increase both basic vaccination and booster rates, we can keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, even if Omicron proves to be as severe as Delta.



So that means “we need to work right now to increase vaccinations and booster uptake,” Ferrer said.  “These are key.”

Also, Ferrer said other important elements of fighting the new winter surge include wearing masks whenever you’re in close contact with others (and consider upgrading to a surgical mask, KN95, N95 or respirator-style mask), along with frequent testing before and after gathering closely with other people, when traveling, if you’ve been exposed to someone who tests positive, or if you get sick yourself.



Ferrer also said that because data still shows that you can still be infected even if you’re vaccinated, workplaces should not relax their mask requirements, even if most or all of their employees are vaccinated.  “This is not the time to be less cautious; this is the time to be more cautious” about mask rules, Ferrer said, and “masking remains a really critical layer of our protections.”

“We need all of these layers to be able to enjoy all of the things we want to enjoy over the holidays.”

At the same time, however, Ferrer said we’re actually much better off than we were at this time last year, because even with Omicron, we now have highly effective vaccines and “an ample supply of tests.”  “For this I am grateful,” she said.

“We’re obviously going to look very carefully at what are the strategies that are appropriate as we see more and more cases,” Ferrer said. “But what I do want to note is we’re not where we were last year. We do have new tools, so we don’t need to do what we did last year.”

And that includes larger shutdowns of schools and businesses.  Ferrer said that even with the Omicron surge, “I believe that if we do the things we’re recommending, we won’t have to shut down” this time.

Meanwhile, in other good news from the last couple of days, President Joe Biden announced yesterday that the U.S. will expand COVID-19 testing sites across the country, and provide 500 million rapid antigen test kits directly to residents, to make it easier for people to test more frequently.

Also, the FDA today announced its approval of a new pill to treat COVID-19.  As reported by National Public Radio:

“The pill, called Paxlovid, is made by Pfizer. It’s taken twice a day for five days in combination with a second medicine called ritonavir, a generic antiviral.”

According to the story, the new pill, taken orally, could help reduce the severity of COVID symptoms, and help reduce the need for hospitalizations:

“The results from a Pfizer study involving more than 2,200 people at high risk for developing serious COVID-19 found Paxlovid reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by 89%, compared with a placebo, when taken within three days of first symptoms of illness. When taken within five days, the drug reduced the risk of hospitalization and death by 88%.”

Ferrer said yesterday that new treatments, when they become available, will likely be distributed first to areas where they will be most needed, such those with lower vaccination rates, where people are at higher risk of severe infections, hospitalization and death.

And finally, in a live announcement this morning, California Governor Gavin Newsom echoed Ferrer’s hope about being able to avoid widespread shutdowns this winter. One positive sign, he said, is that even though California’s test positivity rate jumped from 2.3% last week to 3.3% earlier this week (an admittedly big increase), it’s still the lowest rate in the country. And even though our new cases also almost doubled statewide (from 5,400 to just under 11,000) last week, those, too are still far under what other states are seeing right now.

Newsom said the state is using a three-pronged strategy  to combat the surge, and to try and prevent wider shutdowns.  First, he noted, California was the first state in nation to require all health care workers to be vaccinated, and – on top of that – it has now set a new February 1 deadline for health care workers to get booster shots.

Second, he said, to help make sure we can keep schools open, he announced that the state will be providing 6 million rapid antigen test kits to California students, so they can test at home before returning to school in January, after the winter holiday break.

And third, Newsom said, the state will also be increasing the hours for state-run PCR test sites, to provide greater access to COVID tests for more people.

But all of that, he said, won’t help if people don’t also do their part to get vaccinated (and boosted), be responsible about gatherings and masking, and getting tested when they should.

“At the end of the day,” Newsom said, “nothing we do here at the state or in LA County, which is doing an extraordinary job, matters compared to what you do and the decisions you make at home.”


The Local Picture


Finally, locally, our infection rates do seem to reflect the kinds of increases we’re seeing across the county at the moment.  In addition to the graphs at the top of this story, the map below shows which communities in central Los Angeles are seeing the largest numbers of cases this week.



But despite those reports, our community vaccination percentages are also fairly strong, with eight of the local areas we track having vaccination percentages for residents ages five years and older above 80%:


And, even better, when the Buzz contacted several local Larchmont Blvd. businesses yesterday, all of them said they have no current plans to close or to reduce space or hours.  The one exception that we’ve learned of so far is Go Get ‘Em Tiger, which announced to customers in an email yesterday morning that it will be closing its indoor dining spaces for the moment:


“While most of how we’re operating our cafes will remain the same, we’ve decided to put a hold on indoor dining at all cafes effective immediately.

This means that for the time being, we’ll no longer be eating or drinking inside of any GGET location. We will continue to offer outdoor seating at all cafes. You’ll still be able to come in and order at the counter or use the GGET app, and you’ll still be able to take your drink outdoors in real life ceramic and glass.

Thank you for your understanding as we roll through the newest loop of the COVID rollercoaster. Wear your mask, get vaccinated, (get boosted if you can!) and come out and see us.”


So yes, Omicron definitely has a scary side…but as Ferrer said, we have much better tools this year than we did last year.  Of course, any or all of the plans and wisdom above could change or evolve as Omicron rolls through over the next few weeks, and we learn more about it.  But we’ll be watching, and we’ll be sure to keep you updated, as always.


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Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and has been writing for the Buzz since 2015.

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