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The Omicron variant: What it is, and how California is handling COVID-19 right now

A healthcare worker wearing protective equipment
The pandemic continues to be a major problem for residents in rural California counties with low vaccination rates.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Monday, Nov. 29. I’m Justin Ray.

This past weekend brought troubling headlines about yet another coronavirus variant. It has sparked global restrictions and increased already high concerns about staying safe this holiday season.

Before I continue, I want to say that it is not clear how dangerous the new Omicron variant is. But the World Health Organization on Friday quickly classified it as a variant of concern.

This has prompted multiple countries, including the U.S., to restrict travel from South Africa and other African nations. The U.S. travel restrictions take effect Monday. Meanwhile, the Netherlands confirmed 13 cases of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus and Australia found two on Sunday.

Here’s more information on the variant, and a look at the current state of California’s handling of COVID-19:

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What do we know about the Omicron variant?

The variant, first identified in South Africa amid a spike in infections there, has more mutations than any variant that scientists have seen. Some have the potential to make the virus more resistant to immunity generated from previous infections or vaccines.

But much about it remains unknown, including whether the variant is more transmissible, results in more severe illness or reduces the efficacy of vaccines. No cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the United States, but many experts say it may already be here.

“The concern is, will this variant have some ability to work around, if you will, our vaccines and some of our therapies?” Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, an epidemiologist and infectious diseases expert at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, told The Times.

Early observations suggest that could be the case, with breakthrough infections reported in vaccinated people, said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla. “We know breakthroughs are occurring, and they have so far occurred with multiple vaccines,” he said. “That is, in and of itself, concerning. And looking at the structure of the virus, it could have the potential to basically override our immune response.”

When it comes to the pandemic, how does California look like right now?

When it comes to handling coronavirus, California has a lot to celebrate. So far, 71.8% of residents have received at least one dose, according to The Times’ vaccine tracker. Among all Californians, 63.9% are fully vaccinated.

However, the pandemic continues to be a major problem for residents in rural California counties with low vaccination rates. A recent Times analysis found that people in these regions died from COVID-19 at significantly higher rates during the summer Delta variant surge than those in better-vaccinated regions. This, once again, underscores the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing COVID.

Overall, the state appears to be better positioned to handle Omicron than much of the country, because California elected officials have largely been in agreement with public health experts on imposing control methods such as vaccination and masking requirements, according to Kim-Farley.

However, millions of Californians have yet to gain immunity, Topol said. He urged people to take extra precautions during holiday gatherings, including testing attendees and hosting events outdoors or, if indoors, with open windows and air filtration devices.

When it comes to vaccinations, how is your county doing? Find out with our interactive map.

Further reading:

Protection offered by booster shot beats ‘natural immunity,’ study suggests. A small study that’s among the first to track people’s protective antibodies over time found that those who were immunized against COVID-19 with two doses of an mRNA vaccine and received a booster shot about eight months later saw their levels of neutralizing antibodies skyrocket. Their median post-booster antibody level was also 53 times higher than that of a group of 76 unvaccinated people who had recovered from COVID-19 just two to six weeks earlier.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

L.A. STORIES

L.A.-based podcast company Neon Hum collaborated with L.A. TACO to make a nine-episode series about Jose Huizar. The former Los Angeles City councilman is accused of taking cash and other benefits from developers who sought favorable treatment on pending real estate development projects. If convicted, Huizar faces up to 20 years in prison. His trial is set for May. The podcast series discusses Huizar’s rise in politics and how his tenure forever changed downtown L.A. and Boyle Heights. But it also discusses the strength of the Latinx community in the city. L.A. Taco also published an interesting guide detailing the restaurants Huizar dined at while allegedly collecting bribes. Neon Hum

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin charged nine people with felonies in a series of shoplifting incidents that included a mass smash-and-grab at Union Square luxury stores. At least 40 thieves allegedly broke into a Louis Vuitton store on Nov. 19, grabbing whatever they could before loading it into a series of cars parked out front. The shoplifting caravan created a scene of chaos while stealing more than $1 million in merchandise. Boudin said two of the nine people were charged with possession of firearms during the incident. The organized robberies have shocked residents and sparked new crackdowns from authorities. Los Angeles Times

‘Even the most liberal folks, like me, have begun to lose patience with the homelessness situation’: That quote, from Scott Culbertson, executive director of the Friends of Ballona Wetlands, expresses a pervasive sense of frustration shared by many Californians. Up and down the state, elected officials are trying to figure out what to do with encampments, writes Times columnist Erika D. Smith. The degrees of aggressiveness vary. But they all want to be able to move lots of unhoused people from where they are to other mostly temporary locations, and then clean the streets. What has remained unsaid is the fact that despite the valiant politicking and taxpayer dollars being spent, the permanent and affordable housing that California’s elected officials keep promising as a solution will probably take years, not months, to build. Los Angeles Times

A homeless encampment outside the West L.A. Veterans Affairs facilities on Aug. 30
A homeless encampment outside the West L.A. Veterans Affairs facilities on Aug. 30. The encampment is on San Vicente Boulevard in an unincorporated area near Brentwood in West Los Angeles.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

CRIME AND COURTS

The father of a woman accidentally killed by a Caltrans worker at a Modesto homeless encampment won’t receive any money for his loss. It took a jury 20 minutes to decide not to award money to Maurice Bigley, whose daughter, Shannon, died in the accident. He had sought $15 million. “It’s just really a shame that someone died and someone admitted legal responsibility for that death and the jury decided that she wasn’t worth anything,” Bigley’s attorney said after the verdict. Shannon Bigley, 33, was sleeping in a cardboard box in the homeless camp in 2018 when a Caltrans crew began clearing the area with a bulldozer. A man who said he witnessed the incident told a reporter at the encampment that her body was “smashed.” Modesto Bee

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Termination proceedings have started for five LAPD officers and a civilian employee who have not complied with the city’s vaccination mandate. Unvaccinated employees were required to sign a notice, indicating they would be vaccinated, or file an exemption request and submit to mandated testing in the interim. Exemptions will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and if approved, testing will be conducted weekly at the city’s expense. Employees may also decide to resign or retire “in good standing in lieu of discipline” and still be eligible for rehire if they are vaccinated or if the vaccination order is lifted. CBS Los Angeles

Lessons in life and sobriety for a father and son on the Appalachian Trail. Since 1998, reporter Ben Poston and his father have ventured to the Appalachian Trail almost every year in their quest to walk all 2,200 miles. “The trail always offered us familiar peace from the outside world — a walking meditation through the quiet forest shared with each other and the countless hikers we met,” Poston writes. “Ours was a journey only made possible by sobriety, as both Dad and I struggled with alcohol dependence for many years. Then there was his cancer.” Los Angeles Times

Sam and Ben Poston hike the Appalachian Trail.

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

‘They’re actually a gang with badges’: Three Mendocino County marijuana farmers and a former police officer from Texas have filed a federal lawsuit alleging widespread corruption among law enforcement officials. The lawsuit alleges “hundreds of acts of extortion, theft, and robbery of marijuana, guns and cash” by law enforcement officials from at least four agencies. NBC Bay Area investigation includes video and an interactive graphic of the players involved. NBC Bay Area

An organization that helped the unhoused enjoy Thanksgiving. Union Station Homeless Services is the lead agency that coordinates homeless services in the San Gabriel Valley. The organization provided more than 4,500 meals, a 125% increase over last year, a spokesperson for Union Station told LAist. “I’ve had somebody come up to me before and said, for even just a half an hour while they were sitting down eating that meal, it brought them back to when they had a family and a home. And for half an hour they forgot they were homeless,” said one chef. LAist

Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: 77 San Diego: This cat has a job. 73 San Francisco: 64 San Jose: So does this one. 70 Fresno: Related: I’ve watched this video a million times. 66 Sacramento: 63

AND FINALLY

Famous birthdays:

Chadwick Boseman was born Nov. 29, 1976. Vice President Kamala Harris, Viola Davis, Mark Ruffalo, and many others mourned his death in August 2020.

Chrissy Teigen was born Nov. 30, 1985. She returned to Twitter this year after a bullying scandal.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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