Essential California: The Delta-Omicron ‘perfect storm’

A man hugs a doctor wearing a mask and white coat.
Dr. Shohreh Sameni, right, hugs her former patient Paul Manzone at Providence Mission Hospital Mission Viejo last week in an emotional reunion of formerly hospitalized COVID-19 patients and their nurses, doctors and other caregivers.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Dec. 17, and I’m Shelby Grad.

Officials from California to Washington are sounding the alarm about the Omicron variant, which is spreading rapidly in the United States and other countries.

California and the rest of the nation now face a winter in which two variants could supercharge the threat: Omicron plus continued illnesses from a holiday surge of the Delta variant.

According to California’s COVID-19 forecasting models, there are plausible scenarios in which a winter surge could hit hospitals worse than the summer Delta wave, which strained facilities across swaths of the state. The combination is “a perfect storm for overwhelming our hospital system that is already strained,” said Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, a deputy health officer for Orange County.


Officials fear hospitals could again be overwhelmed by mid-January. Hospitals face new challenges that they didn’t last year, when California ordered regional stay-at-home orders affecting most of the state. This winter, hospitals are coping with significant staff shortages — as a number of employees have left the industry after being exhausted by the pandemic — as well as non-COVID-related reasons for hospitalizations, such as the flu and other healthcare needs that were put on hold earlier in the pandemic.

The winter surge is already seeing more hospitalizations.

Meanwhile, the number of Omicron cases in Los Angeles County has risen to at least 30. Of the cases, 24 people were fully vaccinated and four had also received booster doses. None have been known to be hospitalized, and none have died. Nationally, more than 300 Omicron cases have been confirmed, and at least 49 in California.

Omicron has spread to at least 77 countries, at least 35 U.S. states, and is on track to become the dominant strain in Europe by mid-January. But at the same time, there are intriguing signs that with Omicron, the coronavirus has taken a turn for the milder.

Also in coronavirus news:

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

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In the San Joaquin Valley, one of the nation’s most productive farming regions, domestic wells are drying up at an alarming pace. A frenzy of new well construction and heavy agricultural pumping is sending the underground water supply to new lows during one of the most severe droughts on record. The Times analyzed state groundwater data from the hard-hit valley and found that 2021 is on track to see the most agricultural wells drilled since the last drought ended. Los Angeles Times

Police are unraveling a troubling case: The lives of a young model and an architect in Los Angeles were cut short when they were allegedly given an overdose of drugs and left for dead at nearby hospitals. Christy Giles, 24, and Hilda Marcela Cabrales Arzola, 26, both died under suspicious circumstances in November, prompting an investigation. Los Angeles Times

Marine assault amphibious vehicles will no longer deploy or train in the water after two investigations into the fatal sinking of one of them near San Diego last year. San Diego Union-Tribune


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Southern California home prices jumped nearly 16% in November from a year earlier, showing how the market is still ultra-competitive despite a slight slowdown that began to set in several months ago. Los Angeles Times

Holiday travelers are expected to slam Los Angeles International Airport beginning this week, with the airport estimating it will see 3.5 million visitors by Jan. 3. Los Angeles Times


Dubious distinction: How Orange County became the epicenter of addiction fraud. Orange County Register

Ripped from the headlines: A podcast takes on a notorious L.A. political corruption case. Los Angeles Times


California sparked a national push to ban gas lines into homes. Its success hinges on persuading home cooks the gas stove is obsolete. Los Angeles Times


An ultra-rare, bizarre anglerfish that washed ashore near San Diego is California’s third this year. A surfer found the ghoulish-looking, nearly 13-inch dead Pacific footballfish when it washed ashore Friday and alerted lifeguards. Los Angeles Times

A snowy end to the year could work magic for California. SFGATE

Vehicles on the 5 Freeway drive through snow in Gorman.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)


How Steph Curry has transformed basketball and the Bay Area. The New Yorker

“You often hear that L.A. is a lonely city. Some people think this is a transplant-only phenomenon, but there’s no denying that the city’s sheer size, its busy nature, its car culture are all conducive to loneliness.” Los Angeles Times

Bob Iger, L.A. weather man. New York Times


Santa Fe, N.M., law enforcement obtained a search warrant Thursday for the contents of Alec Baldwin’s iPhone in connection with its investigation of the fatal shooting on the set of the low-budget western movie “Rust.” Los Angeles Times

How to navigate the Rose Bowl and Rose Parade amid the winter COVID surge. LAist

The next chapter for L.A.’s famed Cecil Hotel. L.A. Taco

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Los Angeles: sunny, 66. San Diego: sunny, 65. San Francisco: sunny, 51. San Jose: sunny, 56. Fresno: partly cloudy, 49. Sacramento: partly cloudy, 46.

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Today’s California memory comes from Howard Schrager:


In December 1968, I received my M.A. in history from UCLA. Daily, for the next three months I would run along Venice Beach, climb ropes and watch the sunset, free as I ever would be. Once I found myself under the recently defunct Pacific Ocean Park Pier, looking out as if from a dark tunnel, as the sun dropped below the horizon, releasing its colors. Waves raced toward me, like hurdlers, dashing themselves against one set of pilings after another. The splashing droplets hung in the air, gathering into themselves — the amethysts, rubies, sapphires, gold and oranges of the sunset.

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

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