Essential California: What we’ve learned about Omicron, the incredibly fast-moving variant

A man in a paper gown, gloves and mask holds a plastic package next to cars in a line.
A healthcare worker hands out a coronavirus test kit Tuesday at a drive-through site at La Sierra Park in Riverside.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Dec. 23. Shelby Grad, Scott Sandell and Amy Hubbard (yes, three of us!) are filling in for Justin Ray as we head into the holiday weekend. Just a quick programming note: The newsletter will be off Friday and Saturday, and back in your inbox Monday.

The Omicron variant has arrived in California with a vengeance. L.A. County saw a doubling of daily cases, with what one health official described as “staggering” speed.

Here is a breakdown of what you need to know:

Bad, but how bad? Because Omicron is so easily transmissible, it is spreading at an unprecedented pace. But there is also growing evidence that the variant has caused less serious cases than the Delta variant, which has been dominant for months. That, along with the rise of vaccinations and booster shots, leaves health experts cautiously optimistic that this winter will not see as much serious illness or death when compared with last winter’s surge. The biggest worry right now is that Omicron could spread so fast that some hospitals could once again be overwhelmed, even if fewer people get seriously ill, and the strain could take a devastating toll in areas with low vaccinations rates. Los Angeles Times

Key forecast: A highly influential COVID-19 forecast is projecting that the Omicron surge may result in as many as 400,000 new coronavirus cases a day across the nation — significantly higher than last winter’s record of 250,000 cases a day. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects the Omicron surge will continue rising swiftly through December and into January, potentially peaking later next month or in early February. Los Angeles Times


L.A. County slammed: More than 6,500 additional infections were reported Wednesday alone. “We’re headed into a very challenging time over the holiday,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told reporters. “If our case numbers continue to increase at a rapid pace over this week and next, we could be looking at case numbers we’ve never seen before.” Los Angeles Times

What are we measuring? Because Omicron appears to cause less serious illness than Delta, in the coming days COVID-19 hospitalizations will be a more relevant way to determine actions that local authorities may need to take, one expert said. That’s because, although Omicron is rapidly spreading, there will be a relatively high percentage of people infected who will remain asymptomatic. Los Angeles Times

Emotional scars: The mental and emotional toll of another holiday upended by COVID is real. How to cope? Here are some reminders about what causes anxiety and tips on how to approach uncertainty with clear-headedness. Los Angeles Times

Other coronavirus news

  • A social gathering in Marin County, where 28 people tested positive for the coronavirus, is a cautionary tale. Los Angeles Times
  • The Pfizer pill could be a game-changer as the first U.S.-authorized home COVID treatment. Los Angeles Times
  • Some potential positive news from South Africa, where the huge Omicron wave appears to be subsiding as quickly as it grew. Washington Post
  • ... And from Europe, where three research teams report that Omicron infections appear to be milder. New York Times
  • What is COVID-19 canceling? We have a running list. Los Angeles Times
  • Home tests are in short supply. Los Angeles Times
  • How long should you isolate if you’re vaccinated and have COVID-19? Mercury News
  • Cal State is mandating booster shots now. Los Angeles Times

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

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We’ll begin our California roundup with the almanac because, by this afternoon, “it should be raining everywhere.” So said forecasters who were calling for a slow-moving winter storm that would pound Northern California with rain and snow before making its way south. Precipitation began yesterday for parts of the state but wasn’t expected to slide into L.A. County until today, the National Weather Service said. Los Angeles Times

Just take a look at this very soggy almanac:

Los Angeles: rainy, 57. San Diego: showers, 61. San Francisco: showers, 57. San Jose: showers, 62. Fresno: rainy, 57. Sacramento: rainy, 57.


That’s the sound of silence at Mater Dei. The high school and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange are accused in a lawsuit of trying to cover up a brutal locker room altercation that left a player with a traumatic brain injury. The school has pledged to review safety protocols within the athletics program. But otherwise, employees, parents, students and the diocese have largely closed ranks. Mater Dei has one of the nation’s best high school football programs, and it’s a fundraising powerhouse. Supporters and employees of the program have fallen back on a wall of silence. Orange County Bishop Kevin Vann has issued one public statement, decrying coverage of the lawsuit as a “media frenzy” that is “concerning and saddening.” Los Angeles Times

An aerial view of a football field.
Mater Dei High School’s vast network of influential supporters and alumni has mostly stayed quiet about the hazing scandal.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Cara Schneider, a Fairfax High School graduate and longtime Los Angeles teacher and administrator, knew her students well. She knew they spoke Spanish, so she learned the language. She knew they needed doses of joy — and knowledge of the Beatles in their lives — so she blasted “Here Comes the Sun” once a week on the school intercom. Last month, she died at 58. Los Angeles Times


Hotels will soon shift away from sheltering homeless people as part of Project Roomkey. Nearly 1,400 rooms are still rented as part of that program — which provided a much-needed landing spot as the city conducted outreach in an effort to help people and clear large encampments. Plans could still change, but hotels will begin to close to Project Roomkey participants in the New Year, writes The Times’ Benjamin Oreskes. So city and county officials are in a bit of a race against time. They need to distribute thousands of rental vouchers received from various stimulus bills. Los Angeles Times

What will your congressional district look like? An independent state panel has redrawn the boundaries for California’s congressional districts. Enter your address on our map to see how your district has changed. Los Angeles Times

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The ACLU has accused Tulare County of “severely inadequate” prenatal care in its jails. County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux denies the allegations. The ACLU detailed stories of three women allegedly denied adequate prenatal care. One, interviewed by the Fresno Bee, described a “traumatizing” experience in which she bled for three days before being taken to a hospital. Fresno Bee

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San Francisco has a slew of mega housing projects on track for 2022. Even as smaller projects are stuck in limbo due to market uncertainties and astronomical construction costs, San Francisco’s colossal multi-phased projects will steam full speed ahead. San Francisco Chronicle

Low bridge ahead: The main motor on the Tower Bridge between Sacramento and West Sacramento has broken, leaving the bridge in the down position. Though a spokesman for the California Department of Transportation said it’s safe for vehicles to cross the bridge, boats on the Sacramento River will have difficulty crossing under. Sacramento Bee

Geese walk on a trail near a bridge.
The Tower Bridge in Sacramento on Nov. 11.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The cowboys of Baja California: “While cowboy culture north of the border has dwindled to become a shadow of its former self, some insist that Baja’s off-grid vaqueros still embody the rugged individualism of U.S. legend.” National Geographic

Chico resident Shaun Piccinino struck gold with his Netflix original movie “A California Christmas.” Now the filmmaker is hoping the sequel is just as successful — so he can make a third installment. Chico Enterprise-Record

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Today’s California memory comes from Jane Anne Staw:

One morning late in December 1981, my 5-year-old son and I left Iowa City, where the temperature was below zero, and arrived in Berkeley, where the sun was shining and the air hovering in the high 50s. My son immediately tore off his down parka, kicked off his winter boots, and began running up and down our block of Garber Street in his shirtsleeves, hands spread like wings, celebrating the golden climate of California. He is now the father of two adorable girls, but I often remember his pure joy at the warmth all those years ago.

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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