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COVID-19 hospitalizations jump in Southern California as Omicron alarms grow

A rise in COVID-19 due to Omicron could result in a ‘perfect storm for overwhelming our hospital system,’ a Southern California health official says.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have jumped across California as officials warn about the risks of a winter surge and the anticipated rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

California’s COVID-19 hospitalizations have hit their highest number in more than a month. Over the past three weeks, COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide have risen by 16%, from 3,109 patients in hospitals on Nov. 23 to 3,613 as of Tuesday.

The increase has been dramatic across Southern California. Since Nov. 23, COVID-19 hospitalizations have risen by 49% in Ventura County, 47% in San Diego County, 39% in Los Angeles County, 36% in Riverside County, 26% in San Bernardino County and 15% in Orange County.

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On a per capita basis, the Inland Empire has been hit hardest by a jump in hospitalizations.

For every 100,000 residents, 18 are hospitalized with COVID-19 in San Bernardino County, 14 per 100,000 in Riverside County, 11 in San Diego County, 8 in L.A. and Ventura counties, and 7 are in Orange County.

Some experts say it’s a sign of concern when 5 or more people per 100,000 are hospitalized with COVID-19.

Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, a deputy health officer in Orange County, said hospitals are already strained due to an increase in demand this time of year, and warned that a surge in COVID-19 could potentially overwhelm the system.

Orange County’s hospitals already came under pressure during the summer Delta wave, when ambulances had to wait for long periods of time to offload patients at hospitals due to crowding.

A rise in COVID-19 due to Omicron in the coming weeks could result in a “perfect storm for overwhelming our hospital system that is already strained,” Chinsio-Kwong said.

“The whole world is coming into another surge. And the United States and the United Kingdom are, unfortunately, leading the way,” Chinsio-Kwong said.

Coronavirus case rates in Orange County have significantly worsened just in the last week, Chinsio-Kwong said. It’s likely a result of transmission increasing over Thanksgiving and as people stay inside more due to colder, rainier weather.

One notable recent outbreak at Travis Ranch School in Yorba Linda sent an entire sixth-grade class home for remote learning before winter break. Health officials are still investigating the origins of the outbreak, but initial reports indicate it involved potentially an unvaccinated, symptomatic adult and schoolchildren, many of whom were not vaccinated, Chinsio-Kwong said.

Globally, health officials and experts are warning against being complacent about Omicron, based on early reports suggesting it may cause milder illness. Even if the strain really is less likely to cause severe illness for a particular person, because the variant is far more contagious, many more people could end up getting infected and hospitals could be overwhelmed anyway.

Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, suggested that those who suspect Omicron won’t be a big deal are in denial.

“For the pandemic, the U.S. has invented the 5 denials of warnings (it won’t happen here),” Topol wrote in a tweet. He said there is ample “alarming Omicron signals” coming from several countries, including South Africa, Denmark and Norway.

In Britain, Sajid Javid, the government’s health secretary, said scientists there have never seen a coronavirus variant “capable of spreading so rapidly” as Omicron. New coronavirus cases are doubling every two days.

“Even if severity was significantly lower, then the much higher transmissibility of Omicron means it still has the potential to overwhelm” hospitals, Javid told Parliament this week.

Also a warning sign: Fully vaccinated people who have not yet received a booster are a greater risk of getting infected and becoming symptomatic. And, like in the U.S., many vaccinated adults in the U.K. have not received a booster shot.

“Unfortunately, there’s a very real risk that the exponential rise in Omicron cases translates into a spike in hospital admissions and threatens to overwhelm” the healthcare system, Javid said.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Omicron nationally is now accounting for 3% of analyzed coronavirus cases, but is substantially higher in some locations. In the New York and New Jersey areas, Omicron is estimated to comprise 13% of new cases.

High-profile coronavirus infections are being reported across the sports and entertainment industries. A number of Broadway performances have been canceled due to breakthrough coronavirus infections among vaccinated people, and the NFL, NBA and NHL have had to deal with coronavirus infections.

“We expect to see the proportion of Omicron cases here in the United States continue to grow in the coming weeks. Early data suggest that Omicron is more transmissible than Delta, with a doubling time of about two days,” Walensky said.

Preliminary data also suggests that the vaccines are less effective against Omicron than Delta. However a booster shot provides significant protection.

Early data suggest effectiveness against symptomatic illness from Omicron for the two-shot Pfizer vaccine falls to 35%, but rises to 75% following a booster shot. Still, this is not as good as the vaccine effectiveness against Delta, which was 95% following the booster, according to Topol.

Scientists suspect that vaccinations and boosters will still provide significant protection against severe illness.

“Our booster vaccine regimens work against Omicron. At this point, there is no need for a variant-specific booster,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical advisor, said. “And so the message remains clear: If you are unvaccinated, get vaccinated. And particularly in the arena of Omicron, if you are fully vaccinated, get your booster shot.”

Chinsio-Kwong urged Orange County residents to adhere to the new statewide order to wear masks in indoor settings and take their own measures to avoid riskier situations, such as certain large gatherings.

Risky such gatherings might include an indoor wedding reception with poor ventilation and hundreds of people who aren’t wearing masks, dancing together in close quarters.

While it’s more likely for an unvaccinated, symptomatic person to transmit the coronavirus to others, it is also plausible for an infected, vaccinated and asymptomatic person to transmit the coronavirus to other vaccinated people.

“The transmission occurs when people are not being careful about the preventive measures. For example, if you have a whole party of 300 people attending a wedding indoors, and they’re all masking, that’s great — they’re minimizing their risk,” Chinsio-Kwong said.

“But if they’re going to go to the dance floor and take off all their masks ... we know what happens when dance on the dance floor: They’re going to be really close to each other and that’s where all the transmission occurs,” Chinsio-Kwong said.

There are also other situations in which transmission could easily occur, such as in locker rooms before or after a sports game, or at gatherings between co-workers or teammates when people stop wearing masks.

Still, some events with large numbers of people can be attended in a safer manner. A theme park can still be relatively safe, since the experience is largely outdoors, as long as people wear a well-fitted mask and try to take it off only when there’s good ventilation around, Chinsio-Kwong said.

Chinsio-Kwong said that it would be a mistake to think of Omicron as a relatively harmless variant, noting officials don’t know what the chances are of people experiencing “long COVID” after an infection, in which symptoms of illness can last for months, if not longer.

“I think it’s worth everyone’s while to be cautious and take every measure to protect themselves,” Chinsio-Kwong said. “I want everybody to take this seriously.”


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