California COVID-19 hospitalizations rise amid Omicron spread

COVID-19 hospitalizations are on the rise in California as the Omicron variant spreads, combining with a holiday wave of the Delta strain to spark concerns of yet another surge that could strain the state’s healthcare system.

There were 3,589 COVID-19 patients in the state’s hospitals as of Friday, an increase of roughly 12% from two weeks before, according to The Times’ hospitalization tracker. Some Southern California counties have seen bigger jumps, with hospitalizations rising by nearly 31% in L.A. County and by roughly 26% in Riverside County during the same period.

California had recorded 49 cases of the Omicron variant as of Wednesday, although not all samples are sequenced to identify variants. That’s much lower than the 184,700 identified cases of the Delta variant, which remains dominant in the state, but health officials expect the number will rise. Omicron is thought to be more contagious than Delta and better at evading immunity generated by vaccines or previous infections, although experts say vaccines still offer protection against severe illness and death.

While there are early indications Omicron might cause less severe illness than other variants, if enough people are infected, hospitals could be overwhelmed nonetheless, health officials say. That comes as the system already faces multiple challenges, including significant staffing shortages and increased demand for other healthcare services like flu treatment and procedures that were put on hold earlier in the pandemic.

The majority of California’s Omicron cases — 38 — have been recorded by L.A. County, which on Saturday reported 3,730 new cases of the coronavirus, its highest single-day total in months and more than double the number of new cases reported Wednesday. As of Thursday, the county was averaging just over 1,587 daily cases over the past week, an increase of nearly 19% from two weeks before, according to The Times’ tracker. The county’s daily positivity rate for those who seek testing also has crept upward, from a seven-day average of 1.2% Sunday to 1.7% Saturday, health officials said.

Orange and Riverside counties on Friday reported their first documented cases of the Omicron variant. In Orange County, the variant was found to have infected a fully vaccinated man who had recently traveled domestically outside California and experienced mild illness, public health authorities said.

“The Omicron variant is highly transmissible and has already been identified in the United States and many countries around the world,” Dr. Matthew Zahn, the deputy county health officer, said in a statement. “We had anticipated that Omicron would arrive here in Orange County.”

In Riverside County, the variant infected a 41-year-old fully vaccinated man from the western portion of the county who was tested in L.A. County on Dec. 8, public health officials said. Health officials are investigating whether the man had recently traveled, they said.

“The reporting of this case reminds us of the importance of taking steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in all its forms,” Dr. Geoffrey Leung, Riverside County public health officer, said in a statement. He added that people should get vaccinated and receive booster shots. Health officials are also continuing to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public places, avoid large gatherings and wash their hands frequently.

Outbreaks of the virus have forced the postponement of sporting events, including the Los Angeles Rams game against the Seattle Seahawks scheduled for Sunday, which was moved to Tuesday, and the Anaheim Ducks game against the Calgary Flames slated for Tuesday, which has not yet been rescheduled.

The first U.S. case of the Omicron variant was reported Dec. 1 in a fully vaccinated traveler who had recently returned to San Francisco from South Africa. The variant has also been identified in San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Clara and Ventura counties.

The variant, which has spread rapidly around the world since it was first identified in South Africa last month, appears to be fueling surges in other countries and on the East Coast. In the New York and New Jersey areas, Omicron is estimated to account for 13% of new coronavirus cases, compared with 3% nationally. New York public health officials on Friday reported the state’s highest single-day total of new coronavirus cases since the pandemic began.

Nationally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention forecasts there could be more than 1 million new coronavirus cases recorded the week of Christmas. By contrast, around Halloween, there were 500,000 new weekly cases.

President Biden is expected to discuss the Omicron variant in a speech on Tuesday, according to NBC News.

Times staff writers Rong-Gong Lin II and Emily Alpert-Reyes contributed to this report.

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