The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is now spreading rapidly across California, fueling big upticks in infections across the state.
At least three California health systems have reported that Omicron appears to account for 50% to 70% of new cases, state health officials said Thursday, and clinical and wastewater data suggest Omicron is now spreading in most parts of California.
However, the full scope of this latest wave remains to be seen.
Cases are expected to spike, perhaps to unprecedented levels. Some hospitals are likely to again come under stress from a renewed influx of COVID-19 patients.
But for now, officials say they can contend with the surge by doubling down on common-sense safety practices and promoting vaccinations and booster shots, rather than resorting to new lockdown orders.
Los Angeles County provided a glimpse of what may be to come. A day after reporting 6,509 new coronavirus cases — which was more than twice the figure from the day before — county health officials reported an even higher infection total Thursday: 8,633.
“These numbers make it crystal clear that we’re headed into a very challenging time over the holiday,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said. “If our case numbers continue to increase at a rapid pace over this week and next, we could be looking at case numbers we have never seen before.”
What will the next few weeks look like?
As Omicron is still a relatively new arrival — its presence was first confirmed in California just three weeks ago — there are many unanswered questions as to what its impact will be.
One thing that seems certain, though, is that the variant can spread rapidly. Already, Omicron now constitutes 73% of the nation’s coronavirus cases, up from 13% the week before, according to federal estimates.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say early forecasts suggest a large surge of infections could be reached by early January, and “the peak daily number of new infections could exceed previous peaks.”
“This rapid increase in the proportion of Omicron circulating around the country is similar to what we’ve seen around the world,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a briefing. “Although this is a reminder of [the] continued threat of COVID-19 variants, this increase in Omicron proportion is what we anticipated and what we have been preparing for.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, said in an interview on ABC that during this wave, almost everyone is “either going to get infected, particularly the unvaccinated, or be vaccinated.”
“And the vaccinated people, particularly the boosted people … will either be protected from infection, or if they do get infected, they’ll have a relatively mild course of infection,” said Fauci, who expected a peak in Omicron cases soon, within a matter of weeks, followed by “just as dramatic a decline.”
In various television interviews, Fauci has said that family and friends can expect relatively safe and enjoyable Christmas gatherings — without masks — if everyone 5 and older is vaccinated and has received a booster shot if eligible. He also suggested attendees get tested before gathering.
“If tests are available, by all means go the extra step, go the extra mile to get testing, which we’re recommending just to get that extra added cushion of alleviation of concern,” Fauci told NBC.
But, he added, “if you don’t have the availability of the test and you are fully vaccinated and boosted, you should feel comfortable having a holiday meal or gathering with family members who are also vaccinated and boosted.”
One thing appears clear: Omicron will become dominant, and many people will get infected.
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 that the Omicron surge will continue rising swiftly through December and into January, potentially peaking later next month or in early February. Despite the increase in cases, predictions indicate there will be fewer daily deaths than during last winter’s devastating peak.
The institute also predicts that single-day COVID-19 deaths could climb as high as 2,000 nationally by early February, about the same number reported during the Delta surge but fewer than the nearly 3,500 daily deaths during last winter’s peak.
The forecast for California projects as many as 150 COVID-19 deaths a day by the end of February, a rate similar to the peak of the summer Delta wave. Still, that is far fewer than last winter’s surge, when California was tallying 550 deaths a day.