Omicron propels dramatic spike in COVID cases across California

An explosion of new coronavirus cases fueled by the rapidly spreading Omicron variant has triggered a sharp uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations across California, prompting renewed warnings and calls for caution from public health officials.

Over the weeklong period ending Sunday, California reported an average of 11,914 new coronavirus cases per day — a 73% jump from two weeks ago, according to data compiled by The Times.

And that influx of infections is starting to take its toll on hospitals. There were 4,001 coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized statewide on Sunday, a nearly 14% increase in one week. COVID-19 hospitalizations haven’t been this high since early October.

The recent metrics “make it crystal clear that we are heading into very challenging times over the winter holidays,” said Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

“While many will be protected against the most severe illness from Omicron because they are fully vaccinated and boosted where eligible, very high case numbers can easily cause significant stress to the healthcare system if even a small percentage of those infected require hospital care,” she said in a recent statement.

Cases spiking

In L.A. County, new coronavirus cases dramatically increased in the lead-up to Christmas.

On Tuesday, 3,052 new cases were reported; on Wednesday, 6,509; Thursday, 8,633; Friday, 9,988; Saturday, 11,930; and Sunday, 8,891. And officials warned that those eye-popping counts over the weekend are actually an undercount because of delays in reporting over the holiday.

At its peak during last winter’s surge, L.A. County was averaging about 16,000 new coronavirus cases a day. But the latest wave could easily top that, Ferrer said.

“If our case numbers continue to increase at a rapid pace over this next week, we could be looking at case numbers we have never seen before — well over 20,000 cases a day by the end of this year,” she said Wednesday.

The percentage of coronavirus tests in Los Angeles County coming back positive has risen dramatically. For the seven-day period that ended Sunday, 10.8% of coronavirus tests had positive results. By comparison, for the seven-day period that ended on Dec. 20, 3.4% of tests returned positive results.

According to data released Thursday by the California Department of Public Health, at least three state health systems have reported that Omicron appears to account for 50% to 70% of new cases.


Los Angeles County’s COVID-19 hospitalizations have also increased significantly since Dec. 1, from 569 to 904 on Christmas Day, an increase of 59%. Hospitalizations spiked further Sunday, to 966.

But the latest number is far below what it was a year ago, when vaccinations had just been introduced and were in sharply limited supply. On Christmas Day 2020, there were 6,815 people with COVID-19 in L.A. County’s hospitals, up from 2,572 on Dec. 1, 2020. At its peak on Jan. 5, L.A. County logged 8,098 COVID-19 hospitalizations, a time that coincided with overwhelmed hospitals and overflowing morgues.

Currently, Southern California’s COVID-19 hospitalizations are increasing faster than the San Francisco Bay Area’s.

Since Dec. 1, the hospitalization rate in Southern California has risen by about 41%, from 7.7 hospitalizations for every 100,000 residents to 10.8.

By contrast, the Greater San Francisco Bay Area has seen its rate climb by 26%, from 3.8 to 4.8. Experts say it’s cause for concern when the rate is 5 or greater.

The Inland Empire has among the highest COVID-19 hospitalization rates in Southern California; San Bernardino County’s rate is 20, and Riverside County’s is 15. San Diego County’s rate is 11; Los Angeles and Ventura counties, 9; and Orange County, 8.

Some experts are expressing hope that areas with high vaccination and masking rates will not be devastated by a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of the UC San Francisco Department of Medicine, wrote Friday that while coronavirus case rates are rising sharply in San Francisco, hospital numbers remain low.

The bad news, Wachter said, is that Omicron is spreading quickly in San Francisco. The good news is that Omicron appears to lead to milder illness, particularly in vaccinated populations, Wachter wrote on Twitter.

Dr. Anthony Fauci on Sunday told ABC that recent data from Britain show that, in its Omicron wave, a lower percentage of newly infected people are needing hospitalizations.

“Interestingly, the duration of hospital stay was lower, the need for oxygen was lower,” Fauci said on ABC’s “This Week.” Still, because Omicron is causing such a high volume of new infections, the variant could find many more people who haven’t been immunized and could still result in hospitals becoming overwhelmed.

Unvaccinated people “are the most vulnerable ones when you have a virus that is extraordinarily effective in getting to people and infecting them the way Omicron is,” Fauci said in the televised…

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