Amid growing concern over the new Omicron option, Los Angeles County health officials are urging people to wear masks in indoor public places and at “mega-events” outdoors and get vaccinated as the best way to protect against a new winter surge.
The variant, first identified in South Africa amid a spike in infections, has more mutations than scientists have ever seen, including some that could make the virus more resistant to immunity from previous infections or vaccines. But much is unknown, including whether the variant is more contagious, leads to more severe illness, or reduces the effectiveness of vaccines.
Los Angeles County officials agreed that there is still a lot to be learned about this option, but “we know enough about COVID to take steps now that could reduce transmission as we prepare to better understand additional strategies that may be required to mitigate this new variant of fears “.
Among the key steps that the district announced in its newsletter:
- People wear a mask when attending crowded indoor or outdoor events and comply with mask requirements in public places.
- Residents are quarantined as required by law if they test positive for COVID and if they vaccinated close contacts with symptoms, and unvaccinated close contacts are quarantined.
- Residents who come on vacation must get tested if they have traveled abroad or to places in this country with high transmission rates, or they have participated in meetings and events with large numbers of people, some of whom may be unvaccinated.
The World Health Organization on Friday named the new variant Omicron and quickly classified it as an option of concern. The news prompted several countries, including the United States, to restrict travel from South Africa and other African countries. Travel restrictions in the United States will take effect Monday.
The variant has also been found in travelers to Israel and Hong Kong; Germany and Italy reported cases on Saturday afternoon.
While scientists can make educated guesses about how this variant behaves based on its genetic makeup and initial reports, more testing and observation is needed.
While no case of the Omicron variant has been found in the United States, many experts say it may already be here, given the country’s lack of systematic genomic sequencing to identify it.
Initial evidence suggests that this variant causes mild disease, as supported by many of the cases reviewed in South Africa. It would make sense from an evolutionary perspective, as it is beneficial for the virus to become more infectious but less virulent, said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, an epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.
“If the virus gets so severe that it kills most people, it won’t travel much because it needs people to transmit to others,” he said. “Thus, in a sense, the virus tends to increase transmission and generally reduce its severity.”
But while scientists can make educated guesses about how this variant behaves based on its genetic makeup and initial reports, more testing and observation is needed.
Almost 64% of Californians are fully vaccinated, according to The Times’ vaccination tracking system, but that number is too low to contain the expected fifth COVID-19 outbreak this winter. There is a surge in demand for vaccinations among children aged 5 to 11, and interest in revaccination is growing, but authorities are concerned about low vaccination rates among young people.
Los Angeles County officials said in the bulletin that continued vaccinations are necessary.
“The most important strategy remains to ensure that everyone 5 years of age and older is fully vaccinated or boosted as soon as possible to reduce transmission of the virus that currently dominates the district. The vaccines are effective against the Delta variant and earlier strains of the virus, which gives us hope that approved vaccines will also provide some protection against Omicron, ”the county said in a statement.