LA County Health Department offers advice and answers questions before people gather for the holidays
The growing spread of the Omicron variant of the deadly COVID-19 virus has already impacted some sporting events and holiday performances. Some large gatherings and public events have been canceled or postponed due to Omicron cases that health officials fear are doubling daily. Although the medical community is still gathering information on this latest mutation of the virus the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LACODPH) deemed Omicron important enough to hold a town hall to answer questions posed by the public.
The virtual town hall held December 16 was moderated by LACODPH Director Barbara Ferrer, who remarked, “Unfortunately, we’re seeing indications of a winter surge on the heels of Thanksgiving. Hospitalizations are steadily increasing, and we anticipate they will continue to increase as we enter the winter holidays. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that our weekly case rate is now 100 new cases per 100-thousand residents. This reflects a jump of transmission across the country. Omicron poses a significant threat to our community. We anticipate it will circulate more widely particularly given the increased gatherings and travel that we all enjoy over the holidays. Unvaccinated individuals remain at the highest risk.”
While all the doctors participating urged the public to get vaccinated and boosted Ferrer suggested to follow the California mandate to wear a mask indoors in public spaces and even crowded outdoor spaces or “any time you’re near someone you know to be vulnerable to the most severe outcomes of COVID infection.” Ferrer added it was important “to protect the 500,000 children under the age of 4” who are currently ineligible for inoculation. “If we fail to take precautions, we could be in a dangerous place by the end of the month.”
“There are so many reasons we care about Omicron,” Dr. Dawn Terashita said. “We know Omicron is more infectious. It transmits very easily. Maybe as easily as Delta-maybe more. We’re still learning. We also know it eludes the vaccine. The vaccines just don’t work as well against it. They work a little bit, but they don’t work as well, which is why our other mitigation measures such as distancing and wearing masks becomes so important because even if you’re vaccinated you can still be exposed and get the virus.”
Terashita acknowledged, “In many people it has been causing a more mild infection, but that’s just based on preliminary studies. We don’t know. A lot of the initial people who were infected were younger, people who were travelers who were inherently more healthy and maybe these individuals didn’t get as sick because of their underlying immune status. We know when older immunocompromised individuals get disease they do become more severely infected and in fact, could die.”
Because the meeting was held virtually many online comments accused the LACODPH of fear-mongering.
Ferrer reminded though that during the holidays, “If you’re in close contact with lots of people the greater your chance is going to be of getting infected. That applies whether you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated.” With large events, Ferrer said, “You’re going to be in close contact with people and if you or they are not wearing a mask, because there’s tens of thousands of people at some of these events the chances that there are infectious people there are pretty high.”
Ferrer urged not only wearing a mask but to make sure it’s a high-quality, three-layer variety that fits well over your nose and mouth.
For those who got booster shots at the beginning in August and are worried about the six-month mark coming up, Dr. Eloiza Gonzales confirmed, “Only one booster is recommended at this time.” Boosters are given six months after receiving a second dose of a Pfizer or Moderna shot and two months after receiving J&J. Gonzales stated, “Aside from strengthening your protection against Delta, we’re seeing the booster also provide increased protection against Omicron.”
When asked if Delta and Omicron could combine to create a new virus, Terashita answered, “This is how variants can be created. They are created because of mutations or recombination (swapping genetic material.) It’s theoretically possible. But if you’ve studied virology, it’s really hard to create a supervirus. A lot of random factors would have to come together in a very unusual way. It’s possible. I wouldn’t lose sleep over it.”