The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Los Angeles County ticked upward slightly in its latest data, while health officials again urged people to get vaccinated or receive a booster shot in response to the discovery in Northern California of the Omicron variant of the virus.
The Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa, and it was designated a ``variant of concern'' by the World Health Organization last week. Although no cases of the variant have been confirmed in Los Angeles or Southern California, health officials have said it is likely already circulating in the United States.
"While the spread of Omicron across the globe is worrisome, we have both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical interventions at hand to respond to the emergence of a new variant of concern,'' county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement. ``We can reduce transmission by getting vaccinated, wearing masks, keeping our distance and avoiding crowds, testing and quarantining. Every action we take now to reduce spread will help.''
Research is still being conducted on the Omicron variant to determine if it is potentially more resistant to vaccines, more easily transmitted or a source of more serious illness. State officials said Wednesday, however, they were encouraged that the patient who tested positive for the variant in San Francisco was fully vaccinated and developed only mild symptoms that are improving.
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That person was not hospitalized.
According to state figures, there were 574 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Los Angeles County as of Wednesday, up from 562 on Tuesday. The number of those patients in intensive care was 158, down from 165 a day earlier.
The county on Wednesday reported another 18 COVID-19 deaths, raising the overall number of virus-related fatalities in the county to 27,184. Another 1,473 new cases were also confirmed, for a pandemic total of 1,528,586.
The rolling average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus in the county was 1.7% on Wednesday, a drop from Tuesday but still above last week's rate of about 1%.
Ferrer told the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that despite the appearance of the Omicron variant, no immediate changes to the Health Officer Order are anticipated that would tighten infection-control regulations.
She said the county already has ``really sensible precautions in place,'' most notably the requirement for people to wear masks indoors and at large outdoor gatherings. She said if the county didn't already have that mandate in place, ``we'd be suggesting it'' in response to the Omicron variant.
Ferrer said the county might make some changes to rules governing visitation and testing at skilled nursing facilities, particularly if Omicron is found to be more resistant to current COVID vaccines. The county could also potentially re-impose quarantine requirements for people who may have been exposed to COVID, regardless of vaccination status.
The county on Tuesday sent an advisory to health care providers "detailing information on assessing risk associated with travel and directions for submitting samples for sequencing (to identify variants),'' Ferrer said.
She said the county was also working with the state to ``provide information and offer a rapid-testing option for international travelers at LAX,'' and to ensure travelers arriving from Omicron-affected countries in South Africa are aware of federal requirements for quarantine and testing.
In the wake of Omicron, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday stepped up its vaccine recommendation, urging everyone aged 18 and over to get a booster shot. The CDC had earlier recommended the shots for those aged 50 and up, and only suggested it for younger adults.
According to the most recent figures, 82.5% of Los Angeles County residents 12 and over have received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, and 74% are fully vaccinated. Of the county's overall population of 10.3 million people, 71% received at least one dose, and 63% were fully vaccinated.
Of the roughly 5.99 million residents who were fully vaccinated as of Nov. 16, 75,249 have subsequently tested positive for the virus, for a rate of 1.26%, Ferrer said. Of the vaccinated population, 2,528 have been hospitalized, for a rate of 0.042%, and 422 have died, a rate of 0.007%.