With COVID cases and hospitalizations rising in Los Angeles County, and a growing threat from the Omicron variant, health officials Thursday announced stepped-up efforts to combat the pandemic, including new rules for attending large events.
Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said that, beginning Friday, anyone attending indoor or outdoor mega-events in the county who cannot provide proof of full vaccination is required to provide proof of a negative COVID test within one day (if antigen test) or two days (if PCR test) of the event.
Children under age 2 are exempt from the rule for indoor events, and children under 5 are exempt for outdoor events. This is a change from the previous health order, which required proof of a negative test within 72 hours.
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The county defines mega-events as indoor gatherings of more than 1,000 people or outdoor events of more than 10,000 people.
Meanwhile, Ferrer said 30 cases of Omicron have now been detected in Los Angeles County, with 12 new confirmed cases reported Thursday. Of the 30, 24 were among fully vaccinated people, four of whom had booster shots.
Ferrer added that there is no evidence to suggest that the new variant causes more severe symptoms than previous versions -- but it is more transmissible than other variants.
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According to a University of Hong Kong study released Wednesday, Omicron infects people around 70 times faster than the currently dominant Delta variant and the original COVID-19 strain, though the severity of illness is likely to be much lower.
“Based on the data collected to date, we anticipate that Omicron will circulate more widely in L.A. County in the very near future, leading to many more cases over a short period of time, particularly given increased gatherings with travel over the winter holiday,'' Ferrer said.
“Unvaccinated individuals appear to remain at the highest risk, but all the evidence to date indicates that those fully vaccinated are also at increased risk, particularly for getting infected and infecting others.”
Ferrer said COVID vaccines, while somewhat effective against Omicron, are not as effective as they are against the Delta variant. Currently available vaccines are 30%-40% effective against Omicron, and 70%-75% effective with a booster shot, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
The vaccines were about 70% effective against the Delta variant prior to the availability of boosters.
The county health department also announced 2,275 new cases of COVID-19 and additional 20 deaths associated with the virus, with Ferrer noting that Thursday was the first time ``in a while'' that cases topped 2,000 in a single day.
In addition, the number of coronavirus patients in county hospitals rose by two Thursday, increasing from 770 to 772, according to the latest state figures. Of those patients, 182 were in intensive care, up from 179 on Wednesday.
The hospitalization number is up about 100 from a week ago and roughly 200 above the number from late November.
The daily test positivity rate rose to 1.7%, up from 1.2%. The county has now logged 1,553,366 cases and 27,388 fatalities since the pandemic began.
In addition to the change in rules for mega-events, Ferrer also announced a series of other measures the county is taking to combat the latest surge, including:
- weekly testing for residents and staff at skilled nursing facilities.
- negative test required within 72 hours for visitors at SNFs.
- added outreach efforts to encourage safety and vaccines, including town halls and social media efforts.
- Increased testing capacity and vaccinated outreach for homeless people.
The county also is changing its health officer isolation order to emphasize the need for cases to identify their close contacts during contact tracing to better manage outbreaks.
The county's travel guidance will continue to recommend that anyone traveling into Los Angeles County domestically or internationally get tested for COVID within three to five days of arrival to align with the state's new travel advisory.
Officials continue to recommend that people get vaccinated against COVID-19, and point to data supporting the vaccine's effectiveness at preventing serious illness or death.
As of Dec. 11, of the 6,183,462 people in Los Angeles County who were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, 88,338 (or 1.4%) tested positive for COVID, with 21,891 hospitalized (.05%) and 552 (.009%) dying from the virus.
Of the county's 10.3 million residents, 66% are fully vaccinated and 74% have received one dose.
The health department also reminded residents that fully vaccinated people can still catch and spread the coronavirus, and urged everyone to wear masks when around others regardless of vaccination status.
Also Thursday, an advisory panel to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unanimously voted to give a preferential recommendation to mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna over the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to rare but serious blood clots associated with the latter.
Dr. Isaac See of the CDC said health officials have confirmed 54 cases of the blood clots -- nine of which have been fatal -- and two additional deaths suspected to be related to the blood clotting issue.
The CDC temporarily suspended approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in April while initial reports of the blood clots were investigated, but decided at that time that the vaccine's benefits outweigh the risks.
The CDC's director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, is expected to decide whether to accept the panel's recommendation on Friday.