Just hours before confirming the county's first case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, the county health director announced Thursday plans for a rapid-testing site at Los Angeles International Airport that will offer free -- but voluntary -- COVID tests for arriving international passengers.
"We'll be messaging the need for international travelers to comply with the federal quarantine and testing guidance, and any travelers that do test positive will be required, of course, to isolate, and their close contacts will need to quarantine,'' county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said during a Thursday afternoon media briefing.
The COVID testing at the Tom Bradley International Terminal, which will begin Friday, will be offered strictly on a voluntary basis, since there is no federal requirement for inbound passengers to be tested.
"The federal government is highly recommending that people get tested,'' Ferrer said. "We will have our health workers out there, as well, talking to people, making sure they understand the importance of testing. We are using a rapid antigen test there, so people will be able to get their results before they leave the airport.
"I think that provides security to them as well, that they know that they can go ahead and gather with the people they were planning to gather with, go to their final destination with some safety,'' she said. "For anybody who does come forward and get tested and they're negative, we will send home with them a test kit so they can test themselves again three to five days later.''
At about 5:30 p.m. Thursday, the county confirmed the first local case of the Omicron variant, which was designed a "variant of concern'' by the World Health Organization last week, and by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week.
The variant was first detected in South Africa, where it is blamed for a rapid surge in infections, and it has now spread to about three dozen countries, including the United States, where the first case was confirmed Wednesday in San Francisco. Additional cases have also been found in Minnesota and Colorado.
The local Omicron patient confirmed late Thursday afternoon is a Los Angeles County resident who returned to the area Nov. 22 after traveling to South Africa via London. The infection was deemed to be "most likely travel related.'' The unidentified patient is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and has symptoms that are improving, health officials said. The person's close contacts have all tested negative for the virus.
It is still unclear if the Omicron variant is more highly transmissible than other forms of the virus, or if it causes more severe illness or can evade the protection offered by current vaccines. But its rapid spread in South Africa has raised alarms, particularly ahead of the winter holiday season and accompanying travel and gatherings.
Ferrer said the idea at LAX is to offer testing for arriving passengers, not departing ones, who may face varying testing requirements depending on their final destination.
"What we're really trying to do here is prevent people who have been traveling from coming back into our communities -- they're visiting their loved ones, they're going back home to their final destinations, where they may be positive,'' she said. "We want to get them in quickly and get them tested quickly.''
Ferrer again urged people to get vaccinated against COVID-19, or get booster shots if they are eligible for them. She said the vaccines combined with other protective measures such as mask-wearing provide strong protection against infection and serious illness.
According to the latest county figures, of the more than 6.1 million fully vaccinated people in the county, 80,445 have tested positive, or about 1.32%. A total of 2,680 vaccinated people have been hospitalized, for a rate of 0.044%, and 503 have died, for a rate of 0.008%.
So far, 83% of county residents aged 12 and over have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 74% are fully vaccinated. Of all eligible residents aged 5 and over, 76% have received at least one dose, and 68% are fully vaccinated.
Black residents continue to have the lowest rate of vaccinated, with just 55% having received at least one dose. The rate is 60% among Latinx residents, 73% among white residents and 82% among Asians.
The county on Thursday reported another 24 deaths due to COVID-19, raising the overall death toll to 25,786.
Another 1,970 cases were reported, giving the county a pandemic total of 1,530,526. The rolling average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 1.3% as of Thursday.
According to state figures, there were 569 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Los Angeles County as of Thursday, down from 574 on Wednesday. The number of those patients in intensive care was 152, down from 158 a day earlier.