Long Beach Department of Health & Human Services holds an evening COVID-19 vaccination clinic
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
COVID Today

Santa Cruz County health officials: Only a matter of time before Omicron arrives; vaccination imperative

Days after a new COVID-19 variant was named a variant of concern by the World Health Organization, Santa Cruz County health officials reiterate that following the same public health guidelines emphasized throughout the pandemic are the best ways to avoid causing the spread of the disease.

The What: While there have not yet been any reported cases of the new COVID-19 variant Omicron in the United States, Santa Cruz County Deputy Health Officer David Ghilarducci says it’s only a matter of time before it makes its way to local communities including Santa Cruz.

The So What: Omicron is one of five COVID-19 variants currently being monitored by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a variant of concern. WHO announced the designation Friday, the same day the U.S. announced travel bans for non-U.S. citizens coming from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, in order to slow down and prevent its spread. Experts worry preliminary evidence shows it could be more transmissible than the Delta variant, but that’s not yet clear.

Backgrounder:

  • As of Saturday, at least 115 cases of the new variant had been detected globally, according to the California Department of Public Health. The first case to be reported was found in South Africa on Nov. 9 and it was confirmed to be a new variant Nov. 24.
  • The previous time WHO named a variant of concern was in May for the Delta variant, which has become the dominant variant.
  • WHO uses the Greek alphabet to name variants of the disease to reduce confusion or cause offense to groups that could be affected if more common names were used.
Dr. David Ghilarducci.
(Courtesy County of Santa Cruz)

Voices: “This new variant, Omicron, appears to have mutations in areas that may make it more transmissible — meaning it’s easier to pass from one person to the next, much easier than Delta as a matter of fact,” said Ghilarducci. “And it may have mutations to the spike protein that could potentially make people who have been previously infected more susceptible than they would be otherwise.”

This new variant, Omicron, appears to have mutations in areas that may make it more transmissible — meaning it’s easier to pass from one person to the next, much easier than Delta as a matter of fact. And it may have mutations to the spike protein that could potentially make people who have been previously infected more susceptible than they would be otherwise.

The director of the California Department of Public Health, Dr. Tomás J. Aragón, said in a statement on Sunday that the state is monitoring cases and had not detected Omicron yet.

“Vaccines continue to be our best way through the pandemic by safely protecting us against severe illness from COVID-19 and its variants,” he said. “We are doubling down on our vaccination and booster efforts to ensure that all Californians have access to safe, effective, and free vaccines that can prevent serious illness and death.”

The Context: WHO monitors variants of viruses to understand potential changes in the behavior of a virus so that officials can make needed changes to public health measures, such as adjusting vaccines.

A variant is designated a variant of concern by WHO when it meets one or more of these criteria: higher rate of transmissibility, an increased chance of serious illness or decreased effectiveness in vaccines or other public health measures.

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WHO says Omicron has an “unprecedented number of spike mutations,” between 26 to 32 in the spike protein — which is used by the disease to attach to human cells. These mutations are what could lead to variations in the disease’s transmissibility or ability to infect someone who was already sick or vaccinated.

While not all variants will eventually become dominant, some, like Delta, will have mutations that lead them to be more transmissible. Delta now makes up 99.7% of cases in California.

“This new variant may actually squeeze out Delta,” said Ghilarducci. “It looks like it may actually be more successful than Delta. Viruses, over time, tend to find ways around our immunity.”

This new variant may actually squeeze out Delta. It looks like it may actually be more successful than Delta. Viruses, over time, tend to find ways around our immunity.

In addition, experts are still not sure if the variant causes more serious illness or how effective vaccines are against it.

So far, the variant has been detected in travelers in countries ranging from Canada to Belgium and Australia, while local transmission has been reported in South Africa and Botswana, according to the New York Times.

What’s next: Ghilarducci said Santa Cruz County saw an increase in COVID-19 cases just before the Thanksgiving holiday and it won’t be clear for another week or so if a surge will result from family gatherings and travel.

He hopes that people will see this new concern as another reason to get vaccinated if they haven’t yet.

“With Delta, we saw a pretty good bump up in vaccinations in areas that had pretty low rates, because people realized that they were vulnerable,” he said.

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Ghilarducci added that there is evidence showing that natural immunity from having the illness is not as protective as the immunity gained from getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

He reiterated that amid the growing concern of Omicron, the community should continue following the same guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

How to prevent further spread of COVID-19:

  • Get vaccinated or receive a booster shot.
  • Wear a mask while indoors.
  • Get tested after an exposure or when showing symptoms.
  • Stay home when feeling sick.

For more information on Omicron from WHO, click here.