People wait in line to get the COVID-19 test at Union Station on Dec. 27. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

With Omicron exploding ‘incredibly fast,’ officials urge caution in coming days

Soaring COVID-19 cases fueled by the fast-spreading Omicron variant are prompting fresh concerns about end-of-year gatherings.

Soaring COVID-19 cases fueled by the fast-spreading Omicron variant are prompting fresh concerns about end-of-year gatherings — even as preliminary evidence mounts that the strain may result in less severe disease than its Delta counterpart.

Over the last week, the state has averaged 20,467 new cases per day, an increase of 228.1% compared with two weeks ago, according to The Times coronavirus tracker. That’s higher than at any point during the summer Delta surge.

L.A. County has reported at least 6,500 new cases every day for the last week, including 9,473 on Tuesday.

But “most alarming,” county health officials wrote in a statement, “is the increase in test positivity, which has more than tripled since mid-December, indicating surging transmission across the county.” As of Tuesday, the seven-day average countywide positivity rate was 14.5%.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday that the nationwide average number of daily cases over the last week has climbed beyond 277,000, exceeding the peak of 160,000 during the summer Delta surge and the all-time high of 250,000 reported last winter.

In an effort to slow the spread of the disease, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s top medical advisor, cautioned against large gatherings during the New Year’s holiday.

“If your plans are to go to a 40- to 50-person New Year’s Eve party with all the bells and whistles and everybody hugging and kissing and wishing each other a happy New Year, I would strongly recommend that this year, we do not do that,” he said. “We feel you should continue to go through with those plans of having a home-related, vaccinated, boosted gathering, with family and close friends who are also vaccinated and boosted.”

Preliminary data continue to show that the Omicron variant of coronavirus results in less severe disease than its Delta counterpart, according to Fauci.

Cases from the U.K. and South Africa showed reduced risk of hospitalizations, Fauci said during a White House briefing Wednesday morning. In recent reports from Scotland, the risk of hospitalization with Omicron was 66% lower than in previous waves.

South Africa reported that among patients who do end up in the hospital, they stayed an average of four days, compared with 8.8 days during the Delta wave.

Currently in the U.S., data suggest that “the spike in cases is out of proportion to the increase in hospitalization,” Fauci said. As of Tuesday night, the 14-day average shows a 126% increase in cases, and an 11% increase in hospitalizations.

“We must remember that hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators, but the pattern and disparity between cases and hospitalizations strongly suggest that there will be a lower hospitalization-to-case ratio when the situation becomes more clear,” he said.

Though the number of COVID-19 patients statewide remains far below the high marks of last winter’s surge, hospitalizations are again rising in California. As of Tuesday, 4,759 coronavirus-positive patients were hospitalized statewide — a nearly 33% increase from a week ago.

The rise has been even steeper in Los Angeles County — which saw its daily patient count grow by 62% since Dec. 21, from 770 to 1,251. Orange County reported a 75% increase during the same time, from 215 to 376.

It’s unclear how many of the new hospitalizations are linked to Omicron or whether the Delta variant remains dominant.

It’s possible hospitals will be challenged with more patients in the coming weeks.

“Our case rates are going up incredibly fast, and some proportion of people that get sick will require a hospital bed,” Dr. Sara Cody, the Santa Clara County public health director and health officer, said during a news conference Tuesday.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.