COVID-19 Omicron likely already in Beach Cities
by Mark McDermott
No cases of the newly emerging Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus have been officially reported in the Beach Cities, nor has there been an uptick in cases indicative of a winter surge.
But Dr. William Kim, the chief medical officer for the Beach Cities Health District, said Omicron has almost certainly already arrived locally, and some kind of winter surge is likely to follow.
“I haven’t seen any reports of Omicron in the Beach Cities, but I’m sure it’s here,” Kim said. “Because it’s so adept at infecting individuals, there’ve been 15 cases reported in LA County, but there’s probably thousands and thousands of cases out there. We are just not sequencing every time somebody comes down with a positive [test]. If we were sequencing more, we would find that it’s up there, and will probably be the primary variant within a month or two.”
The new variant’s extreme contagiousness, combined with waning effectiveness of vaccine shots taken earlier in the year, lingering unvaccinated populations, and the increase in indoor gatherings over the holiday season will almost inevitably lead to more COVID-19 cases. But so far, no spike has appeared in the Beach Cities.
Kim said that neither Providence Little Company of Mary nor Torrance Memorial medical centers have experienced a significant increase of COVID-19 cases.
“It’s relatively stable,” he said. “But I would expect it to increase after the Thanksgiving holiday, and now with Omicron, I would expect it to increase even more, but perhaps not hospitalizations because of the mild illness that hopefully the new variant will continue to produce.”
LA County on Tuesday announced eight new cases of Omicron, doubling its previous total. According to the LA County Department of Public Health, seven of the new Omicron cases developed symptoms but did not require hospitalization. Five of the eight were fully vaccinated, one traveled internationally, and two recently traveled within the United States.
“All indications are that among those fully vaccinated, illness severity if infected with Omicron is mild, reminding us that all eligible residents need to urgently get vaccinated or boosted,” said Barbera Ferrer, the county’s Director of Public Health. “The vaccines are likely to provide much needed protection against serious illness caused by Omicron and are already known to provide protection against infection and disease associated with the Delta variant that continues to dominate across the County.”
Overall COVID-19 case rates have risen by 33 percent in LA County and 50 percent statewide since Thanksgiving, largely still driven by the Delta variant. Within LA County, hospitalizations increased from 650 December 8 to 718 on December 14. A hundred deaths due to COVID-19 were reported in the county over the same week.
Kim suspects that the Beach Cities relatively stable rates are due to its extremely high vaccination rates. Just over 81 percent of Manhattan Beach’s population is fully vaccinated, 78.3 percent in Hermosa Beach, and 78.2 percent in Redondo Beach. But since the rate of breakthrough cases among the vaccinated has increased with the Delta variants and is expected to increase more dramatically with Omicron, public health leaders both nationally and locally are urging everyone to obtain booster shots. In fact, there has been movement towards expanding the Center for Disease Control’s definition of “fully vaccinated” to include a third shot.
“Optimal protection is going to be with a third shot,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s senior advisor on the pandemic, earlier this week. “Please don’t wait any longer,” Ferrer said. “The boosters are essential.”
The reason is that boosters have proven more effective at preventing infection and serious illness than was even hoped for when that third round of shots began. A study by Northwestern University released this week found that people who were immunized with two shots and then received a third eight months later had 23 times more antibodies then before they received the shot, and three times more than a week after their second shot — which was expected to be the peak level of antibodies.
BCHD’s Dr. Kim performed a small study of his own with two patients who’d recently received booster shots and was shocked by the results.
“It’s amazing what that third shot does with regards to our bodies,” he said. “As an example, one guy, six months ago, after having a second Moderna shot, we measured his spike antibodies, and they were over 2,000, roughly 2,600, somewhere in there. Two weeks after the third shot, they were approaching 30,000.”
These are the antibodies that target the spike proteins in the virus. One of the concerns with Omicron is that it has further mutated and may be more effective at breaking through such defenses.
“Delta has mutations on the spike protein that get around the vaccines just a little bit, but Omicron seems to have more, like 30 to 32 deletions and mutations on the spike proteins, making the vaccine less effective,” Kim said. “ However, the higher the antibody level, the better protection we will have.”
Omicron is believed to be three times more contagious than Delta, which was twice as contagious as the original coronavirus. A fuller picture of Omicron has yet to come into focus, due to the fact that the less developed countries from which it emerged have fewer means to do broad studies. But initial studies from countries such as England where the virus has gained a foothold, indicate each person infected by the new variant will infect roughly four other people — equivalent to the reproduction rate of the first novel coronavirus, but with the significant difference that this is occurring among significantly immunized populations.
These breakthrough capabilities are why indoor mask mandates issued by both the state and the county are likely to be in place for the foreseeable future. Kim said that masks do not completely safeguard the spread of the virus but are largely effective.
“You can still spread infection with a mask, but it’s not like an unmasked individual, so it is helpful, particularly in indoor environments,” he said. “And not only for COVID, but also to help prevent the spread of influenza and a bunch of other bugs that are out there. I mean, I’ve seen two cases in adults of respiratory syncytial virus in the last three weeks. That’s a virus that causes severe pneumonia in young children, but a pretty bad upper respiratory infection in adults.“
Dr. Kim also stressed the importance of behaviors that help strengthen your immune system, particularly now, during what is also flu season.
“By staying well hydrated, trying to exercise whenever possible, a good diet, all those things can boost your immune system,” he said. “And some supplements. We know that Vitamin D and Vitamin C can be helpful. Supplemental zinc is also advisable in certain populations.” ER