COVID-19 – Omicron surge wanes locally but Manhattan Beach registers four deaths

Graph by Beach Cities Health District based on Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Data

by Mark McDermott 

The Omicron surge has moved beyond its peak in the Beach Cities and begun to decline. But similar to trends elsewhere, even as COVID-19 cases decrease, the number of deaths has increased. Four people died in Manhattan Beach over the past two weeks, including three in the last week. 

“It is with a heavy heart that we learned of four more deaths from COVID-19 in our Manhattan Beach Community this past month,” said Manhattan Beach Mayor Hildy Stern. “I extend my sincere condolences to the families and loved ones of all those whose lives have tragically been taken by this horrible disease. As we honor the memory of those who have passed, together we will continue to do all that we can to protect the health and safety of our community.”

According to the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, the county experienced a 140 percent increase in deaths from COVID-19 in the past two weeks, even as cases and hospitalizations declined. 

Dr. William Kim, the chief medical officer for the Beach Cities Health District, said that more deaths are likely locally given the fact that a roughly three week lag exists between peak infections and a surge’s highest death rate. But Kim also noted that due to the unusually high vaccination rates locally, the Beach Cities are unlikely to experience death rates comparable to other areas. 

“I think we’re faring fairly well compared to other communities in Southern California,” Kim said. “Our population is pretty well vaccinated, which really makes a huge difference. I think ,in general, our population in the Beach Cities is also pretty good about social distancing, and wearing masks. Because of that, we’re not going to see the death rates that other communities are seeing, especially those that are not very well represented with physicians and medical care. Still, we’re going to see a bump in our deaths —  already three in Manhattan Beach in the last week, and the other Beach Cities will probably see increasing deaths over the next two weeks.” 

As of this week,  84 percent of Manhattan Beach residents, 80.6 percent of Hermosa Beach residents, and 81 percent of Redondo Beach residents are fully vaccinated. Overall in LA County, 68 percent of those eligible are fully vaccinated, while 63 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. 

The peak of the Omicron surge locally appears to have been the week ending January 9, when all three Beach Cities registered their highest totals of new COVID-19 thus far in the pandemic. That week, Redondo Beach totalled 1,223 cases, Manhattan Beach 512, and Hermosa Beach 341. By the following week, Redondo Beach dropped to 801, Manhattan to 307, and Hermosa 206. 

“We seem to be on the downward slope,” Kim said. 

This also appears to be true countywide. According to the LACDPH, on January 11 the county experienced 34,827 COVID-19 cases, its highest total since the pandemic began. On January 25, 18,822 cases were reported, representing a 46 percent drop in two weeks. 

A hopeful sign occurred locally this week within the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, where the percentage of staff and students who were positive with COVID-19 dropped from 8.3 percent to 4.9 percent. Kim said the school districts in Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach have likewise excelled at mitigation efforts to keep their students and staff safe. 

“All of those school districts have done a fantastic job of stepping up to the plate and doing the best they can to protect their students and their teachers,” Kim said.  “The employees have done a great job in supporting vaccinations, and also supporting ongoing testing, particularly with their athletes. I can’t say enough about the leadership of our school districts.”

Kim expressed hope that this surge would largely be over within a month, but warned that the novel coronavirus’ ability to quickly mutate makes it impossible to predict with any real certainty. Already, Kim noted, Omicron has mutated into two different variants. 

“The thing is, it’s so unique in its ability to pivot,” Kim said. “I mean, who would have ever thought that Omicron would develop and be so highly infectious? Thank God, it’s not so virulent. But if the current trend continues, I would think from the end of February into March, we’re going to be seeing some breathing room. Not to say that we still shouldn’t be careful.” 

Another hopeful development is that Pfizer and Moderna are expected to have vaccines specifically designed to counter both the Delta and Omicron variants by March or April. Given the experience in two of the countries where Omicron first spread, South Africa and Britain, those new vaccines could be key to finally reducing transmission.  Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota who has been one of the most accurate forecasters of pandemic trends, believes that while the U.S. is likely to have some breathing room in the next month, Omicron may be far from done.

“If you look at South Africa right now, the number of cases increased dramatically from a baseline, hit the peak and then came down sharply,” Osterholm told Politico this week. “But if you look today, they still have almost 12 times as many cases a day as they did before Omicron occurred. But what’s even more concerning is what we’ve seen in the United Kingdom. If you look there, and it appears to be tied to school kids and their parents — we saw cases come down 10 days ago, we saw them level off, and go back up again. Over the last two days, they’re going back up, not dropping. And so that could also signal that this tail is going to be more volatile than you might imagine.” 

The danger, as always, is Omicron’s extreme contagiousness. Virologists have begun to get a more accurate picture of Omicron’s R-naught (R0) factor, a calculation of the number of people a single infected person can be expected to transmit the disease to. Omicron appears to be one of the most highly transmissible diseases in history. 

“The R-naught factor for Omicron is at least 7 but it might be as high as 14,” Kim said. “And that’s approaching measles, which is 12 to 18 and supposedly the most infectious disease around. Delta was 5.8, and the alpha and betas [original novel coronaviruses] were more like a 2 to 7.”

Omicron also did not operate on a level playing field, compared to earlier viruses, since it had to overcome a population with more immunity, both those who’d already suffered COVID-19 and a large vaccinated population. Vaccines remain an essential bulwark against its ability to cause serious illness and death. A study of cases in LA County in December indicated  ICU admission was 21.3 times higher among unvaccinated, while among those infected by Omicron, the unvaccinated were 22.3 more likely to die than vaccinated individuals. 

“This variant, most people who are being admitted, although Ill, aren’t as sick as the surge with the Delta variant,” Kim said.  “And although, in LA County, there’s a lot of people in ICU, in our local hospitals. I can’t really speak to the numbers with impunity, because I haven’t been in the ICU. But my impression is that we don’t have the same volume of people on respirators as we did previously —  Christmas, 2020 and January of 2021 were just horrible. It was bedlam.” 

The light at the end of the tunnel is that Omicron’s extreme spreadability has also conferred better immunity among the large swath of the population who have been infected. This combined with the quickly evolving mRNA vaccine technology will drastically reduce COVID’s lethality. 

“The R-naught value is going to be high,” Kim Said. But soon enough it’s going to infect enough people that it’s going to be like the flu. We are probably going to have a COVID vaccine that’s combined with the flu vaccine that’s going to be given every September, October, November.” ER



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