‘The pandemic is still here’: California braces for Omicron even as strain from Delta continues

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP</span>
Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP

Omicron threatens to overwhelm facilities in the state’s rural north and Central Valley as many remain unvaccinated

As health officials confirmed the first US case of the Omicron variant in California this week, the state’s rural north and Central Valley were still battling a wave of cases linked to the Delta variant and low vaccination rates.

Related: Second US case of Omicron linked to New York anime convention

In Siskiyou county, near the Oregon border, cases were up 245% this week and an automated message from the public health department warned officials were overwhelmed with calls linked to the latest surge. Much of the north of the state is considered at very high risk of Covid-19 transmission and in some areas, ICUs are nearly at capacity.

Public health experts caution that much remains unknown about the Omicron variant, including the severity of the illness it causes, its effect on unvaccinated people and how it responds to vaccines. But a rise in cases could further strain health systems in parts of the state struggling with Covid, despite the widespread availability of vaccines.

“We know that viruses mutate. We don’t know much about this variant. We want to be careful before we sound the alarm,” said Rachel Abbott, a spokesperson for Yuba county, where 46% of residents are vaccinated. “Regardless of the variant, we’re recommending vaccinations and boosters as well – that’s the best way to protect yourself.”

In California, 67.9% of residents five and older are vaccinated, but vaccination rates lag behind in some parts of the state, which experts have attributed to vaccine hesitancy, misinformation and access.

“California, like other states, has pockets of unvaccinated individuals,” said Dr Lorena Garcia, an epidemiologist with the University of California, Davis. “That is problematic because there are under-resourced communities, communities where individuals have limited access to services. These tend to be rural communities.”

In rural Siskiyou county, where cases have climbed in recent weeks, 50% of residents are vaccinated, according to New York Times data, and officials there have pleaded with residents for months to get the shot.

“Please get vaccinated. We ask this from the bottom of our hearts,” Dr Aaron Stutz, the county health officer and local healthcare providers wrote in a letter to the community in September. “Please trust us with this. We are not asking you to do anything that we have not already done ourselves.”

Some rural and conservative parts of the state have also pushed back against public health restrictions – and in some cases vaccinations – throughout the pandemic. Oroville, in Butte county, recently declared itself a “constitutional republic” in response to state and federal Covid rules.

The threat that Omicron poses is uncertain, experts say, particularly among unvaccinated individuals. But vaccinations and safety measures such as masks and social distancing are crucial, they warn.

“We need to be cautious, we still need to learn more about Omicron,” Garcia said. “While it may be more transmissible we don’t know that it’s more severe. What we do know is what we can do to protect ourselves.”

Increasing vaccination rates is also key to preventing the development of new variants of Covid-19 “as long as we have large pockets and large numbers of individuals that are unvaccinated we will get new variants,” Garcia said.

Madera county in the Central Valley just reached a 50% vaccination rate after a months-long campaign to boost vaccinations. “We’ve been working extremely hard to get over that 50% mark,” said Stephanie Nathan, the assistant public health director.

“I think it comes down to an equity issue,” Nathan continued. “The counties that have lower vaccination rates have things in common. We have a population where we have to work hard to make the vaccine as accessible as possible and combat any of the myths that exist.”

Additional surges will primarily impact the unvaccinated and those at high-risk, Garcia said, but also healthcare systems, which struggle to respond to a mass volume of patients arriving at hospitals and clinics within a short time period.

That was the case for Butte county in September as a surge in cases brought more patients to Enloe medical center than at any other point during the pandemic. About 80-90% of people arriving at the center were unvaccinated, the Enterprise-Record reported. Cases in Butte county, which has a vaccination rate of 49% according to New York Times data, are trending downward but officials expect to see a rise with the holiday season.

“The numbers are still higher than we would like,” said Lisa Almaguer, a spokesperson for the public health department.

“With this news of the Omicron variant, there are more questions than answers at this point. Information does not change the current recommendations,” she said. “For variants the best thing people can do to limit the spread is to get vaccinated and if you haven’t gotten the booster now is the time to get boosted.”

This week the Yuba county health department announced that three more residents had died of Covid, all of whom were unvaccinated.

“The pandemic is still here,” Abbott said. “We still have community members dying. It’s still very real.”

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