A new COVID-19 variant, called Omicron, is causing some concern for scientists and researchers in Orange County, but it’s too early to tell if the mutation is deadlier, more contagious or vaccine resistant. 

In the meantime, local public health experts are urging people to continue following public health guidance like masking indoors and avoiding indoor crowds as much as possible. Additionally, they’re renewing calls for vaccinations.

“It is definitely not time to panic. And I think we all need to try to be patient to find out more information. That said, what we do know is concerning — I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be concerned — there are actions that we can take right now to ensure that we’re protected,” said UC Irvine public health expert and epidemiologist, Sanghyuk Shin. 

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In a Wednesday phone interview, Shin said Omicron data so far appears to show elements of past variants, which researchers are studying to see if the new strain is more contagious or can resist immunities.

But, Shin said, it also depends on how Omicron reacts in the real world — not laboratory settings.

“It could be spreading simply because of the kind of social network and social contacts people have that lead to superspreading events — not because it’s biologically more transmissible. We just simply don’t know what’s driving it at this point,” he said.

The United States’ first Omicron case was detected in San Francisco as of Wednesday, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

OC’s Deputy Health Officer, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, also said it’s too early to tell what Omicron means for the pandemic’s trajectory.

“While the mutations are concerning for increased transmission and immune escape, we need real-life data to prove this. It is too early to tell if this variant causes increased severe illness or hospitalizations. Unfortunately, we will have to learn through the lived experience of other countries that have detected Omicron cases to understand how it may affect our community,” Chinsio-Kwong said in a Wednesday email.

The World Health Organization considers the new Omicron strain a “variant of concern.” 

“WHO is working with technical partners to understand the potential impact of this variant on our existing countermeasures, including vaccines. Vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating variant, Delta. Current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death,” reads an overview on the organization’s website

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Omicron was just discovered in South Africa by scientists last week.

“This variant has already been found — at last count — in 19 countries across the world. It seems like every hour we’re finding this variant in new places,” Shin said. 

But, he said, traveling could play a big factor in the spread. 

“From a public health perspective, the sheer volume of travel is what’s going to drive this spread of Delta and the Omicron variant,” Shin said. “This year, looking at the data, the travel volume is pretty much at the pre-pandemic 2019 levels.”

UC Irvine public health expert and epidemiologist, Sanghyuk Shin

Security checkpoint data from the federal Transportation Security Administration shows travel is significantly higher this year, compared to last year. 

For example, more than 2.3 million people traveled throughout the country on Thanksgiving Eve — last Wednesday — compared to a little over 1 million last year. 

Security checkpoint numbers on 2019’s Thanksgiving Eve clocked in at 2.6 million people.

Shn’s colleague, epidemiologist Andrew Noymer, said he expects a winter increase regardless of Omicron. 

“I think we’re in for a rough winter, but when I say rough I mean worse than now — not worse than last winter,” Noymer said. “This coming winter will be less severe than last winter was, but it will be worse than the summer was.” 

Noymer, also a public health expert at UCI, said the severity of a winter increase “depends on what we do in terms of booster shots.” 

State and local public health officials have been urging everyone 18 and older who’s fully vaccinated to get their booster shots once they qualify — meaning six months after the completion of the two-dose series and two months after the one-shot vaccine. 

Over the past week, Orange County’s seen an uptick in its positivity rate — going from 2.4% to 3.5%, according to state data

Hospitalizations have been steady, plateauing around 200 people since the summer spike.

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Like data on previous variants, Shin said laboratory studies, coupled with epidemiological research of the variant’s spread and impact on people, means it will take some time before researchers get a better grasp on what Omicron means for the pandemic. 

“So we probably really won’t have a good handle on a lot of these questions that we have for several weeks, is my guess.” 

Before researchers discovered Omicron, Chinsio-Kwong, OC’s deputy health officer, said a winter spike could happen if people ignore safety measures and stop getting vaccinated.

“When you look at it, there is a potential to have a severe surge that begins at the end of January 2022 and peaks at mid February. And the numbers are concerning,” she said during a Nov. 19 news briefing.

Chinsio-Kwong said she’s been evaluating projections by researchers and closely watching the virus surges happening in Europe.

“Europe tends to have surges about anywhere from two weeks to a month before we do. So even if we didn’t have that predictive modeling, already our future doesn’t look so good.”

OC’s deputy health officer Chinsio-Kwong

“This is not the time to become less careful — if anything we must become even more careful to protect our future,” she said.

Chinsio-Kwong also said she fears a surge stemming from the holiday season.

Last December and January, thousands of people were testing positive daily, the county’s positivity rate was over 20% and more than 2,200 people were hospitalized at one point.

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While OC’s positivity rate currently hovers around 3%, there’s 189 people hospitalized as of Wednesday, including 54 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.

Since the pandemic kicked off early last year, the virus has killed 5,736 OC residents — that’s more than five times the flu kills on a two-year average.

​​Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.

The best way people can keep themselves protected, Chinsio-Kwong said in the Wednesday email, is through “vaccination, testing and prevention are all important ways for us to fight a potential surge and the spread of new variants.” 

She also urged people to keep testing if they think they have the virus and to get tested if they plan on traveling.

“Testing helps support early detection and prevent the spread of possible variants,” Chinsio-Kwong said.

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Shin also said people should routinely get tested for the virus if they plan on traveling during the upcoming holidays. 

He also said local and state officials should roll out more testing opportunities for residents, similar to what Los Angeles County did when they reopened a massive testing site at Dodger Stadium last month.

“We also need the state and federal governments to step in to provide support for paid time off … to provide payment for people who are asymptomatic or symptomatic and test positive, who have to isolate or quarantine,” Shin said.

There’s no mass testing site for residents in Orange County and local public health officials have said they don’t currently have plans to reopen them.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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