Beginning Wednesday, all Orange County residents will again have to wear masks when going to indoor public places as the Omicron COVID-19 variant is raising concerns from public health experts, with some saying it will fuel a winter surge.

“… the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) is requiring masks to be worn in all indoor public settings, irrespective of vaccine status, for the next four weeks (December 15, 2021 through January 15, 2022),” reads updated health orders from the state health department.

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The month-long mask reinstatement comes as a new variant, Omicron, was just discovered Thanksgiving week in South Africa.

The variant is already fueling a surge in the United Kingdom.

Public health expert and UC Irvine epidemiologist, Andrew Noymer, said it’s now certain Orange County will face another winter COVID surge.

“Omicron is going to guarantee the winter wave whereas before it was only 90% sure,” Noymer said in a Monday phone interview. “There’s going to be a big winter wave. How big, how deadly, is anybody’s guess.”

[Read: Local Public Health Experts Say OC Residents Can Expect Winter COVID Surge Fueled by Omicron]

The California Department of Public Health’s updated health orders note wearing masks significantly reduces COVID-19 transmission. 

“Implementing a universal masking requirement not only has proven to decrease the rate of infections but is able to slow community transmission. A series of cross-sectional surveys in the U.S. suggested that a 10% increase in self-reported mask wearing tripled the likelihood of slowing community transmission,” reads the department’s website.

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County public health officials have said Omicron hasn’t yet been detected in Orange County.

Some public health experts fear the new variant may resist the vaccines more compared to previous variants, like Delta. 

Noymer said it’s too early to definitively say how it will affect vaccination efforts. 

“Basically the unknowns outweigh the knowns at this point for Omicron. So yes, the existing vaccines aren’t worthless — but we can’t rule out that we’ll have to make a new vaccine tailormade for Omicron. But the thing is, that only paves the way for another variant, too,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Orange County’s positivity rate and hospitalizations have plateaued since Thanksgiving.

“I would say right now it looks like transmission and hospitalizations are a little bit steady,” said Vladmir Minin, a UCI biostatistician who’s been tracking COVID-19 trends since the pandemic hit last year.

As of Monday, 196 people were hospitalized, including 66 residents in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.

The virus has now killed 5,823 people — 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.

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While the county’s pandemic metrics have remained stable, state officials have noticed an increase throughout California. 

“Since Thanksgiving, the statewide seven-day average case rate has increased by 47% and hospitalizations have increased by 14%,” reads the state health department website.

Like Noymer, Minin also said it’s tough to predict how Omicron may affect the local pandemic landscape.

“Every geographic region will experience Omicron differently depending on the types and levels of immunity,” Minin said, noting infection differences for people with natural immunity compared to vaccinated immunity. 

And he said scientists still aren’t clear how it will affect “hybrid immunity,” which means people who’ve had COVID are now fully vaccinated. 

Another variable, Minin said, is booster shots.

“It’s hard to compare right now because Omicron is spreading in different countries in very different contexts,” he said, noting that the variant spread in South Africa is different because they have less vaccine coverage compared to the UK.

Before state officials unveiled the reinstatement of an indoor universal mask mandate, Noymer urged people to mask up. 

“If you’re just wandering around the sweater section around Macy’s, it’s just not clear there’s a huge bonus to being unmasked. Therefore, I would recommend masking,” he said.

At a news briefing last Friday, Deputy OC Health Officer, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, also said county public health officials are still learning how Omicron can affect the pandemic’s trajectory. 

“As we all know scientists are still learning more on how Omicron spreads and infects people,” Chinsio-Kwong said. “We’re hearing from overseas that it’s highly transmissible. We’re seeing this in Europe and in South Africa.” 

Yet in talking to reporters, Chinsio-Kwong also indicated that Orange County officials had no taste for mask mandates, arguing in their view that the approach generated significant polarization.

Nonetheless, she told reporters that HCA officials are urging people to wear masks when going to crowded, indoor spaces.

“Wearing that mask is a really good idea,” Chinsio-Kwong said. “We can’t really predict all these things, but again using caution is the best recommendation I have.” 

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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