News of the Covid-19 Omicron variant has given rise to a new wave of virus-related concern; financial markets have been volatile and travel planning has become murkier. California was home to the first reported case of the variant, found in a traveler returning to San Francisco from South Africa.
The variant has also turned up in wastewater tests in Sacramento and Merced counties.
Existing cases of Omicron in California have returned mild-to-no symptoms in fully vaccinated individuals. Pfizer announced earlier this week that results from a lab study indicate that three doses of the company’s vaccine provides effective neutralization of the Omicron variant.
Around this time last year, Governor Gavin Newsom issued a regional stay-at-home order tied to local ICU capacity, in addition to a curfew order, as Covid-19 cases surged statewide and threatened to overwhelm hospitals.
One year later, the state’s high vaccination rates and widely available vaccines and boosters have eased those concerns.
Omicron still represents a large question mark as there isn’t much available information on the variant. Preliminary evidence from South Africa suggests that the variant may result in milder cases of Covid-19 among patients but without any sort of longer-term study of the variant at hand, that’s merely conjecture.
There has been an uptick in local Covid cases. Mono County Public Health Director Bryan Wheeler reporting to county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that the case rate for the week ending November 27 was 64.4 new cases per 100,000 residents per day.
The previous week’s case rate was 53.3 new cases per 100,000 residents per day.
Inyo County’s case rate, by contrast, was reported to be 25.5 per 100,000 by Health and Human Services Director Marilyn Mann on Tuesday.
Of the 58 new cases reported in Inyo during November, approximately one-quarter were “breakthrough” cases amongst those previously vaccinated, though most breakthrough cases have occurred in those vaxxed more than six months ago.
Inyo has recorded seven Covid deaths asince October 1. Four were in unvaccinated individuals. Three were in previously vaccinated individuals over the age of 75.
According to Mono County data, 66.7% of county residents have been fully vaccinated for Covid-19, with an additional 7.5% partially vaccinated.
60.9% of the county’s population aged 12-17 has been fully vaccinated, with 7.3% partially vaccinated; 10.4% of 5-11 year olds are fully vaccinated, 29% partially vaccinated.
Wheeler announced that the county Public Health department has already increased the number of scheduled vaccine clinics outside of Mammoth Lakes.
2,412 booster vaccines have been administered to county residents as of Tuesday, Wheeler reported, adding “that is lower than we’d like but there has been an uptick in the past week and a half.”
Wheeler also took time to address the Omicron variant, telling the supervisors “Hopefully, I can calm some of the nerves.”
Since the initial Omicron case in California, 17 states had identified the variant in residents. “The variant is probably in every state and almost in every country, every continent except for Antarctica,” Wheeler said.
The variant has a large number of existing mutations, with a substantial portion centered around the virus’s protein spike, where it attaches to host cells.
“I do think it might be more transmissible,” he said, “Based on the limited data from South Africa, it seems to be more transmissible than Delta, but we have to wait and see.”
At Inyo County’s meeting, Public Health Officer James Richardson presented the following startling stat. In October, 80% of South Africa’s cases were Delta. By November, it had flipped to 75% Omicron.
Regarding vaccine effectiveness against the variant, Wheeler said that data “out of Israel shows vaccines are effective, although to what extent we do not know yet.”
Wheeler: “The best thing you can do is get vaccinated. If you’re already vaccinated, get that booster … it’s the best way to protect yourself right now from this new variant.”
The Sheet spoke with Wheeler about the county’s vaccine clinic, held on Friday, December 3.
That day, 245 residents pre-registered for the clinic, primarily children in the 5-11 age range who had received an initial dose three weeks prior. Wheeler reported approximately 100 walk-up clients received a vaccine as well for a grand total of 345 vaccinations, including flu vaccines as well as Covid-19 vaccines. The large number of walk-ins, he said, was related to press about the Omicron variant, and created longer lines than expected.
When asked how weather might impact planning for these events, Wheeler said “Weather is always a consideration in Mono County, especially in winter. If the weather is unsafe to conduct a clinic, we will reschedule the clinic for a better day. After we complete the vaccinations for the 5-11-year-old group, we anticipate much lower numbers of clients, leading to smaller clinics and lines at the clinics.”
Even with the high school fully back in session, Wheeler said that the county doesn’t have plans to move to another location. Staff and resource shortages, he added, resulting from exhausted grants/funds contributed to the long (approximately 30-minute) lines on Friday.
In other county news …
Supervisors received a presentation from Community Development regarding housing issue.
In June 2021, the Board asked staff to make recommendations for prioritizing housing policy issues and in September, the supervisors requested a clear table illustrating the current status of housing programs/policy issues.
County planning analyst Bentley Regehr presented 10 programs that required policy discussions and input from the supervisors.
While some did not spark much in the way of debate, others presented an entrance into a larger discussion the county’s housing needs.
Regehr led with an item that would allow for one “RV-type unit per parcel” on particular land use designations to support a business or housing complex on that parcel.
Community Development designated the program as “high priority” pending environmental quality act findings.
Supervisor Bob Gardner referenced instances in which property owners have asked about using an RV to house seasonal workers on the property and asked about how an RV policy would be enforced.
Supervisor John Peters echoed Gardner’s sentiment, noting that a number of north county businesses have closed due to a lack of employee housing.
“I realize it is burdensome on staff but we have a crisis,” Peters said of the current housing situation.
One suggestion that the supervisors pondered: a moratorium on short-term rentals, capping the number in the county.
“We need to look at everything,” Supervisor Stacy Corless said, “We have the financial ability right now to increase [housing] capacity and we need to get creative.”
Peters recommended a later agenda item to discuss a moratorium and receive public input.