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Omicron Surging

With case rates skyrocketing, impacts loom

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Amid an unprecedented surge in local cases, Health Officer Ian Hoffman informed the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 10 that he will be leaving his post March 4, having accepted a job that allows him to return to clinical work.

"This decision does not come easy to me as this is the most important and impactful work I've ever had in my medical career," wrote Hoffman, who was hired by the board in December of 2020. "The people I work with are dedicated and kind, supportive and have a love for their community that is strong.  However, I am not able to continue in this full-time role as the health officer and maintain the work-life balance that my family needs from me.  My family is the most important thing to me, and I must show up for them first."

Hoffman's announcement comes as the county faces a large spike in cases, fueled by holiday gatherings and the highly contagious Omicron variant. As the Journal went to press Jan. 11, the county had reported a staggering 1,554 new cases of the virus so far this month, breaking and re-breaking numerous records. Most recently, the county set a new single-day case record Jan. 11 with 223 new cases of the virus confirmed, eclipsing a record tally set just a week prior.

Local test-positivity rates and other indicators signal the virus is endemic in the local community, with impacts beginning to reverberate. At least two local schools have been forced to close and pivot back to remote learning temporarily amid staffing shortages caused by infections, while St. Joseph Hospital issued a press release Jan. 11 noting that the Omicron variant has "increased disruption to hospital staffing" and "reminding" the public not to come to its emergency room looking for COVID-19 tests or vaccines.

Early studies indicate the Omicron variant both infects and is transmitted by fully vaccinated people at roughly the same rates as with their unvaccinated counterparts, hastening its spread through the country, state and county. However, public health officials and doctors continue to report that the vaccines remain very effective at preventing severe illness and hospitalization, especially in people who have received their booster doses. Locally, just 42 percent of eligible residents have received their boosters, according to a report by CalMatters.

Across the country, case rates have skyrocketed, causing widespread disruption across virtually all sectors, as staffing shortages caused by people isolating with the virus have led to everything from shuttered businesses and canceled flights to closed schools and local governments operating with skeleton staffs.

Locally, cases have surged sharply since Jan. 3, when the county confirmed that two testing samples taken Dec. 19 and Dec. 21 had come back positive for Omicron, indicating the variant had been circulating locally for weeks. Cases and test-positivity rates quickly ballooned.

After recording a test-positivity rate of 10.1 percent in July — the highest for any month to that point since the pandemic began — the rate in Humboldt County jumped to 15.9 percent in August and 15.2 percent in September as the more contagious Delta variant became widespread. In October, the surge eased and the county's test-positivity rate dipped to 12.1 percent before rising to 14.2 percent in November and December. So far in January, it has more than doubled, spiking to 29.3 percent.

Over the seven days leading up to Jan. 11, Humboldt County had confirmed 966 new cases, or approximately 102.2 per day per 100,000 residents, while recording a test-positivity rate of 25.5 percent. California, meanwhile, had confirmed an average of 166.3 new cases daily per 100,000 residents with a test-positivity rate of 22.4 percent, while the nation had seen an average of 423 new cases confirmed daily per 100,000 residents and a test-positivity rate of 25.9 percent over the same period.

While early data indicates the Omicron variant, a strain of the virus with more than 50 mutations that was discovered in South Africa in November, generally causes less severe illness, resulting in a lower rate of hospitalizations, the cumulative impact of the national surge has slammed some hospitals.

Experts say the current surge is impacting local hospital systems across the country in different ways than others have to date. First, they say the highly contagious nature of Omicron has resulted in more infections among doctors, nurses and hospital staff, further depleting the human resources already run thin through almost two years of pandemic care. Second, they say that the variant has resulted in such widespread infection that many patients arriving at hospitals for other types of care are testing positive for COVID-19, which then means they have to be kept in isolation to protect staff and other patients from the virus' spread, limiting overall capacity. Third, they say the shear volume of infections — which have doubled and tripled prior peaks in some areas — has resulted in large numbers of critically ill COVID patients needing emergency care.

According to a state database, Humboldt County had 20 patients patients hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Jan. 11, including two under intensive care. That's still far below the local hospital census peak of 42 COVID-19 patients toward the end of the Delta surge on Sept. 3, but it's been trending in the wrong direction, having steadily marched up from the nine patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on Dec. 29.

It's also important to remember that hospitalization trends usually trail infection trends by 10 to 14 days, meaning Humboldt County hospitals have yet to really feel the impact of the January surge. As noted above, local case tallies in January have been unprecedented.

Consider this: In the month leading up to the hospital census' Sept. 3 peak, Humboldt County reported 1,964 new cases, or an average of about 65 per day. The first 11 days of January, in contrast, have seen an average of 141 new cases reported per day. Even if Omicron results in a hospitalization rate half that of prior iterations of the virus, the county is still on pace to surpass its prior records for hospitalizations and may face increased healthcare staffing shortages when it does.

Public Health officials continue to stress that the best way for residents to protect themselves from COVID-19 and variants like Omicron is to get vaccinated, wear masks indoors and in crowded places, ventilate indoor spaces, get tested immediately — regardless of vaccination status — if any cold- or flu-like symptoms develop, and stay home when sick. Eligible residents, health officials say, should get their booster shots as soon as possible.

"Those individuals who are fully vaccinated or boosted typically develop milder symptoms, shorter illness duration and have fewer hospitalizations and less severe outcomes," Humboldt County Public Health reported. "According to the centers for Disease Control and Prevention rates of hospitalizations by vaccination status, unvaccinated adults are more than eight times more likely to be hospitalized than those adults who are fully vaccinated. Locally, that number is currently 17 times higher."

No-cost vaccination appointments can be made at www.MyTurn.ca.gov or at local pharmacies. Humboldt County Public Health currently has clinics scheduled over the upcoming week in Fortuna, Eureka, Petrolia, Honeydew, Redway and Willow Creek, with booster shots available at most. For a complete list of times and locations, visit www.northcoastjournal.com.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.com.

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