Omicron Is Spreading Rapidly Through California


Alex Cherniss, the superintendent of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, where about 10,000 students in coastal Los Angeles County returned to classrooms this week, told me on Tuesday that school attendance dropped by about 10 percent on Monday as testing of students and staff detected about 170 coronavirus infections.

About 70 were among children who had already come back to campus, he said, and each had secondary contacts who also had to be sent home. Earlier in the academic year, he said, perhaps 3 percent of students would have returned from a break with an infection. A county health official, he said, told him to assume that a tenth of his student body had the virus — roughly 1,000 children.

As Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, put it in a New Year’s Eve tweet: “Be super careful — it’s raining Covid.” And yet in an interview this week, Wachter also was bullish on California’s prospects. Here’s some of our chat, edited and condensed:

We’ve got a pretty terrible period ahead of us. The question is how long it lasts, and how bad it gets. We now have pretty good evidence that Omicron is a substantially less severe virus than Delta, particularly in people who’ve been vaccinated. And we’re seeing a disconnect between the number of cases, which are enormous, and the numbers of hospitalizations and people in intensive care units who are really sick.

I think February and March are going to be OK, and maybe even very good. The way Omicron is acting, the levels of immunity, the fact that many unvaccinated people are going to get their immunity the hard way, through infection — there’s much that is hopeful over the next four to six weeks.

If we take all the precautions — ventilation, opening windows, testing, people upping their mask game — and the kids are vaccinated, there’s a reasonable chance we can operate the schools safely. But it’s probably not going to work where all that is not happening. There’s this narrative that closing the schools was the biggest mistake of 2020, which I think kind of hardens everybody’s position. Closing presents real hardships to kids and their parents. We also are looking at a really very large threat in terms of infection that probably will be gone by February. There’s so much infection around now that there’s a good chance someone will have Covid in a classroom of 20 kids.

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