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First Omicron Case Reported in LA; How Health Officials Are Preparing For More

An exterior image of a large crowd outside LAX's Tom Bradley International Terminal.
Voluntary testing for incoming passengers at LAX's Tom Bradley International Terminal will be offered beginning Dec. 3.
(Julia Wick
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Los Angeles has become the the latest locale in the U.S. to confirm a case of the omicron coronavirus variant. Other cases had previously been reported in San Francisco, Minnesota, Colorado and the New York metropolitan area.

Local health officials had said it was just a matter of time before the omicron variant reached L.A.

“We're likely to detect our first case here in [L.A.] county in a matter of days,” Barbara Ferrer, director of the county health department, said on Thursday afternoon at her weekly press conference. Three hours later, the first local case was confirmed.

According to the county, the individual returned to L.A. County after travel to South Africa via London on Nov. 22. This infection is most likely travel-related.

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The county issued a press release that said: "The individual, who is a fully vaccinated adult and a Los Angeles County resident, is self-isolating, and their symptoms are improving without medical care. A small number of close contacts in Los Angeles have been identified and, to date, all have tested negative and have no symptoms."

Scientists are racing to determine if the new variant poses more of a threat than existing strains of the virus.

A timeline of the omicron variant and its spread.
(Courtesy of the L.A. County Dept. of Public Health)

Up to a quarter of positive tests in L.A. County are sequenced to determine which coronavirus strains are circulating.

“Currently anywhere between 1,500 and 5,000 positive specimens from L.A. County residents are sequenced each week, with results reported to both L.A. County and to the state,” Ferrer said.

In order to find people who may be infected, rapid tests — which give a positive or negative result within minutes — will be offered for free starting Dec. 3 to any incoming international travelers at LAX. Ferrer said the rapid testing site at LAX will also provide information and testing guidance.

If a traveler gets a positive result from a rapid test, they will then be given a more detailed test to determine which strain of the virus they have, with the goal of catching omicron cases before they leave the airport. 

“And any travelers that do test positive will be required of course to isolate and their close contacts will need to quarantine,” Ferrer said. “Anybody who tests negative, we will [give] them a test kit so they can test themselves again, three to five days later.”

Testing of incoming international travelers to LAX is voluntary, but “highly encouraged,” Ferrer said.

Anyone who traveled internationally recently is encouraged to get tested “right away,” Ferrer said, especially if you participated in gatherings or events over the holidays and were around people who may be unvaccinated. Tests remain free throughout L.A. County.

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A line graph showing unvaccinated people are five times more likely to get infected with the coronavirus than vaccinated people.
(Courtesy of the L.A. County Dept. of Public Health)

New COVID cases in L.A. County topped 1,900 on Thursday. The daily positivity rate is now 1.3% and the daily average case rate is about eight cases per 100,000 people.

In anticipation of a winter surge, Ferrer said steps will be taken to decrease infections among highly vulnerable nursing home residents. Workers at nursing homes are already required to be vaccinated.

“We'll be modifying our instructions to introduce more routine testing of residents and staff and to offer rapid testing for visitors that are entering any indoor spaces at these facilities,” Ferrer said.

Getting vaccinated remains the best way to protect yourself from the coronavirus, she said.

“Unvaccinated people are five times more likely to test positive than vaccinated people, and unvaccinated people have 19 times the hospitalization rate of vaccinated people,” Ferrer said.

Since the pandemic began, more than 27,200 people have died of the virus in L.A. County.

What questions do you have about the pandemic and health care?
Jackie Fortiér helps Southern Californians understand the pandemic by identifying what's working and what's not in our health response.

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