Amid growing concerns about the new Omicron variant, Los Angeles County health officials are urging the public to wear masks in indoor public settings and at outdoor “mega events” and be vaccinated as the best way to protect against another winter surge.

The variant, first identified in South Africa amid a spike in infections there, has more mutations than any scientists have seen, including some that may make the virus more resistant to immunity generated from previous infections or vaccines. But much isn’t known, including whether the variant is more transmissible, results in more severe illness or reduces the efficacy of vaccines.

L.A. County officials agreed there is still much to know about the variant, but “we know enough about COVID to take steps now that can reduce transmission as we prepare to better understand the additional strategies that may needed to mitigate this new variant of concerns.”

Among the key steps the county urged in a bulletin:

  • Individuals wear a mask when at any crowded indoor or outdoor events and follow indoor mask requirements in public places.
  • Residents isolate, as legally required, if they have a positive COVID test result and vaccinated close contacts with symptoms and unvaccinated close contacts quarantine.
  • Residents who have traveled for the holidays be tested if they traveled internationally or to locations in this country with high transmission rates, or they participated at gatherings and events with large numbers of people, some of whom may be unvaccinated.

The World Health Organization on Friday named the new variant Omicron and quickly classified it as a variant of concern. The news prompted multiple countries, including the U.S., to restrict travel from South Africa and other African nations. The U.S. travel restrictions take effect Monday.

The variant has also been found in travelers to Israel and Hong Kong; Germany and Italy reported cases Saturday afternoon.

Although scientists can make educated guesses about how the variant behaves based on its genetic structure and initial reports, more testing and observation is needed.

Although no cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the United States, many experts say it may already be here, given the country’s lack of systematic genomic sequencing that would flag it.

Initial data suggest that the variant causes mild illness, based on many of the cases followed in South Africa. That would make sense from an evolutionary point of view, as it’s advantageous for a virus to become more infectious but less virulent, said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, an epidemiologist and infectious diseases expert at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

“If a virus becomes so severe that it’s killing most people, then it will not travel much, because it needs people that can transmit to others,” he said. “So in a sense, the virus is seeking to increase transmissibility and usually to actually decrease its severity.”

But although scientists can make educated guesses about how the variant behaves based on its genetic structure and initial reports, more testing and observation are needed.

Nearly 64% of Californians are fully vaccinated, according to The Times’ vaccine tracker, but that figure is too low to curb an expected fifth surge of COVID-19 this winter. There has been an uptick in demand for shots among 5- to 11-year-olds, and interest in booster shots is rising, but authorities are concerned about lackluster rates of vaccination among young adults.

L.A. County officials said in the bulletin that continued vaccinations are essential.

“The most important strategy remains making sure that everyone 5 years and older gets fully vaccinated or receives their booster dose as quickly as possible to reduce transmission of the virus currently dominating across the county. The vaccines are effective against the Delta variant and earlier strains of the virus which allows us to remain hopeful that the approved vaccines will also provide some protection against Omicron,” the county said in a statement.

California health officials also urged caution on Sunday,

“California is closely monitoring the new Omicron variant, which has not yet arrived in California or the U.S. Vaccines continue to be our best way through the pandemic by safely protecting us against severe illness from COVID-19 and its variants. We are doubling down on our vaccination and booster efforts to ensure that all Californians have access to safe, effective, and free vaccines that can prevent serious illness and death,” said State Public Health Officer and Director of the California Department of Public Health Tomás J. Aragón in a statement.

Officials said they were “Preparing to increase COVID-19 testing at airports across California for U.S. citizens and legal residents returning from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

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