The omicron variant identified Thursday (Dec. 9) in Santa Clara County spurred a call from regional health officials for residents to speed up their uptake of booster shots.
Although nearly 80% of eligible county residents have done a full primary course of a COVID-19 vaccine, only 40% have gotten the booster shot that appears able to combat the new, greatly mutated variant that appears particularly capable of causing mild symptomatic infection in vaccinated individuals.
At a press briefing Dec. 10, Dr. Sara Cody, the county’s director of public health, said the first person locally identified with the omicron variant was fully vaccinated “but not yet boosted.”
“Immunity wanes with the primary series,” Cody said. “I would say with full conviction that every single person who is eligible for a booster – that means you are age 16 or older – should get the booster. It lessens the chance that you will become infected and infectious, and it drastically reduces the risk of hospitalization or death.”
Local resources exist to navigate the sometimes vexing task of booking a booster sooner rather than later. The Mountain View Community Center showed some limited appointment availability for this week and next week, and no-appointment drop-in clinics are occuring on a daily basis around the county, including one scheduled noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Los Altos Community Center.
The local patient who contracted the omicron variant first experienced symptoms Nov. 30 after travel to Florida, got tested Dec. 1 and self-isolated at home with very mild symptoms that resolved quickly. The county received sequencing results showing the omicron variant Dec. 9 for the patient, and Cody said the county’s other primary surveillance system – sewer testing – also triggered a first positive for the variant last week in the north county region, in the Los Altos/ Los Altos Hills/Palo Alto area, where this patient resides.
Cody described this as an imported domestic case, arising from community exposure in Florida rather than international travel.
“We have been anticipating a detection here because our population is large, our population is diverse and our population is mobile,” Cody said.
She described the “sewer shed surveillance system” that collects samples from four zones across the county each day, which detected the omicron variant for a sample collected Dec 7.
“This tells us that these surveillance systems are both giving us the same information,” she said.
What does omicron change?
Cody said that local COVID infections have been increasing dramatically among unvaccinated residents, and steadily but more gradually among the vaccinated. She said this underscores the importance of boosters, in addition to continued testing, masking, ventilation and distancing.
“I think we need to rededicate ourselves to these practices,” Cody said. “By distancing, I mean both the distance that we keep between people as well as the size of gatherings and just the general number of people that each of us are in contact with every day.”
Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, the county’s COVID-19 vaccine officer, pointed to the region’s vaccination rates, some of the highest in the U.S., as a continuing success that includes almost 40% of the 5-11 age group having received at least one vaccine dose. But he noted that that booster uptake, hovering around 40% overall, is particularly low among 18- to 29-year-olds, for whom it is only 20%. He added that vaccination rates for children still show racial disparities, with communities with many Latino and African-American residents in the southern and eastern parts of the county seeing in some instances half the child vaccine coverage of other areas.
According to Cody, investigators know omicron spreads quickly, possibly quicker than the delta variant, and that contact tracing will likely not prove an effective containment measure as case numbers rise. She said that as the community transitions to using more in-home tests, which are not reportable to the county, it will become increasingly important to have other metrics for tracking the virus, ranging from wastewater surveillance to general symptom surveillance and tracking hospitalizations, which provide only a lagging indicator of infections that had started weeks earlier, and can gauge severity but provides no early warning.
County clinics are taking appointments at sccfreevax.org. Vaccinations through the county are no cost to the public, insurance is not required and there are no immigration requirements. The county expanded hours at its Mountain View Community Center vaccination site, which will offer appointments 8 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 8:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 23.
Pop-up clinic requires no appointment
The city of Los Altos is partnering with the county to host a COVID-19 Booster Pop-Up Clinic noon to 7 p.m. Dec. 21 at the Los Altos Community Center, 97 Hillview Ave.
No appointment is necessary to receive a booster, and the shots are administered free of charge. The booster is available for those age 16 and older who received their last Pfizer or Moderna vaccination at least six months ago, or their Johnson & Johnson vaccination at least two months ago.
“With the recent emergence of the omicron variant, there is a lot of uncertainty,” Los Altos City Councilmember Neysa Fligor said in a city press release. “But the one thing we can do to protect ourselves and others is get the booster shot.”
County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who also serves as chairperson of the county’s Health and Hospital Committee, said pop-up clinics like Los Altos’ use convenience to help increase booster shot rates.
“We know that if we make it easy for folks to grab a shot or a booster, more people will do it,” he said. “That’s why I’m so pleased the city and county are partnering in this way. For those who want to get a booster but have been struggling to find a convenient time and place, this provides an option that is both easy and local.”
For more information on the Los Altos pop-up clinic, visit losaltosca.gov/covid19.
For more information on testing, vaccinations and the latest COVID updates, visit covid19.sccgov.org.