Omicron Is Spreading Rapidly Through California

More than 20 percent of coronavirus tests have come back positive over the past week, according to the statewide average.,

More than 20 percent of coronavirus tests have come back positive over the past week, according to the statewide average.

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A coronavirus testing site in Los Angeles on Tuesday.Credit…Allison Zaucha for The New York Times

How fast is the coronavirus spreading in California?

1. A considerable spike in new cases over the holiday weekend — nearly a quarter million — was reported by the state health department on Tuesday, with an average of nearly 59,000 cases a day recorded from New Year’s Eve through Monday. The rate of new cases has soared to 134 per 100,000 residents, and is poised to obliterate the peak set last winter.

2. Transmission has set a record, blowing even past the heights of 2020, the California Department of Public Health reported on Tuesday. State computer models show the virus moving so quickly in Los Angeles County that roughly two people are being infected by every carrier.

3. Test positivity has shot up by 1,000 percent in a month. More than 20 percent of coronavirus tests have come back positive over the past week in California, according to the statewide average. At the start of last month, the seven-day average test positivity rate was a little over 2 percent.

Why so swift? The Omicron variant, mostly. But also holiday gatherings. The variant appears to produce less severe cases, but its spread is particularly bad timing as schools reopen after the winter break.

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:

Are things as bad as they look?

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.

So there’s hope?

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.

Should schools be open?

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.

Are California’s pandemic policies working?

California was always doing better than Texas and Florida in per capita deaths, but today the per capita death rate in Texas is about 35 percent higher than California’s. In Florida, it’s 50 percent higher. Those are massive differences. If Texas and Florida had California’s per capita death rate, they would each have 20,000 more people alive today. Forty thousand lives saved. To me, that’s nontrivial.

For more:

Roughly two-thirds of patients who have tested positive at hospitals run by Los Angeles County were admitted for something other than the coronavirus.

More than 600 classrooms in the San Francisco Unified School District were without their teachers or aides on Tuesday, and only 157 substitutes were available, creating an “unprecedented” staff shortage.

A memo sent by a county emergency services office to all hospitals said that “capacity is exhausted” at San Diego County’s emergency departments. Hospital officials said that the pandemic had left them short-handed and that patients were inundating emergency rooms in a quest for coronavirus tests.

The husband of a Republican Party leader in Orange County who vocally opposed vaccine mandates said she was unvaccinated when she died this week after contracting Covid-19. She was 46.

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Relay swimmer Klete Keller at the Beijing 2008 Olympics.Credit…Thomas Kienzle/Associated Press

If you read one story, make it this

Klete Keller was one of the world’s elite freestyle swimmers in the 2000s, a University of Southern California standout who competed in three Olympics and won two gold medals. How, asks The Los Angeles Times, did he end up in the mob that stormed Congress last Jan. 6?

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Credit…Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

The rest of the news

Elizabeth Holmes trial: The founder of Theranos was found guilty of four fraud-related charges on Monday, though a mistrial was declared for three more counts. Here are five takeaways from the trial, as well as an analysis on why Holmes is inextricably linked to Silicon Valley culture.

Drop that hose: It may have just rained, but drought-wise, it was a drop in the bucket. The state has imposed new mandatory water restrictions, with fines of up to $500 for hosing down sidewalks or using lawn sprinklers after a storm, CalMatters reports.

Larry Elder: Elder, a Republican who received the most votes of 46 challengers to Gavin Newsom in last year’s failed recall effort, won’t run again for governor, Politico reports.

Mosquitofish, the “fish destroyer”: The mosquitofish, introduced nearly a century ago in California as a solution against mosquitoes, ranks among the world’s worst invasive species, The Vallejo Times-Herald reports.

New wildlife preserve: The new 112-square-mile Randall Preserve creates a wildlife corridor connecting Northern and Southern California, NBC Los Angeles reports.

Unclaimed bottle deposit funds: With only about 68 percent of purchased bottles and cans recycled, the state’s bottle deposit program has about $350 million in unclaimed nickels and dimes, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

Golden Globes: The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has revealed its plans for the annual awards show: no TV show, no stars and no hosts, The Los Angeles Times reports.

Sushi capital: Our food critic Tejal Rao discusses why sushi in Los Angeles is an unparalleled treasure.

Here are five of the city’s best sushi restaurants.

CENTRAL CALIFORNIA

Pandemic lockouts: During the statewide eviction moratorium, over a thousand households across the central San Joaquin Valley were displaced, The Fresno Bee reports.

Nirvana charges dismissed: A judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by Spencer Elden, who said he had been sexually exploited when the band used a photo of him as a baby for an album cover.

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

Dixie fire blamed on PG&E: Cal Fire officials have concluded that the second-largest wildfire in recorded state history was sparked by electrical lines owned by Pacific Gas and Electric.

Touch of gray: Bill Kreutzmann, the Grateful Dead drummer and founding member, announced “with a heavy and still recovering heart” that he will skip a series of upcoming Mexico concerts, on his doctor’s orders.

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Credit…Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

What we’re eating

Coconut rice with peas.

Where we’re traveling

Today’s travel tip comes from Bonnie Powell, a reader who lives in the Bay Area:

“Bear Valley is a small village on the spine of the Sierra, between Tahoe and Yosemite, that offers all of the beauty and splendor but none of the crowds of those hot spots. It’s truly a hidden gem for outdoorsy people.

The (usually traffic-free) 3.5-hour drive from the Bay Area takes you straight east on picturesque two-lane Highway 4 through fruit and almond orchards and meadows of gnarled oaks, gradually climbing to 7,200 feet with towering pines and redwoods. The downhill ski resort is small but has enough varied terrain to keep skiers of all levels happy — you can ski down the back of the mountain right up to your vacation rental! There are also miles and miles of top-rated cross-country ski trails. Some people (like us) have come to love summer in Bear Valley even more than winter, for the hiking, mountain biking and backpacking in the Mokelumne or Carson-Iceberg wilderness areas, and the swimming and kayaking in the five-plus lakes and reservoirs that lie within a 20-minute drive of Bear Valley.

What’s the catch? There’s only one hotel (the quirky retro Bear Valley Lodge) and just a couple of places to eat, which all close early; the nearest “town” (Arnold) is 30 minutes down the hill.

Those of us who love Bear Valley come for the spectacular nature and the chance to spend quality time with our friends and family, not for any city amenities.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Tell us

How did you mark the start of the 2022? Did you make any New Year’s resolutions?

Share with us at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

And before you go, some good news

Jennifer Egan has a new short story in The New Yorker, “What the Forest Remembers.” And what it remembers is California.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back tomorrow.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Sound of a water balloon (5 letters).

Soumya Karlamangla, Steven Moity and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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