California extends indoor mask mandate as Omicron surges

California will extend its mask mandate for indoor public spaces for another month as an unprecedented wave of coronavirus infections spawned by the highly transmissible Omicron variant continues to wash over the state.

That statewide order was reinstituted in mid-December, and was originally set to be reevaluated Jan. 15. But given the sharp recent rise in infections and hospitalizations, it will be in place through at least Feb. 15, said Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services secretary.

During a briefing call with reporters, Ghaly expressed both caution about the pandemic’s recent trends and confidence in the state’s ability to tackle the new wave.

“Our level of preparedness and the tools we have in our toolbox are much more significant than we had before,” he said Wednesday.

California has reported an average of 54,695 new cases per day over the last week, the highest rolling total in the nearly two-year pandemic, according to data compiled by The Times.

That metric may be warped by data delays over the New Year’s holiday weekend and the subsequent batch of several days’ worth of numbers reported Tuesday. But the trendline has been near-vertical lately, illustrating how suddenly and starkly transmission has surged statewide.

The share of coronavirus tests coming back positive also has rocketed to record levels — reaching a seven-day rate of 21.3% as of Wednesday, according to the California Department of Public Health.

While some of the recent cases are likely the work of the still-circulating Delta variant, officials across the state and nation have said it appears Omicron has rapidly outmuscled the other once-dominant variant.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that Omicron represents about 95% of cases nationwide, with Delta accounting for the rest.

“The coming weeks are going to be challenging. We’re going to see cases continue to rise because Omicron is a very transmissible variant,” said Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator.

So far, though, the number of people being hospitalized with COVID-19 has not risen at the same staggering rate as cases.

While hospitalizations tend to lag about two weeks behind increases in infections, the recent disconnect may be the result of Omicron causing less-severe symptoms, on average, than the Delta variant.

That’s not to say California’s healthcare systems have been completely insulated from the case spike.

On Tuesday, 8,032 such patients were hospitalized statewide. That total has swelled 69% in the last week, and is now threatening to top the highest patient count recorded during last summer’s surge: 8,353 on Aug. 31.

Some counties — including Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego, Riverside, Orange, Santa Clara and Ventura — have already reported patient counts higher than those during the Delta wave.

Statewide, hospitalizations still remain well below the levels seen last winter, when nearly 22,000 coronavirus-positive individuals were being cared for on some days.

Officials also note that a proportion of those who have tested positive for the virus at a hospital may not have been admitted specifically for COVID-19. However, the extent of such incidental infections remains unclear.

But increases in transmission still carry repercussions that go beyond the raw patient count.

Some healthcare systems and hospitals have reported rising numbers of employees getting infected with the coronavirus, exacerbating staffing challenges.

“We’ve been at this now for two years, and healthcare workers are fatigued, exhausted,” said Adam Blackstone, vice president of external affairs and strategic communications for the Hospital Assn. of Southern California.

While growing indications of Omicron’s lessened severity are a promising development, “the big caveat is we should not be complacent since the increased transmissibility of Omicron might be overridden by the sheer volume of the number of cases,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical advisor.

“A certain proportion of a large volume of cases, no matter what, are going to be severe,” he said during a briefing Wednesday. “So don’t take this as a signal that we can pull back from the recommendations.”

Those can be broadly broken down into four steps, according to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky: “Get vaccinated and get boosted if you are eligible. Wear a mask. Stay home when you’re sick, and take a test if you have symptoms or are looking for greater extra reassurance before you gather with others.”

Times staff writer Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.

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