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An El Centro Regional Medical Center staff member emerges from one of the tents set up outside the Emergency Department on Dec. 1. The tents were put back up in late November to handle the increase that had been occurring in COVID-related hospitalizations at that point. Now the present surge and strain on ECRMC's resources are expected to continue through the end of February. | MARCIE LANDEROS PHOTO

Oh My Omicron: Variant Brings More Caution

ECRMC Bans Visitation in Anticipation of New COVID Strain

(UPDATE: First case of the Omicron variant is found in California on Wednesday, Dec. 1)

EL CENTRO — El Centro Regional Medical Center’s Dr. Adolphe Edward sounded a community call to arms, banning hospital visitation in response to rising COVID numbers and the new variant Omicron.

“We need everybody to step up to the plate and take care of the community; both ends of the county need to be … on high alert, because numbers have been steadily going up,” the hospital chief executive officer said in an interview on Tuesday, Nov. 30.

“We now know that there’s a new strain. And it’s just a matter of time that it’s going to be here in California and here in Southern California and here in the Valley,” Edward said. “As our infectious disease experts, Dr. (Mohammed) Al-Jasim, and our chief medical officer, Dr. (Christian) Tomaszewski, always warn us that it’s just a matter of time before these new variants arrive.”

Public health, medical and political figures are operating out of an abundance of caution with regard to the new variant, although not a great deal is yet known about it.

The first case of the variant was found in California, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced before noon on Wednesday, Dec. 1.

Omicron will inevitably come to Imperial County, according to Maria Peinado, public health information officer for the county Public Health Department. 

“We are still learning about the new variant (Omicron), including how it spreads and infects individuals as well as how it responds to vaccines. What we know so far is that there are currently no cases in the United States; however, based on other variants, it is only a matter of time before Omicron is detected in the United States,” Peinado stated in an email on Tuesday.

“This new variant has many mutations in important areas of the virus that impact infectiousness and the ability for immune systems to protect from infection. Some of the mutations are concerning to scientists because they are very different from other variants previously detected, and some are similar. Additionally, we do not know at this time if this new variant causes more severe COVID-19 illness than other variants or how it might impact response to treatment,” Peinado stated. 

IMPERIAL COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH DEPARTMENT

COVID cases are on the rise. On Tuesday, Public Health reported a case rate of 29.59 per 100,000 residents with a 13.1 percent testing positivity rate, which are 2.89 percent and 3.2 percent higher than what was previously reported by Janette Angulo, director of the Public Health Department, during an update to the county Board of Supervisors on Nov. 23. 

As of Nov. 30, Public Health was reporting 524 active cases of COVID, 160 more cases than what Angulo reported last week. 

This rise in cases came as no surprise to CEO Edward, who explained that COVID infection rate models have predicted the rise in cases with surprising accuracy.

“Pioneers (Memorial Hospital) is at 15 (cases of COVID). We’re at 43. That’s 58 patients (on Nov. 30). And the model predicted that we’re going to be at 60 and we’re close to it. We also sent home 14-plus patients out of the emergency room that received monoclonal antibody (therapy). If we didn’t have the monoclonal antibody, some of those patients would have been admitted. So, the model is spot on,” Edward said. 

IMPERIAL COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH DEPARTMENT

In response to the model’s prediction that the numbers will continue to rise, Edward made the choice to ban all visitation of patients regardless of health status, while also reopening and requesting more COVID tents, which the hospital use exclusively for the quarantining and treatment of COVID-19.

On the positive side, Peinado stated Imperial County is currently reporting a vaccination rate (fully) of 75.2 percent, which is 7.6 percent above California’s rate of 67.6 percent, as reported by https://covid19.ca.gov/ on Nov. 30. Imperial County is also leading in vaccine rates in the 5- to 11-year-old category, with Imperial County seeing a rate of 21.5 percent versus California’s 14.1 percent. 

More on Omicron

Public health labs across the United States are gene sequencing on average about 80,000 COVID tests a week for variants, and over the weekend, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention focused its COVID testing efforts on four international airports, providing free tests from South African countries in an effort to step up Omicron surveillance, according to media reports on Wednesday, Dec. 1.

Results from those tests can take up to three days and some of those results came back on Dec. 1. Passengers tested also were then sent home with additional tests and then asked to use and send them in three to five days.

The positive Omicron test came out of the San Francisco area, one of the locations of the four most-traveled airports CDC was targeting. The others were in Atlanta, Newark, N.J., and New York.

The CDC said in a statement that the California Department of Public Health and the San Francisco Department of Public Health confirmed the case in a traveler who returned from South Africa on Nov. 22 — three days before scientists in that country announced they’d detected the new variant.

The person, an adult under age 50, developed symptoms a few days after arriving in the U.S. and got tested on Nov. 28, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday. The test came back positive for COVID-19 on Monday, Nov. 29.

This comes as President Biden mulls new restrictions on international travel, similar to other countries have already done, in an effort to slow the spread of the variant now detected in more than 20 countries and territories.

Most of the confirmed cases are in South African nations, but there are confirmed cases in Europe, Australia, and Canada.

An Ounce of Prevention …

Peinado shared advice on how to prevent the spread of COVID, and to keep oneself and others safe. 

“There are specific actions that individual can take today to help slow the spread of COVID-19, including the Omicron variant.  We encourage the public to take the following actions:

“Get vaccinated. Vaccination will protect you and those you love. Californians ages 5 and older are now eligible for vaccination. Additionally, those over the age of 18 who are at least six months since last does of Pfizer or Moderna, or at least two months since J&J, are eligible for a booster,” she stated. 

“Wear masks. It is recommended that everyone wear masks in indoor public places (such as grocery stores and movie theaters) regardless of vaccination status. Masks are required in indoor public places for everyone who is not fully vaccinated. Get tested. You should immediately get tested for COVID-19 if you are feeling any symptoms — regardless of your vaccination status. Stay home if sick. Stay home if you are feeling sick. If someone is showing any of these signs, seek emergency medical care immediately: trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, or pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone. This list is not all possible symptoms. Please call a medical provider for any other symptoms that are severe or concerning,” she stated.

(This story was updated at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 1.) 

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