County urges caution against Omicron variant, encourages boosters

Dec. 16, 2021, 11:44 p.m.

Santa Clara County health officials cautioned at a Thursday press conference that the county could face a “deluge” of COVID-19 cases of the Omicron variant and urged residents to get a booster shot.

The county press conference came on the same day as Stanford officials moved classes online for the first two weeks of winter quarter and mandated boosters for eligible students by the end of January. Medicine professor and infectious disease expert Dean Winslow told The Daily the precautions were warranted in light of the potential surge in cases.

Santa Clara County currently has 10 confirmed cases of the Omicron variant — four in unvaccinated individuals and six in vaccinated individuals, one of whom had received a booster shot — county health authorities announced at a Thursday press conference.

The officials added that although 80% of individuals in Santa Clara County are fully vaccinated, the importance of booster shots cannot be emphasized enough. Santa Clara County Public Health Director Sara Cody ’85 warned that “we may have a lot of Omicron very soon” and stressed “the critical importance of booster shots” as researchers continue to study the vaccine’s effectiveness against the highly transmissible variant.

In a press conference Friday morning, professor of pediatrics infectious disease and epidemiology and public health Yvonne Maldonado urged vigilance in the face of the highly transmissible variant. 

“We don’t really know how this virus will interact with others or with our immunity because it really evolved spontaneously, apart from all the others,” Maldonado said of the omicron variant. “Now what we have seen … is that this virus is more likely to be more transmissible than the original SARS-CoV-2.”

Winslow backed the University’s winter quarter precautions, saying they were “reasonable” given students’ return to campus from winter break. Preliminary data published Wednesday suggest the Omicron variant multiplies far more rapidly in the body than the Delta variant.

The University’s response “makes sense because this will allow students to be tested, particularly after they have been together with families or in other large gatherings over Christmas and New Year’s holidays,” Winslow said, adding that because symptoms of COVID-19 develop five to eight days after exposure, “requiring testing before coming back to school is a reasonable recommendation.”

While Stanford officials make precautions for the start of winter quarter with students on campus, Cody added that multiple “layers of prevention” will be required at the county level to combat the spread of Omicron as “no single strategy works” alone. She said that keeping health care facilities operational for individuals infected with COVID-19 remains a priority for the county. 

Cody warned that Santa Clara County could follow the path of countries like Norway and Denmark, where the populations are highly vaccinated but have seen an “explosive growth of Omicron.” Maldonado echoed Cody’s warning, noting that the “United Kingdom on Wednesday recorded the highest number of Delta cases that they have ever experienced.” In order to combine methods of safety and protection, Cody urged the public, including vaccinated and boosted individuals, to continue wearing masks.

As Stanford plans for an in-person return to campus, the importance of regular testing should be a point of emphasis for the University community, according to George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco. Though the winter quarter will be a new challenge with Stanford facing the omicron variant for the first time, Rutherford said that the spread of the new variant is inevitable.

“The omicron variant is more infectious than the delta variant and will infect more people,” Rutherford wrote.

Winslow echoed Cody’s message on masking and encouraged individuals to get a booster shot, avoid crowded indoor spaces and get tested for COVID-19 if symptoms arise as the best way to stay healthy.

Cody said that every resident in the county has a responsibility in maintaining public health and helping stop the spread of the variant: “It’s simply recognizing where we are and each of us has to do our best.”

Caprielle Eden is a high school reporter in The Stanford Daily Winter Journalism Workshop.Genessi Lizama is a high school reporter in The Stanford Daily Winter Journalism Workshop.

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