Coronavirus US: As the Omicron variant drives a steep rise in Covid-19 cases, Los Angeles hits record number of new infections

“Our hearts remain with those families experiencing the sorrow of losing those they love to Covid,” Barbara Ferrer, director of public health said in Saturday’s statement. “As the surge continues, we ask residents and businesses to continue following the public health safety measures that we know reduce spread and keep people safe.”

“Helping to improve access to these tests at a fair price, the order generally prohibits sellers from increasing prices on COVID-19 At-Home Test Kits by more than 10 percent,” the news release read. “The order also gives additional tools to the California Department of Justice and Attorney General’s Office, District Attorneys and other local law enforcement to take action against price gougers.”

The rise in infections is also hitting Los Angeles’ children hard.

At Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), the positivity rate for children tested for Covid-19 has increased from 17.5% in December to 45% to date in January, according to CHLA Medical Director Dr. Michael Smit. 

CHLA currently has 41 patients in-house who have tested positive for Covid-19, and roughly one quarter of the children admitted to the facility with Covid-19 require admission to the pediatric ICU, with some requiring intubation, Smit told CNN Saturday.

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The rise in cases comes just as Los Angeles students are preparing to return to in-person classes Tuesday.

Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the country, is requiring all students and employees to show a negative Covid-19 test result before returning to the classroom.

The baseline test requirement was implemented at the beginning of the school year in August, and the district announced a week ago that both the baseline test, along with required weekly testing for all employees and students would continue through January, given the current Omicron surge.

Shannon Haber, chief communications officer for LAUSD, told CNN Saturday that similar protocols in the fall, along with vaccination requirements, universal masking and “Ghostbusters-level” sanitation practices, have made it possible for every one of its more than 1,000 schools to stay open for in-person learning this academic year.

Haber said that 100% of LAUSD employees are fully vaccinated and students 12 and older are required to be fully vaccinated by the beginning of the next school year, with 90% so far meeting that requirement.

Disputes over in-person learning

Nationwide, 39 states are reporting a 50% or greater increase in cases during the past week compared to the previous week and as of Saturday, the seven-day average of new daily cases in the US was 701,199, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

For the week ending December 30, children accounted for 17.7% of new reported cases in the US, the American Academy of Pediatrics said, noting a record 325,00 new cases among children — a 64% increase from the week prior.

In response to rising pediatric infections, disputes over whether in-person learning is ideal during the Omicron surge and how students can safely attend school are playing out in various school districts this week.

The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system has canceled classes since Wednesday due to a dispute between city officials and the teachers union over returning to the classroom.
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The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) had voted to teach remotely due to the Covid-19 surge, but the school district canceled classes, saying it wanted in-person learning.

The CTU presented a new proposal to Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Saturday that the union said would provide clarity on a return to the classroom, create increased safety and testing protocols and restart the education process for students.

CPS rejected the proposal, saying it looked forward “to continued negotiations to reach an agreement.”

The school district did agree with CTU’s request they provide KN95 masks for all staff and students for the remainder of the school year and said they will continue to provide weekly Covid-19 testing to all students and staff.

In Georgia, public school teachers who test positive for Covid-19 no longer have to isolate before returning to school, and contact tracing in schools is no longer required, according to a letter to school leaders released Thursday from Gov. Brian Kemp and public health commissioner Kathleen Toomey.

The Georgia Department of Public Health posted an updated administrative order Wednesday allowing teachers and school staff — regardless of vaccination status — to return to work after a Covid-19 exposure or a positive Covid-19 test if they remain asymptomatic and wear a mask while at work.

Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, told CNN Saturday that she believed the changes were the “absolute wrong thing to do at the absolute worst time.”

“We know that there are increasing cases in our children, there’s increasing hospitalizations in our children and this action shows a lack of regard for the health and safety of educators, students and our families,” Morgan said.

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She said that educators wanted to be in classrooms with their students but that should be achieved by keeping people healthy.

The removal of the contact tracing requirement was frustrating, she said. “Now an educator will not know if there is a positive case in their classroom. Parents will not know if there is a positive case in their child’s classrooms. So educators and parents will then be unable to make informed decisions to ensure their child’s health and safety,” Morgan said.

Teacher shortages in Boston led Superintendent Brenda Cassellius to step in to teach a fourth-grade class last week. She told CNN Saturday the strain of the past two years had been difficult for adults and children.

“Particularly, it has been challenging for our high school children and our middle school students who have had significant isolation and disregulation due to mental health issues,” she said. Going forward, Cassellius said, more testing capability was needed in her district.

“We need our teachers to be included in those tests because right now vaccinated students and teachers are not included in those tests. We do need some shifts in policy, particularly when we are in times of surge,” she said.

Hospitals struggling with numbers

Staffing shortages are growing as frontline health care workers — who are at a higher risk of exposure — are infected and need to quarantine at a time when the spread of the Omicron variant is driving more people to hospitals.
More than 138,000 Covid-19 patients were in US hospitals as of Saturday, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. That’s not far from the all-time peak (about 142,200 in mid-January 2021) and an increase from around 45,000 in early November.

About 1 in 4 hospitals in the US — 24% — are reporting a “critical staffing shortage,” the largest share of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to HHS data Saturday.

Of the 5,000 or so hospitals that reported this data to the HHS, nearly 1,200 said they are currently experiencing a critical staffing shortage, and more than 100 more hospitals said they anticipate a shortage within the next week.

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To safeguard hospital capacity, some states have cut elective surgeries at certain facilities.

In New York, 40 hospitals — mainly in the Mohawk Valley, Finger Lakes and central regions — have been told to stop nonessential elective operations for at least two weeks because of low patient bed capacity, the state health department said Saturday.

In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly signed a state of disaster emergency this week due to Covid-19 challenges.

Chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System Steven Stites told CNN on Saturday they were very close to implementing crisis standards of care.

“At some point you say we’re too overwhelmed to do any of our normal daily work. We can’t even meet all of our patients’ demands, and at that point we have to turn on a switch that says we got to triage to the people we can help the most and that means we’ve have to let some people die who we might have been able to help but we weren’t sure about — they we’re too far gone or had too much of an injury, or maybe we can’t get to that trauma that just came in.”

That switch, Stites said, might be flipped if they have too many more Covid patients or lose too many staff to Covid.

Stites said two waves were hitting Kansas simultaneously — with Delta accelerating post-Thanksgiving, to be met by Omicron.

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“Right now, most of our hospitalizations reflect Delta — lots of patients — at the same time our staff are being hit by Omicron. … It is for us, almost a double pandemic. And that’s really the challenge. Keeping people healthy, so we can keep our patients healthy,” he said.

Stites said that the vast majority of those being hospitalized are unvaccinated.

“Eighty to 90% of patients who come into our hospital are unvaccinated. Ninety-five percent our patients who are in the intensive care unit are unvaccinated. And 99% of the people who are on a ventilator or who die are unvaccinated. … You can say what you want, people can make up whatever news they want, the reality is, what the reality is. Unvaccinated patients, unvaccinated people, are the folks who are most at risk.”

About 62.5% of the total US population is fully vaccinated according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 36% of those have received a booster shot, the data shows.

CNN’s Travis Caldwell, Keith Allen, Raja Razek, Natasha Chen and Anna-Maja Rappard contributed to this report.