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California to require health care workers get COVID-19 booster shots, expand testing options as omicron variant spreads

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Brian van der Brug
/
Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool
Nurse Nicole Chang celebrates after receiving one of the first injections of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020 in Westwood, Calif.

California will require health care workers to receive a COVID-19 booster shot and attempt to expand the state's testing capacity, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday, as the omicron COVID-19 variant continues to spread across the country.

Under the new policy, health care workers will be required to get a booster shot by Feb. 1, and be tested twice a week until then, if they haven't already received one. Newsom first announced the new policy for health care workers Tuesday in a tweet.

The state has required health care workers to be vaccinated since August, after initially putting a vaccine or testing policy in place in July.

"We recognize now that being fully vaccinated is not enough with this new variant, and we believe it's important to extend that requirement to get that new dose," Newsom said Wednesday.

Renée Saldaña, press secretary at the SEIU-UHW, which represents health care workers in the state, said the union is concerned about the omicron variant but did not specifically say if they supported the new requirement.

"We are all in this together and one of the best Christmas gifts you can give healthcare workers this year is to do everything you can to slow the spread so our hospitals can keep up: Get boosted, wear your mask, get tested, and limit your exposure to others if you're not feeling well," Saldaña wrote in a statement to CapRadio.

The governor also announced that the state will provide one to two rapid COVID-19 tests for every K-12 student, and expand hours at state-run testing centers that are at capacity. The California Department of Public Health recommends unvaccinated residents get tested before travelling, and all people get tested 3-5 days after returning to the state.

Newsom said the state will send more than 6 million rapid tests to schools and partner organizations around the states so students can be tested before returning to school after the winter break. A major goal of the expanded testing is to avoid school closures when students return after the winter holidays and visiting family, the governor said.

"So they can get those results back quickly and make sure when they go back in person they can do so safely knowing they have not contracted the disease over the holidays," he said.

Some areas have reported short supplies of take-home tests in recent days. Here are some options for getting tested in the Sacramento area.

So far California has not been hit as hard by the omicron variant as other parts of the country. Cases are up around 6% over the past two weeks in the state, compared to 24% nationally.

Still, officials are concerned that as the omicron variant becomes more dominant and as more people travel and gather during the winter holidays, California will see a similar surge to the rest of the nation over the coming weeks.

Dr. Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Health, said omicron is two to five times more transmissible than the delta variant, which fueled California's summer coronavirus surge. He recommends getting fully vaccinated if you aren't yet, and a booster shot if you are.

"Having been boosted, the early studies from areas where omicron has been the predominant strain circulating suggest that boosted individuals have a 70% protection against hospitalization due to infection with omicron," he said.

Around two-thirds of Californians are fully vaccinated, and Newsom said around 8.7 million Californians have received a booster shot.

The California Department of Health has yet to release new data on variants in the state, but Newsom said data expected to be released Thursday will show omicron is the dominant variant in California. This week CDC figures showed omicron makes up nearly 60% of cases in the region that includes California and other Western states, and 73% nationally.

"We have conservatively identified over 50%," Newsom said. "We know it's well north of that."

California health officials announced on Dec. 1 that one person in San Francisco tested positive for the variant when they returned to the Bay Area from South Africa.

While Sacramento County announced its first confirmed omicron COVID-19 cases Tuesday, researchers from Stanford University announced earlier this month that they had discovered traces of the omicron variant in the county's wastewater in samples taken Nov. 30. The first confirmed omicron case in the region was found in Yolo County Dec. 9. Last week an outbreak of the new variant was identified at a West Sacramento high school.

“The Omicron variant can be very contagious,” Sacramento County Public Health Officer Olivia Kasirye said in a statement. “Our best protection against COVID-19 continues to be the vaccine. We urge all eligible residents to get vaccinated in order to protect themselves, and their family and friends.”

Blumberg with UC Davis also recommends wearing masks, and upgrading from a cloth mask if possible. Last week, state health officials reinstated an indoor mask mandate for all Californians regardless of vaccination status.

"We need to double down on masking. We need to double down on vaccination. And the cloth masks, some of them are good, but they're not well standardized," he said. "The standard disposable surgical masks, those are worthwhile. Using double masking is another strategy that you can utilize. And if you're going to be somewhere where you're not able to social distance for a prolonged period of time, using an N95 is a good idea."

California joins a number of other states and institutions that are requiring boosters. New Mexico was the first state to require health care workers and public employees to get a booster shot.

On Tuesday, the University of California system also announced it would be requiring proof of booster shots for all students and staff at all 10 campuses. Seven schools, including UC Davis, will start classes remotely when the new term starts in January. The California State University System will also be requiring students and staff to get booster shots, with a deadline of Feb. 28.