COVID-19-positive hospital patients in Santa Barbara County.

Six months ago, the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus rapidly spread across the world, sending many countries and states into another COVID-19 surge. Now, the emergence of the new Omicron variant could have an even bigger impact than what was seen with Delta, according to the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.

“The Omicron definitely gets me worried, I have to say that,” Public Health Officer Henning Ansorg said at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “The reason for that is that it has a lot of mutations … what these changes are apparently doing is that they make the virus faster to spread and it protects the virus somehow from the immune system, which is very unfortunate.”

The Omicron variant spreads almost twice as fast as the Delta variant and has a “much higher rate” of breakthrough cases and cases of reinfection, Ansorg said.

“It looks very much like Omicron is giving Delta a run for its money,” he said, adding that the Omicron variant already has outpaced the Delta variant in South Africa.

With Delta, the second dose of the original COVID-19 vaccine series was “absolutely necessary” to reach better protection, Ansorg said, but with Omicron, the COVID-19 booster shot is necessary because of the variant’s ability to bypass antibodies.

While it’s currently unclear whether COVID-19 death rates are lower with Omicron than with Delta, Ansorg said that “all signs are hinting” toward that being the case, meaning that more people will get sick but they won’t get as sick as they would with the Delta variant.

About 90% of new infections in South Africa are related to the Omicron variant, and roughly 40% of new infections in the United Kingdom — which has the most Omicron cases confirmed worldwide — are because of the Omicron variant, according to Ansorg.

Given that the United States trails the U.K. by six to eight weeks, the United States will be dealing mainly with the Delta variant for the next two months, Ansorg said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly 3% of the country’s new cases are related to Omicron, which is concerning because just a week ago that rate was 0.4%, he added.

“If the cases indeed increase exponentially as expected, the sheer number of infections — even if people don’t get that severely ill that they need hospitalization — the sheer number of infections will make weaker people with weaker immune systems sick, and it will likely put a strain on our health care system,” Ansorg said.

Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso also shared new COVID-19 vaccination statistics at Tuesday’s meeting, breaking down the vaccination status of the county’s newly eligible 5- to 11-year-old population.

Roughly 15% of the county’s age 5-to-11 population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 4.2% of that population is considered fully vaccinated, Do-Reynoso said, adding that Santa Barbara County’s proportion of fully vaccinated children is “quite a bit ahead” of the state average.

White children ages 5 to 11 report the highest percentage of fully vaccinated population, followed by Asians and Black/African-American children.

Following overall vaccination trends, children in the South County have the highest percentage of children who have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to Do-Reynoso.

As of Monday, roughly 85,000 COVID-19 booster shots had been administered countywide, with the highest percentage delivered to individuals over the age of 65, Do-Reynoso said. 

Roughly 27% of South County residents have received a booster shot, just over 22% of mid-county residents have received the booster, and just under 17% of North County residents have received the third dose, according to Do-Reynoso.

Daily Cases

The Public Health Department reported 46 new cases of COVID-19 and two additional deaths on Tuesday.

The individuals who died were both between ages 50 and 69, had underlying medical conditions and lived in Santa Maria.

The county’s cumulative death toll rose to 556.

The Sheriff’s Office also reported that three additional inmates at the Main Jail have tested positive for the virus after an outbreak was reported last week, bringing the total number of infected inmates to 20.

Santa Barbara County’s daily case rate per 100,000 people was 12.8 as of Dec. 9, according to Do-Reynoso.

There were 44 patients being treated for the virus in local hospitals on Tuesday, including 13 in intensive-care units. The county’s COVID-19 hospitalization rate has increased 34% during the past two weeks, according to Do-Reynoso.

“This is not a surprise. We anticipated an increase in cases and an increase in hospitalization following the Thanksgiving holiday,” she said. “What is worrisome is that ICU rates have increased by 120%.”

State modeling predicts that the county will see an increase of 38% in hospitalizations because of COVID-19 in the next few weeks, according to Do-Reynoso.

Do-Reynoso said that Santa Barbara County’s hospital capacity is currently “good,” but that capacity “really is very tenuous” given the other respiratory illnesses in the community. 

Nearly 68% of all eligible Santa Barbara County residents were considered fully vaccinated as of Monday, according to the county’s COVID-19 Data Dashboard.

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.