LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) – With the reported finding of the seventh positive case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, new health concerns are being raised across the Southland.

Public health experts have warned that the nation is near a fifth surge in the Coronavirus pandemic, especially as we head into the cooler winter weather and large family gatherings for the holiday season.

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On Sunday, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported that numbers had dropped from those reported on Saturday, but were still high enough for concern. 698 people were hospitalized, down from 707 on Saturday, with 179 of those patients in intensive care, again down from the Saturday total of 182. 1,460 new cases were still reported, with five additional deaths. In the past, the county has stated that weekend numbers are traditionally lower due to lack of reporting.

This brings the county total to 1,547,042 cases and 27,330 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.

Los Angeles County was recently placed back into the “high” transmission tier by the CDC, after spending several months in the less critical “substantial” transmission tier.

The Omicron variant has been deemed a “variant of concern” by both the CDC and the World Health Organization, as it appears to have a high level of transmissibility, despite multiple indications that the virus symptoms are much milder than those of previous variants.

Deaths from COVID-19 were up nearly 30%, and reported case numbers rose by 37.3%. The CDC predicts that by next weekend, another million Americans could be infected with COVID-19 in some variation, with Christmas still weeks away.

Doctor Michael Daignault, an emergency room surgeon at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, issued a statement on the newest variant,

“Yes, we know that it’s more transmissible. Yes, we know that it’s more contagious. But, we’d rather have that than a more virulent variant – meaning we’d rather have that than a variant that’s going to cause a more severe illness. The slippery slope of that is – if you have something that is significantly more transmissible, more contagious, it’s going to lead to a large number of cases. And so, as a percentage of those, you’re going to get more people coming to the hospital, even though it’s not as deadly as a previous variant. Just by virtue of the sheer numbers game, you could have more surges in the hospital.”

While he states that the cause for concern isn’t as great as with other variants in the past, his research still indicated that the vaccines, and booster shots, help provide an extra line of defense in the case that the virus in contracted.

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Barbara Ferrer, Director of Public Health, shared that same sentiment in a statement she issued following the seventh Omicron case in Los Angeles County:

“All indications are that among those fully vaccinated, illness severity if infected with Omicron is mild, reminding us that all eligible residents need to urgently get vaccinated or boosted.  The vaccines are likely to provide much needed protection against serious illness caused by Omicron and are already known to provide protection against infection and disease associated with the Delta variant that continues to dominate across the County.”

He did also disclose that recent research conducted in South Africa showed some troubling issues, but overall the research reflected good news when it came to the body’s natural response to the Omicron variant.

“Earlier this week we had some lab studies done in South Africa – which we’re very grateful with them for doing – which showed that in the blood samples that were done of people that have had COVID and then were vaccinated, and people that were just vaccinated, that there was a significant decline forty-fold, in the level of neutralizing antibodies against Omicron.

So, potentially that sounds a bit scary, but we have to remember that our immune system is much more than neutralizing antibodies. Our immunity from vaccines is much more than neutralizing antibodies, and so, the other component of the immune system is the T cells, and despite Omicron having a significant number of mutations to its spike protein, we’ve seen some early research that our T cells are still able to latch onto that spike protein and neutralize Omicron. Which is good news, which means this is why we’re not seeing a lot of people coming down with severe illness from Omicron across the world.”

Daignault also issued some advice when it comes to gathering for the holidays, something experts remark could bring the full force of a fifth surge.

I think this year compared to last year, we have these vaccines at our disposal. It’s not just about vaccines, the things that you can do are obviously make sure everybody you’re meeting with is vaccinated. Try to do your gatherings outdoors if possible. …  If that’s not possible, try to make sure there’s good ventilation indoors. The third thing is rapid testing – rapid testing is much more ubiquitous than it was last year, they’re available in stores, you can order them online. I think it’s a really great idea to do some rapid testing every day that you’re gathering with groups of family or friends, just to add that extra layer of protection.”

Recent reports have shown that the reason for the sudden spike in cases is local transmission – especially after Thanksgiving. With students returning to school, adults returning to work and holiday shopping in full swing, local transmission is an extremely likely possibility.

However, the Los Angeles Department of Public Health has reported that 83 percent of L.A. County residents aged 12-and-up have received at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while 75 percent are fully vaccinated.

When it comes to the new theory that vaccines, Moderna and Pfizer, respectively, can be mixed and matched, Daignault says research fully supports this information:

“So we had a really great study out of NIH, looking at this mixing and match combination of vaccines, and quantitatively, numerically, boosting with Moderna does show a slight advantage in the number of neutralizing antibodies you’re able to get from that Moderna booster. Now Moderna does have a little bit more of a side effect profile, you’re more likely to have headache, fever, chills, body aches, things like that. But, I think that the most important thing is to get a booster, and get what you can. If you got two doses of Pfizer and you did pretty well with that, I would say stick with it. If you had good luck with Moderna as far as not having a lot of side affects I would go with Moderna.”

The Delta variant still appears to be the prevalent variant in most positive cases around the United States, with hospitalization rates up in 42 states over the last week.

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Omicron has been reported in 27 states as of Sunday. Los Angeles’ first case was reported on December 2.