OAKLAND, Calif. (KRON) — With Christmas around the corner, Gov. Gavin Newsom outlined the state’s response to the “growing threat of the omicron variant” Wednesday, including plans to provide tests for millions of schoolchildren and require health care workers to get booster shots.
Newsom addressed California residents from a COVID-19 vaccine and testing site in Alameda County.
The variant now accounts for over half of COVID-19 cases in the country, just three weeks after the first U.S. case was detected in a San Francisco man who returned from travel in South Africa. In California, omicron also makes up many of the new COVID-19 cases, Newsom said.
The steps he discussed included that new mandate for the state’s health workers, which was first announced Tuesday. “California will require healthcare workers to get their booster,” Newsom said. “With Omicron on the rise, we’re taking immediate actions to protect Californians and ensure our hospitals are prepared.”
He said Wednesday that employees will have until Feb. 1 to get the additional shot.
Newsom also said the state will provide one or two rapid COVID-19 tests per student at K-12 public schools to get kids tested upon their return from winter break.
California also will expand the hours of operation at its coronavirus testing sites to address a surge of people trying to get checked amid news about omicron, the rise of other seasonal bugs and before traveling for the holidays.
Wednesday’s announcements came as both of the state’s massive public university systems, California State University and University of California, moved to ensure all students get a booster shot before returning for spring (there are possible exceptions, as schools will be given some leeway in implementing the plan).
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists California as a place with “high” transmission of the virus, along with nearly everywhere else in the country. Newsom said Wednesday that about half of the COVID cases sequenced in California are now of the omicron variant.
But in the last week, California averaged 114 new cases per 100,000 people, less than half the national rate. Newsom acknowledged Wednesday that the state’s COVID-19 positivity rate remains among the lowest in the country, and added that the Golden State boasts a high vaccination rate.
Still, the governor argued vigilance and new precautions were necessary to prevent a potential burden on the state’s hospitals when case rates rise and more people, especially those who are unvaccinated, need care.
Coronavirus-related hospitalizations have risen slowly in California, up 15% in the last 11 days to 3,852. That’s less than half as many as during the late summer peak and one-fifth of a year ago, before vaccines were widely available.
But while hospitals overall have fewer patients than last winter, many have fewer workers to treat the patients they do have. The staffing shortage comes as businesses are having trouble finding workers, including hospitals. A recent study by the University of California-San Francisco estimated the state’s nursing shortage could persist until 2026.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.