What Californias Should Know about Omicron

California officials are watching for evidence of the new coronavirus variant and increasing testing at airports.


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A Covid-19 testing site in South Africa on Saturday.Credit…Jerome Delay/Associated Press

Chances are that headlines about a new and worrisome coronavirus variant interrupted the blissful haze of your holiday weekend.

In what felt like a matter of hours, the variant first identified in South Africa had been given an official name (Omicron, confusingly), prompted a flurry of border closures and sent stock markets tumbling. The World Health Organization on Friday labeled Omicron a “variant of concern,” the first coronavirus variant to warrant that designation since Delta.

For me, the developments felt a little too similar to the fast-mounting pandemic anxiety of Thanksgiving 2020. Turkey, pumpkin pie and, of course, a side of scary coronavirus news.

Still, there’s a lot we don’t know about Omicron, which makes it difficult to discern exactly how alarmed we should be by its imminent arrival in the U.S. There’s some evidence that Omicron is particularly easy to transmit, but also that it causes only mild illness.

We’re likely to learn plenty in the coming days — how contagious this new variant is, how sick it makes people, where it has already spread and how well vaccines limit infections.

As my colleague Apoorva Mandavilli reports, scientists are racing to answer that last, and perhaps most important, question.

Here’s why experts are concerned: Omicron has more than 30 mutations in its spike protein, the part of the virus that vaccines train the body to recognize and fight against. In other words, Omicron’s highly mutated spike might be able to evade antibodies produced by a previous infection or a vaccine.

While some experts believe the existing vaccines will continue to ward off severe illness and death, even if more people become infected, the vaccine manufacturers Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are already preparing to reformulate their shots to target Omicron. It will be at least a few weeks before we have a clearer picture, Apoorva writes.

If this sea of unknowns is making you feel anxious, it might be helpful to remember that we understand much more about the coronavirus than we once did. And the recommendations for staying safe from Omicron are similar to what officials have been saying for weeks as they try stave off a winter surge of infections.

California officials on Sunday reiterated the need for everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated and for high-risk people to seek boosters. They also recommended wearing masks in indoor public places and being tested if you have any symptoms of Covid-19.

Because of the news about Omicron, California is increasing Covid testing at airports for American citizens and permanent residents arriving from eight African nations. All other travelers from those countries are barred from entering the U.S. starting today.

The state will also continue to test coronavirus samples to track whether Omicron is circulating here. So far, 99.7 percent of specimens sequenced in California this month were found to be the Delta variant.

“California is closely monitoring the new Omicron variant, which has not yet arrived in California or the U.S.,” Dr. Tomas J. Aragon, the state’s public health director, said in a statement on Sunday. “Vaccines continue to be our best way through the pandemic.”

For more:

“Omicron Is Coming. The U.S. Must Act Now,” a Times opinion columnist writes.

A federal appeals court blocked a Covid-19 vaccine mandate for California prisons, The Associated Press reports.

Demand for the Covid vaccine for young children has been startlingly uneven in California, a Los Angeles Times analysis finds.

If you read one story, make it this

The U.S. has a dismal history of pulling off major infrastructure projects.


Farid Noori, left, moved into an apartment in Fremont with his sons shortly after fleeing Afghanistan.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

The rest of the news

Troubled Afghan resettlement: As Afghan communities like Fremont become increasingly expensive, the federal government is faced with tough choices.

Fire-loving fungi: Scientists have discovered that the damage left by fires may allow pyrophilous fungi to thrive.

Phasing out fracking: California officials have not accepted any permits for hydraulic fracturing since February, The Associated Press reports.

High-end burglaries: Officials have promised to crack down on burglars who have brazenly targeted upscale stores throughout California.


“Paradise Blue”: The playwright Dominique Morisseau has ended the run of her play just a week after it opened at the Geffen Playhouse.

Oddities collector: Jonathan Pessin, a collector and dealer of strange objects and furniture, has filled his Los Angeles home with oddities.

Far-ranging wolf killed: A gray wolf that had garnered attention for traveling to Southern California from Oregon was found dead near a Los Angeles roadway, NPR reports.


Squaw Valley: Fresno County officials are resisting a push from activists to remove “squaw,” a derogatory word, from the town’s name, The Guardian reports.


Christmas tree frenzy: Fearing shortages, Bay Area residents are rushing to buy Christmas trees despite a price increase, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Peacock invasion: Many residents in Tracy have complained about a flock of peacocks wreaking havoc in their neighborhood, The Sacramento Bee reports.


A 1,470-square-foot unit in a building near Sunset Boulevard.Credit…Beth Coller for The New York Times

What you get

This couple followed their hearts to Los Angeles. But where would they end up living?


Alice Waters, the pioneer of California food who founded Chez Panisse in Berkeley, is opening a restaurant at the Hammer Museum.Credit…Bethany Mollenkof for The New York Times

What we’re eating

Alice Waters has a new restaurant in Los Angeles.

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Eric Taylor, who lives in San Diego. He recommends the nearby city of Coronado:

“The Crown City is not really an island (though often called that), but an isthmus, connected to Imperial Beach by way of the Silver Strand. I love to take the ferry from downtown San Diego to Ferry Landing in Coronado (runs every hour) and only costs $7 each way (you can bring a bike if you have one).

The Ferry Landing has a nice variety of restaurants and shops to enjoy. Both at the Ferry Landing and elsewhere in Coronado, you can rent a bike for the day or simply walk. Restaurants in Coronado feature mom and pop places like Clayton’s Coffee Shop, to some chain restaurants (like Subway, Panera Bread, and Chipotle), Coronado Brewing Company, McP’s Irish Pub, and fine dining abounds, including at the Del Coronado.

The Del Coronado is in the process of remodeling and much has been done already. It’s a great place to go to the beach to people watch, or dip your toes in the water. The Del also has outside dining and drinks with a beachfront view that is open to the public.

There is at least one live theater and one regular cinema. Vons grocery store and at least two pharmacies grace the area. Lots of hotel accommodations for most budgets. There are also many public parks, many shaded, for visitors to enjoy.

Many have expressed that it seems like a town lost to time, and some have nicknamed it ‘Mayberry.’ All in all, a very pleasant place to visit.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Tell us

Has your child been vaccinated against Covid-19? What was the experience like? How has access to immunizations affected your holiday plans?

Share stories of your children receiving their coronavirus shots. Please include your child’s name, age and city of residence — and even a photograph, if you’d like.

Email me at CAtoday@nytimes.com and your submission may be included in a future newsletter.


A bear cub that suffered burns in a California wildfire was taken in for treatment at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care in South Lake Tahoe in July.Credit…Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, via Associated Press

And before you go, some good news

For weeks, the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care has been unable to look after orphaned bears and other large animals.

California regulators said that the center needed major improvements to its enclosures after a bear cub being treated for severe wildfire burns escaped this summer.

It was the first escape in the 45-year history of the center in South Lake Tahoe, The Associated Press reports.

But the center’s luck appears to be changing. As of last week, it had collected nearly all of the $1.05 million needed to begin construction to expand and renovate, thanks in large part to private donors.

“We’ve turned the corner,” Greg Erfani, the center’s spokesman, told The Associated Press. “It’s going to build the first animal hospital in the Lake Tahoe area.”

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: The peculiar term for the cardboard sleeve around a coffee cup (4 letters).

Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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