The latest COVID-19 variant continued to make its presence known during the holiday season on Sunday, Dec. 26, upending holiday plans for tens of thousands of travelers, and infecting nearly 9,000 more people in Los Angeles County, according to officials.
County public health officials reported 8,891 new cases of COVID-19 and seven additional deaths associated with the virus on Sunday, Dec. 26, in numbers that likely reflect reporting delays over the holiday and the weekend.
Also Sunday, the number of county residents hospitalized with the coronavirus increased to 904, up from 849 the previous day, according to the latest state figures. Of those patients, 188 were in intensive care, up one from Saturday. The number of hospitalized COVID patients has been rising in recent weeks, after falling as low as 551 in November.
The latest figures come amid a surge in reported cases that has the county’s top health official warning that infections could reach near-record levels by the end of the year. Fueled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, the average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus rose to 15% as of Friday, more than triple the county’s rate from a week ago.
As of 3:15 p.m., the tracking site FlightAware.com listed 110 cancellations Sunday at LAX, 1,187 involving flights into or out of the United States, and 2,844 total cancellations around the world.
There were 96 cancellations at LAX on Christmas Day, according to Flight Aware — part of 997 total cancellations involving U.S. flights, and 2,858 worldwide.
On Friday, 2,380 flights were canceled worldwide — 690 involving U.S. flights and 86 at LAX.
The scrapped flights were largely blamed on airline staffing shortages caused by the latest surge in coronavirus cases, fueled by the Omicron variant. Weather issues were also causing some of the cancellations.
Twenty-five cancellations were listed Sunday at Orange County’s John Wayne Airport, eight at Hollywood Burbank Airport and six at Long Beach Airport.
After acknowledging the cancellations Friday, LAX did not comment on Saturday or Sunday’s cancellations, but did tweet Sunday morning that “Today is expected to be another peak travel day at #LAX with up to 200,000 passengers using the airport! Make sure to arrive early for your flight, pre-book parking at http://parking.flylax.com, and please wear your mask – wishing everyone #HealthyHolidays #LAXTravelSafely.”
More than 700 flights entering, leaving or flying within the U.S. were called off, according to the flight-tracking website FlightAware. That figure was down from nearly 1,000 on Saturday. More than 50 flights were already canceled for Monday.
Delta, United, JetBlue and American have blamed omicron for staffing shortages that forced cancellations.
“This was unexpected,” United spokesperson Maddie King said of the variant’s effect on staffing.
Globally, airlines scrapped about 2,200 flights as of Sunday morning, down from more than 2,800 cancellations the day before, FlightAware’s data showed. The site does not say why flights were canceled.
While travel was tangled, shoppers nationwide shrugged off the omicron variant, and holiday sales rose at the fastest pace in 17 years, according to one spending measure.
American consumers appeared undaunted. Mastercard SpendingPulse, which tracks all kinds of payments, including cash and debit cards, reported Sunday that holiday sales had risen 8.5% from a year earlier, the biggest annual gain in 17 years. Mastercard SpendingPulse had expected an 8.8% increase.
The results, which covered Nov. 1 through Dec. 24, were fueled by purchases of clothing and jewelry. Holiday sales were up 10.7% compared with the pre-pandemic 2019 holiday period.
After omicron hit, some consumers shifted their spending to e-commerce, but sales stayed strong.
“I feel really good about how the season played out,” said Steve Sadove, senior adviser to Mastercard and former CEO of Saks Inc. “When people feel a little bit uncomfortable, you’ll see a little bit of a pickup in online and a little bit of a slowdown in store performance.’’
Sadove said consumers are “learning to live″ with what COVID-19 throws at them.
“You’re coming out of 2021 with quite a bit of consumer momentum,” he said.
In L.A. County, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer warned Wednesday that if infections continue such a dramatic rise, the daily case number could top 20,000 by the end of the year, reaching the highest level of the pandemic.
Ferrer said the county is not immediately considering a return to lockdown or other severe restrictions on public activity, but it will depend on the actions residents take to slow spread of the virus.
“I’ve always been transparent and honest that with a variant such as Omicron and potentially other variants that could happen in the future, every single option has to be on the table,” she said. “Every single tool we have has to be available for us to protect people’s lives and livelihood and … avoid overwhelming the hospital system.
“… I think if we can all do this, all of us, every single person, commit to celebrating with as much safety as possible, which may mean you’re changing up some of your plans, we’re going to be OK,” she said.
Ferrer has credited COVID vaccines for preventing infected people from becoming seriously ill and creating a burden on health care workers similar to last winter’s surge, which saw thousands of COVID patients in county hospitals. But deaths and hospitalizations are considered trailing indicators, so those numbers could still be in for a substantial spike in the coming weeks.
Ferrer said the vast majority of people being hospitalized due to the virus are unvaccinated, insisting that hospitalization numbers for vaccinated residents have remained low and flat since the shots became available. According to county figures, the hospitalization rate for unvaccinated people was 25 per 100,000 residents as of Wednesday, compared to just 1 per 100,000 for the vaccinated.
Meanwhile, the health department said Friday that it was expanding access to free COVID testing amid greater demand around the holidays.
“Demand for COVID-19 testing is steadily increasing as county residents rush to get tested before gathering with loved ones and as a direct result of LA County’s surge in new cases,” officials said.
Effective Friday, the changes include:
— Extended hours of operation at sites across Los Angeles County;
— Additional week and weekend dates;
— Additional mobile testing units in hard-hit areas;
— Re-launch of Holiday Home Test Collection Program with new guidelines to reach more people and make it easier to get tested. The link is at https://covid19.lacounty.gov/hometest.
Any county resident who is symptomatic or believes they were exposed to COVID-19 can order a home testing kit, which require swab collection to be mailed back for PCR test result.
The county has logged 1,616,033 cases of COVID-19 and 27,546 fatalities associated with the virus since the pandemic began. Officials say about 90% of the deaths occurred in people who had underlying health conditions. The most common conditions are hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.