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Omicron variant fuels COVID-19 spike, concerns

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San Luis Obispo County's active COVID-19 cases jumped from 401 on Dec. 22 to more than 2,000 on Jan. 4—a new wave fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant, according to health officials.

The SLO County Public Health Department is urging vaccinations, booster shots, and mask-wearing to help the community weather a viral storm that Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein called the "fastest" and "steepest" since the start of the pandemic.

"Bottom line: We are all tired of this pandemic, but we must protect ourselves and our friends and family members by getting vaccinated and boosted, continuing to wear masks, avoiding crowds, and staying home and testing if we're sick," Dr. Borenstein said in a Jan. 4 press release.

CONFRONTING OMICRON A recent survey of Cal Poly faculty found that 61 percent had moved their classes online to start the winter quarter. - FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF CUESTA COLLEGE
  • File Photo Courtesy Of Cuesta College
  • CONFRONTING OMICRON A recent survey of Cal Poly faculty found that 61 percent had moved their classes online to start the winter quarter.

Despite generally causing milder symptoms—at least in comparison to its predecessor, delta—omicron is still putting many local residents in the hospital. Area hospitals reported 30 patients with COVID-19 on Jan. 4, including eight in intensive care units.

"We're exponentially increasing here," said Tom Vendegna, chief medical officer at French Hospital Medical Center in SLO, in a Jan. 5 phone interview with New Times. "Today, we're at 11 [patients] and going up."

Vendegna said that the "sheer volume" of omicron cases is causing a spike in hospitalizations. Right now, the majority of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are middle-aged and unvaccinated, he said.

"It's more the 40- or 50-year-olds we're seeing," Vendegna said. "Older people are good about being vaccinated and careful. If you really look at the stats, the older population is vaccinated and boosted."

Omicron isn't only sending local residents to the hospital—it's also sending hospital workers home with COVID-19.

"The big difference [with omicron] is it's actually hitting the workforce," Vendegna said. "It's so infectious that a lot of people are now calling in sick. There is a nationwide nursing shortage, and this is adding to the shortage."

As the latest COVID-19 wave hits the county, schools and workplaces are grappling with the consequences.

Cal Poly returned to campus on Jan. 3 to start its winter quarter, but many in-person classes moved to Zoom amid record-high COVID-19 cases in the school community.

On Jan. 2 and 3, 232 students tested positive for the virus, according to the university's COVID-19 dashboard. Cal Poly is requiring all students to get tested. Booster shots are also required by Jan. 20.

But it's Cal Poly faculty—not school administrators—who are behind the shift to virtual instruction to start the quarter. In a Jan. 1 campuswide email, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong maintained the school's stance preferring in-person instruction to virtual, despite omicron.

"Our on- and off-campus experts were unanimous in their view that moving away from in-person classes and activities will only serve to delay implementation of our enhanced mitigation strategy that includes 100 percent testing for returning students and booster clinics," Armstrong wrote in the email. "Given our high community vaccination rate, the booster requirement, and high compliance with the mask requirement, we have every expectation that the in-person educational experience at Cal Poly will remain one of the safest places and activities you can be a part of throughout next week and all of winter quarter."

According to a survey of 514 faculty members done by the Cal Poly chapter of the California Faculty Association, 61 percent decided to teach virtually during the first week of the quarter anyway.

In a Jan. 5 press release, the local union chapter blasted Cal Poly for its omicron plan. The release points out that all seven UC campuses are starting their winter quarters online and calls Armstrong's email "disconnected from faculty, staff, and student concerns about COVID exposure on campus."

The union also criticized the school's testing plan—since some students will have already attended classes before receiving their test results during the first week—and laments a lack of PPE and social distancing.

"Cal Poly faculty have shown that they will step up to protect our campus community when management will not," chapter President Lewis Call said in the press release.

Candace Winstead, a Cal Poly biological sciences professor, is one of the many faculty members who decided to move her classes online for the first two weeks of the quarter.

Winstead told New Times that four of her 40 students tested positive for COVID-19 before Jan 3. She said faculty are allowed to change up to 25 percent of their class modality (in-person vs. virtual) without official permission.

"The idea of having totally untested students in my labs right after the holidays seemed like a recipe for more virus transmission than I am personally comfortable with," Winstead said. Δ

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