California will require health care workers to get booster shots by Feb. 1, officials announced on Wednesday, as part of a series of measures intended to stave off a surge of hospitalizations and to keep schools open despite the unsettlingly rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The state will also require workers in high-risk congregate settings like nursing homes and prisons to get booster shots.
Officials announced plans to provide one or two rapid tests for each elementary or secondary school student for use when the children return to school from winter break; broadly expand testing-site hours; deploy hundreds of additional workers to strained health care facilities; and aggressively promote booster shots.
Although scientists in California were the first state in the nation to find a case of the Omicron variant, it was quickly detected across the country, and in a matter of a few weeks became the dominant cause of coronavirus infections in the United States, accounting for nearly three-quarters of new cases.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Wednesday that more than half of the positive test samples sequenced in California recently have been found to involve the Omicron variant, probably a conservative estimate of its actual prevalence.
“We can see where the hockey puck is going, and it’s always better to skate there than where it is,” said Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose. “The good news is, we know what we have to do, and that is get boosted and wear masks. So there’s no point in waiting.”
In Santa Clara County, which encompasses San Jose and where health officials imposed the nation’s first stay-at-home order in 2020, more than 80 percent of residents have now received at least two vaccine doses.
Even before the emergence of the Omicron variant, communities across the state had begun to require people to show proof of vaccination or recent negative test results before entering indoor restaurants or other businesses.
Earlier this month, state officials reinstated an indoor mask mandate.
And in recent days, restaurants and other businesses have voluntarily shuttered when employees have tested positive.
For many Californians, the memory looms large of a traumatic surge last winter that stretched hospital intensive care units to their breaking points and made for grim, lonely holidays.
Mr. Newsom noted in a news conference on Wednesday that roughly 3,600 people were in intensive care units in the state right now, compared with almost 22,000 in January.
Still, in some parts of the state — like the vast, mostly rural San Joaquin Valley — vaccination rates are relatively low and hospitalizations have been rising. These are many of the same places where residents and officials have resisted complying with restrictions, and where widespread frustration with pandemic rules fueled an unsuccessful attempt earlier this year to oust the governor from office. In particular, parents were angry with prolonged school closures.
This winter, Mr. Newsom and education officials have emphasized that keeping schools open is a top priority.
“California schools have been open because of, not despite of, our priority on safety,” the governor said in a joint statement with a range of the state’s biggest education organizations, including the California Parent Teacher Association and several unions. “As we approach the new year, we reaffirm our shared commitment to one another, to our parents and to our students: to keep each other safe and to keep our classrooms open.”
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