SANTA ANA, Calif. (CNS) — In the wake of Wednesday's announcement that the first U.S. case of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus has been detected in San Francisco, the head of UC Irvine's COVID-19 response team said it is too early to gauge the impact the new mutation will have.

"It's in the very, very early days right now and we really don't have a lot of good information to go on," UCI's David Souleles, formerly of the Orange County Health Care Agency, told City News Service.

What You Need To Know

  • Orange County reported 228 new cases and 11 additional deaths associated with the virus Wednesday

  • The number of coronavirus patients in county hospitals ticked down from 196 on Tuesday to 189 on Wednesday

  • The number of intensive care patients climbed from 52 to 54

  • The first U.S. case of the new omicron variant has been detected in San Francisco

Scientists are researching whether omicron is as contagious as the delta variant that sent COVID numbers soaring earlier this year, whether it is more harmful in terms of symptoms or how much it can evade vaccines, Souleles said.

Omicron was first detected last week in South Africa, he noted.

"We should start to know more in the coming weeks, but it's too early to make any type of predictions," Souleles said.

Souleles said it was "good news" that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, believes the current vaccines "provide some level of protection" against omicron.

Delta continues to be the dominant strain and it remains to be seen if omicron can overcome it, as other variants have not been able to compete so far.

Souleles said he was "not surprised" that omicron was first detected in California, noting that Orange and Los Angeles counties were the second and third jurisdictions to detect COVID-19 in the United States on Jan. 25, 2020.

"We should keep doing what we've been doing — get vaccinated," Souleles said. "All of those things will help provide protection and help stop the spread of delta, and that prevents further variants from emerging."

He also said it was important to continue to rely on masking as well.

Souleles noted that 98% of UCI's students and 96% of its employees are fully vaccinated. There have only been a "very few" students and employees who have sought medical or religious exemptions, he said.

Meanwhile, Orange County reported 228 new cases of COVID-19 and 11 additional deaths associated with the virus Wednesday. That brings the county's cumulative totals to 313,073 cases and 5,736 fatalities since the pandemic began, according to the OCHCA.

The number of coronavirus patients in county hospitals ticked down from 196 on Tuesday to 189 on Wednesday, with the number of intensive care patients climbing from 52 to 54.

The county had 25.6% of its ICU beds and 70% of its ventilators available.

"The numbers are stable, kind of more of the same," Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, told City News Service on Monday.

It's not clear if there will be an impact from the Thanksgiving holiday, Noymer said.

"I'm worried there will be a surge this winter, but it's very hard to pin them on certain holidays," Noymer said. There have been times in the past when experts expected a holiday surge, but it never developed, Noymer added.

Of the fatalities logged Wednesday, seven occurred in November, raising last month's death toll to 31. Two others happened in October, raising last month's death toll to 110. One was in February, and another happened in December of last year.

September's death toll stands at 188, ahead of August's death toll of 176.

In contrast, the death toll before the more contagious delta variant-fueled summer surge was 31 in July, 19 for June, 26 for May, 46 for April, 200 for March, 616 for February.

January remains the deadliest month of the pandemic with a death toll of 1,593, ahead of December, the next deadliest at 982.

The county's case rate per 100,000 for the fully vaccinated was at 2.6 as of Nov. 20, down from 3.2 as of Nov. 13, according to the latest data available. The case rate for the unvaccinated was at 13.8, down from 16.3, during the same time period.

As of last Monday, 71% of the total population had received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, and 64% were fully vaccinated, according to Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, the county's deputy health officer. For the population eligible for a vaccine, ages 5 and above, 75% have received at least one dose and 68% were fully vaccinated.

Among those 65 and older, 95% have received at least one dose and 88% are fully vaccinated.

In the newly eligible age group of 5 to 11, 13%, or 35,022 children, have received at least one dose.

"I think it's reassuring," Chinsio-Kwong said of vaccination rates. "But I think we can do a lot better, especially with the holidays around the corner. Our biggest risk is all of these small gatherings. I know people want to hug, laugh, eat and drink and usually when that happens in a closed environment people don't have a mask on people might have COVID and not have symptoms and transmit it to others and not know about it until three to seven days later."

Chinsio-Kwong advised testing for COVID-19 for those who travel or get together at parties.