Dr. Mark Ghaly, Secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency

As the holidays grow ever nearer, Californians are seeking a respite from the stress of a continuing pandemic. California’s case rate for COVID-19 has increased by 47%, according to the state Department of Public Health.

And it is important for Californians to take the necessary steps to continue to protect themselves and others during this busy holiday season. Above all else, the most important step one can take is to seek proper vaccination.

This week, cases of the Omicron variant have tripled in California, and research on the variant continues.

“We know it’s of concern; it is highly transmissible, more transmissible than the Delta Variant, but still Delta is the dominant variant in California,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, Secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency.

Omicron “is still the variant of COVID that is causing people to become sick, become hospitalized, and sadly we are still losing Californians across the state,” Ghaly said.

The doctor notes that while we know the vaccines confer some protection against Omicron, it may not be as protective as it has been against the Delta Variant. However, the vaccines are still proven to be able to provide protection from the serious and life-threatening symptoms of COVID-19 variants.

“Although vaccines are never 100% effective, the vaccines we have for COVID are very, very effective, even in the face of changing variants. The level of protection is significant,” Ghaly said.

He said as people continue to refuse to take proper measures to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 — be it by refusing vaccination, social distancing, self-quarantine, or wearing a proper mask in public — further variants are allowed to develop and spread.

“Variants, mutations to viruses, happen when they transmit. So when people spread it to other people, you give the virus a chance to mutate, and that mutation is what creates those different variants,” Ghaly said.

“As you get more mutations, the vaccines are going to be challenged in ways they weren’t originally tested. That said, we know the vaccines confer a significant amount of protection against the variants we’ve seen. Even against Omicron, these vaccines, especially when you receive your booster, are very, very effective.”

In response to the emergence of new variants, as well as the increase of social contact due to the holiday season, state health officials decided to reinstitute a month-long masking requirement for indoors and public settings that took effect on Wednesday, Dec. 15.

“This is a critical time, there’s a lot of uncertainty. We’re seeing cases climb, case rates go up by 47% in our state in just the last few weeks,” Ghaly said.

“We’re seeing evidence of surges across the nation, across the globe, other mitigation approaches like restrictions on movement and activities happening in other places, and California is hoping that the message is loud and clear. Californians can wear their masks to protect themselves and others, and to help us get through what was a really hard time a year ago.”

The masking requirement aims to prevent further transmission of variants as well as ease the strain on hospitals and healthcare workers, he said.

“Our hospital system is contending with cases and concerns way beyond COVID, the natural or common respiratory viruses that circulate now are making people quite sick, that we still have people who are getting sick because they didn’t access care during the last year, even a slight increase in COVID cases and hospitalization could really press hospitals even more.”

Ghaly also emphasized the importance of protecting frontline workers as well as the economy.

“Requiring the indoor masking buys California more time to learn about Omicron, gives us a chance to keep our guard up in a very purposeful and meaningful way during these critical weeks of celebration without needing to do what some other countries had to do, which is put further limitations on the things that we all miss,” he said.

People traveling to California for the holidays are recommended to be tested 3 to 4 days after returning.

According to Ghaly, California is a leader for vaccination rates and research. He urges Californians to seek out vaccination, whether they may be unvaccinated or have yet to receive their booster.

“Although we are encouraging many Californians to seek normalcy during this holiday time, we know that there are some simple things that we can continue to do to keep our guard up,” Ghaly said.

“If you are gathering with people you haven’t been around, ask them to get tested. It’s free in many places, it’s widely available, and it’s a way to make sure that you’re protected. Take this opportunity to get vaccinated if you haven’t.”

Currently, approximately 6 million booster vaccinations have been provided. The Booster is available to anyone who has received the second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines at least six months prior to now, or two months prior for those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“Vaccines are helping us get through this,” Ghaly said. “We will continue to work hard together, 40 million Californians strong, to keep California heading in the right direction.”