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Hundreds of firefighters, police quarantined as San Francisco confronts omicron surge

San Francisco officials say the next several weeks will be critical in tackling the surge in Covid-19 cases caused by the more contagious omicron variant.

Mayor London Breed and public health officials gave an update Tuesday on the surge in cases, saying The City has seen a spike in cases, averaging 829 new cases a day. The average new cases per day has already surpassed last winter’s peak of 373, said Dr. Grant Colfax, director of the Department of Public Health.

Breed said the omicron variant is affecting the availability of frontline staff, including in the police and fire departments. She said as of Monday, 167 police officers and 135 members of the Fire Department are in quarantine:

We already have a large number of people quarantining and this will only increase over the next few weeks.”

Hospitalizations are also expected to rise as cases increase, Colfax said. As of Thursday, 78 people were in the hospital with the virus citywide, with 65 of those are in acute care and 13 in intensive care. Officials said they are projecting to reach peak hospitalization numbers similar to the last winter surge. On Jan 10, 2021, The City peaked at 256 people in the hospital with the virus.

Colfax said the omicron variant is providing new challenges for The City compared to the delta variant:

The new omicron variant is forcing us to learn to manage and to live among Covid while keeping our hospitals and clinics, schools, businesses, and many other essential services operating.”

Colfax added that he is hopeful and expects to see a peak in cases to come relatively quickly, possibly within two weeks.

The omicron variant is also affecting the availability of Muni operators, said Julie Kirschbaum, the director of transit for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency:

“We are seeing impacts on most routes at this time. It’s primarily missing shifts and longer wait times.”

Kirschbaum said 68 staff members had informed the SFMTA they had the virus last week. Of those, 28 were Mun operators. She added that there are a “significant number of operators” who are quarantining because of being in close contact with someone who tested positive or “taking care of family members who may have had secondary impacts like canceled child care.”

The agency was already facing operator challenges ahead of the omicron variant, especially after a city mandate went into place in November requiring all city employees to be fully vaccinated.

Additionally, San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area is also experiencing a high demand for test kits, especially as students are now headed back to school. Colfax said testing sites are booked and at home test kits are hard to find at pharmacy stores, such as Walgreens and CVS. About 50,000 tests are currently administered a week across The City, he said.

More rapid tests are on the way for first responders and The City’s most vulnerable people, including residents and staff at skilled nursing facilities. Supply chain issues still make the test kits hard to obtain though weekly deliveries are expected to start in mid-January, Colfax said.

The mayor said individuals with health insurance should seek tests from their private health care providers, and for those providers to give those tests to their patients.

San Francisco Public Health Officer Dr. Susan Philip is also urging the public to upgrade their face masks, saying the cloth face mask most people have been wearing during the pandemic is the least effective against the omicron variant.

Philip said N95, KF94 and KN95 masks are ideal, but added that the public can also layer their cloth mask with a surgical mask for a better secure fit and protection.

Despite the spike in cases, Breed said The City is not shutting down:

“This is not 2020, but we do need to do our part to prevent too many frontline workers from getting sick at the same time.”

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