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State Health Officials Extend Indoor Mask Mandate Until Feb. 15 As Omicron Cases Soar

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/AP) -- Health officials extended the state's indoor mask mandate to Feb. 15 Wednesday as they struggled to control a surging outbreak of the COVID omicron variant that has sent California's positivity rate soaring over 21 percent and impacted businesses ranging from the airlines to your favorite neighborhood restaurant.

The fast-spreading omicron variant of COVID-19 is sidelining exposed or infected health care workers, leading to hospital staffing shortages that could become a bigger problem.

"We are and continue to be concerned about our hospitals," said Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly in a briefing call with reporters Wednesday. "Some facilities are going to be strapped."

As of Wednesday, the state had 8,032 hospitalized COVID-19 patients with a daily average of new cases now reaching 28,607 and a positivity rate 21.3 percent. Some California counties including Santa Clara have already reported patient counts higher than those during the delta variant surge last year.

Ghaly told reporters his office would reevaluate conditions in February to determine if another extension is needed.

Public Health officials across the state advised residents to avoid visiting emergency rooms for COVID-19 tests or treatment that could be handled by a family doctor, telemedicine or at urgent care clinics. California had the lowest per-capita case rate in the U.S. in September, but like the rest of the country it's now experiencing a dramatic rise from the new variant.

In Fresno County, more than 300 workers at area hospitals were out recovering from COVID-19 or isolating because of exposure to the virus, said Dan Lynch, the county's emergency medical services director. Ambulance personnel will likely be asked to assess patients and only transport people with true emergencies to ER departments.

Dr. Rais Vohra, Fresno County's interim health officer, said staff are battle hardened and accustomed to stretching resources.

"But this surge threatens even that very fragile balance that's being struck at our hospitals," he said.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department is driving patients to hospitals in fire trucks rather than ambulances because 450 firefighters are absent after testing positive, acting Assistant Chief Brian Bennett told the Carson City Council on Tuesday, according the Los Angeles Daily News.

The Grammy Awards, scheduled for Jan. 31 in Los Angeles, were postponed indefinitely Wednesday because of health and safety concerns and the NFL said it was looking into alternative sites for next month's Super Bowl scheduled in LA.

While the league finds back-up venues every year, it could come into play if there are attendance restrictions.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, the St. Vincent de Paul on Wednesday reported an outbreak of COVID-19 cases at two shelters in the city.

The Division Circle Navigation Center on South Van Ness Avenue has had more than half of its 88 residents test positive as well as three staff members, while the Multi-Service Center South on Fifth Street has had 17 clients and nine staff members infected with the virus.

"This one really surprised us," Shari Wooldridge, executive director of the nonprofit, said in a statement. "It just suddenly flared at both shelters."

Hundreds of San Francisco Unified School District teachers and aides were out of school amid the surge in COVID-19 cases and Oakland Unified School District officials reported nearly 1,000 cases among students and staff.

As the number of COVID-19 cases surges in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state officials are facing criticism for failing to deliver on a promise to provide rapid, at-home tests to all California students and school staff before classrooms reopened after the winter break.

Millions of test kits were sent to families before and during winter break but millions more were not — raising concerns about public school safety now that the state's 6 million K-12 students are returning to classrooms amid soaring rates of COVID-19 cases.

Ghaly defended the state's efforts saying that by Wednesday some 6.2 million tests had been delivered to county offices of education, with more tests going out this week, despite of a variety of logistical challenges and delays caused in part by winter storms. The delivery of tests was plagued in particular by bad weather in Southern California, Ghaly said, "where we lost hundreds of thousands, even millions, of tests due to rain." He did not elaborate.

It remained unclear when the tests delivered most recently to county offices would reach school districts and then be distributed to cover all of California's 6 million K-12 public school students and the teachers and staff at California's 10,000 schools.

A few days before Christmas, Newsom announced a plan to furnish all schools with enough rapid test kits to ensure students and staff could safely return to campuses "knowing that they have not contracted the disease over the holidays," Newsom said at the time.

About half of those test kits were delivered to local governments and school districts last week. Others never arrived, California schools chief Tony Thurmond told reporters on Wednesday.

Thurman called the delay "disappointing."

"We have 10,000 schools in the state so it's a daunting task, but we've got to find ways to make it happen in a more accelerated way," he said.

In an editorial published Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times asked: Where are all the COVID-19 tests that Newsom promised for K-12 schools?

"Too many California kids went back to school this week without knowing whether they're spreading the highly contagious Omicron variant," the editorial said.

In schools that did get the tests, the results have helped prevent many coronavirus-carrying students and staff from entering campuses.

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