San Francisco avoids strict lockdowns as omicron cases surge

‘Right now, we are learning what it means to live with COVID’

As San Francisco struggles to make up for hundreds of city workers out sick with COVID-19 during the omicron wave, civic leaders are doubling down on intentions to avoid widespread closures.

“We are not shutting anything down and we are not closing businesses. This is not 2020,” Mayor London Breed said Tuesday. “We need people to take steps to avoid catching COVID during the surge over the next few weeks. We are asking people to prioritize activities that are most important and avoid those that could expose you to COVID.”

As of Dec. 27, 829 San Franciscans per day were contracting COVID-19, more than double last winter’s peak that reached 373 cases per day. Cases have been increasing following winter holiday gatherings, according to San Francisco Health Director Grant Colfax.

But so far, city leaders have reiterated that they plan to avoid the strict lockdown approach to businesses, schools and other city services that helped keep case counts relatively low in 2020.

The mayor’s optimism amid the largest and now highest surge in COVID cases contrasts with directives following the alpha and delta variants. That’s due to a variety of factors, including the fact that vaccines and booster shots are widely available now and cases are often mild among people who have received them. About 81% of San Franciscans are vaccinated, and 54% of vaccinated residents have been boosted.

Hospitalizations have started to tick up, but so far have remained lower than the numbers experienced during previous waves, despite higher cases.

“Right now, we are learning what it means to live with COVID,” said Breed, adding that the challenges with omicron “aren’t what we felt during the delta variant.”

People wait in line for COVID testing at Third Baptist Church on McAllister St., which went around the block onto Fulton Street, on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

People wait in line for COVID testing at Third Baptist Church on McAllister St., which went around the block onto Fulton Street, on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

The pivot is also tied to other pressing challenges The City is facing: A struggling downtown economy, workforce shortages and a slow return for tourism.

But the omicron variant has plans of its own. Spiking cases are nevertheless impacting city operations and business regardless of a government-sanctioned lockdown.

“Cases are skyrocketing in San Francisco like we have never seen before. Our projections show that cases will peak within the next two weeks,” said Colfax, during a press briefing Tuesday. “The next several weeks are absolutely critical. It is within our power to limit the damage of this latest surge but we need everybody’s help.”

Already, essential safety services are being impacted by the omicron variant, which is more transmissible than delta and alpha variants but widely understood to be less severe than the prior versions among vaccinated and boosted individuals.

At least 167 police officers are out sick due to COVID, Breed said, as well as more than 100 firefighters. At least 68 workers with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency had COVID last week or were out taking care of other household members who are sick, according to Julie Kirschbaum, director of transit. Of those, 28 are operators.

“At this time, we are delivering all of our routes,” Kirschbaum said. “Customers may experience longer wait times and we really appreciate everyone’s patience during this time.”

Health care workers are also in increasing demand as many have had to call out sick during the holiday time surge, Colfax said.

The City recently updated its quarantine and isolation rules to align with state guidelines that recently shortened the required time from 10 to five days if individuals are asymptomatic and can show a negative COVID test on day five. If they are unable to find a test or test positive, then they are subject to the full 10-day isolation or quarantine period, S.F. Health Officer Susan Philip said.

But even after nearly two full years of the COVID-19 pandemic, testing can be incredibly difficult to find in San Francisco, especially as cases are climbing at the current pace.

In the week between Christmas and New Year’s, the health department conducted more than 25,000 COVID-19 tests, Breed said, “nearly double our capacity three weeks ago.” Officials on Tuesday said The City is in the process of procuring rapid tests but did not provide a date on when those would be available or how they will be distributed.

The San Francisco Unified School District also has been promised widespread access to rapid antigen tests through an initiative Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in December. But many districts, including San Francisco, did not receive their portion before students returned from winter break on Jan. 3, sending parents into a frenzy trying to find appointments or in some cases waiting hours for walk-up tests.

Officials did not say when students might receive their test kits but schools will remain open in the meantime.

“Schools are included in critical infrastructure. Schools have been low-risk settings with proper protocols in place,” said Colfax. “Even with additional cases, we have learned the mental health of social isolation far outweighs the challenges of in-person learning.”

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