At least 28 vaccinated people in Marin County have tested positive for the coronavirus after attending a holiday gathering at a restaurant.
Public health officials believe the outbreak involves the highly infectious Omicron variant, which has become the dominant strain of the virus in the United States after sweeping across the nation the last several days.
Marin County public health officials said attendees at the Dec. 11 indoor gathering were not required to wear face masks because a statewide indoor mask mandate prompted by Omicron had not yet taken effect, and because the guests were dining.
But the hosts had insisted that all guests be vaccinated and provide a proof of a negative at-home COVID-19 test the day of the party, according to Marin County Public Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis. Many of the guests had also received booster shots.
The organizers of the gathering did everything right, Willis said Wednesday, and there was no single factor that led to the outbreak.
“This is a glimpse into the way Omicron behaves,” he said. “This kind of outbreak isn’t going to feel like news soon.”
The gathering took place at Farm House Local, a restaurant in Larkspur. Restaurant owner David Monson said Wednesday that there were 65 guests and six employees. One employee tested positive and is quarantining at home.
Monson said that in nearly two years of running restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic, he hasn’t seen anything “remotely as transmissible” as the Omicron variant.
“Whether you’re at the restaurant, at Costco, at the supermarket — for God’s sake, whatever you’re doing — it’s a really transmissible virus,” he said. “You can do all the things that you’re supposed to do, and at the end of the day, you may get it anyway.”
The couple who hosted the event, Mike and Eliza Koeppel, told the Marin Independent Journal that they followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including guidance that said holiday parties were safe for those who are vaccinated.
The couple did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday, but Eliza Koeppel told the Journal they “feel terrible about what happened. It’s just the worst nightmare.”
Omicron has rattled the Golden State in recent days, with public health officials issuing urgent warnings about the variant’s rapid rate of transmission and dire outlooks for unvaccinated pockets of the state.
Several holiday events in Los Angeles County — including the Grand Park New Year’s Eve countdown — have been canceled or transitioned to virtual-only events amid swelling case numbers.
COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles County are up 34% from two weeks ago, according to The Times’ coronavirus tracker.
But public health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, have continued to emphasize that vaccinated people, and particularly boosted people, are the most protected from infection and will likely have a mild case if they do get infected. The unvaccinated remain at the highest risk of hospitalization and death.
Most of the people who tested positive after the holiday gathering in Marin have had minimal to no symptoms, and none have required hospitalization, county Health and Human Services spokeswoman Laine Hendricks said Wednesday.
“They had less severe outcomes than if they had forgone the vaccine altogether,” she said.
Willis said the county is conducting genome sequencing on a subset of the party attendees, but he is nearly certain the cases are tied to Omicron based on how quickly the virus moved through the fully vaccinated group.
Marin is seeing Omicron in its wastewater, he added, and the variant is quickly increasing in prevalence across the Bay Area.
Public health officials say Omicron is more likely to cause breakthrough infections than previous variants.
In a video update about Omicron this week, Willis said Marin has one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation. More than 83% of the county’s residents are considered fully vaccinated, compared with about 67% of residents statewide, according to The Times’ vaccination tracker.
“If we have one asset as a community, it’s high vaccination rates,” he said. “It has helped us through every stage of this pandemic thus far — it has been our singular best strategy.
“But,” he added, “we’re not there yet. We cannot rest on those laurels, because not enough of us yet have that full level of protection necessary to really protect us against Omicron.”
Experts say booster shots help rev up antibody levels that naturally drop over time and can help fight Omicron, with recent studies finding 25-fold improvements from Pfizer’s extra shot and 37-fold improvements from Moderna’s.
Monson, the restaurant owner, said he felt some hesitation about hosting the event but was appeased by the safety measures. He already had to give up one of his two restaurants during the pandemic.
“Everybody wants to know the answer, and for me the simple answer is, there isn’t an answer,” he said about the outbreak. “You do everything you can. Everybody followed all the protocols, everybody did what they were supposed to do. And look, it happened. It’s super transmissible.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.