Today’s Headlines: Omicron is rapidly sweeping through California

Hello, it’s Thursday, Dec. 23. We’ll be taking a break on Friday for the holidays, but we’ll be back in your inbox on Monday morning.

Now, on to the stories you shouldn’t miss today:

TOP STORIES

California Omicron surge arrives as cases spike

With numbers confirming a fifth wave of COVID-19 led by the Omicron variant, the lights of the holiday season have grown suddenly dim. The disappointment is real, but nature’s rules are often at odds with human intentions.

Because Omicron is so easily transmissible, it is spreading with unprecedented speed. On Wednesday alone, Los Angeles County reported more than 6,500 additional infections — double the total reported Tuesday. But there is also growing evidence that the variant caused less serious cases than the Delta variant. Officials stress that vaccinations, especially booster shots, will give Californians strong protection against serious illness.

Public health officials in some parts of the state warn that hospitals could be hit hard by a surge in patients in the coming weeks. Whether hospitalizations will surpass last year’s numbers depends on how severe Omicron ends up being and whether residents comply with mask mandates, avoid crowded risky indoor public settings and get vaccinated or boosted.

More top coronavirus headlines

Stay up to date on variant developments, case counts and vaccine news with Coronavirus Today.

The pause on student loan payments is extended

The Biden administration has extended a student loan moratorium through May 1. Interest rates will remain at 0% during that period, and debt collection efforts will continue to be suspended. Those measures have been in place since early in the COVID-19 pandemic but were set to expire Jan. 31. President Biden said financial recovery from the pandemic will take longer than job recovery, especially for those with student loans.

The policy applies to more than 36 million Americans who have student loans that are held by the federal government. Their collective debt totals more than $1.37 trillion, according to the latest Education Department data. About a third of borrowers are in default or delinquency, and the average monthly payment is $400 a month.

More politics

  • After months of stalling as they waited for new district lines, California’s congressional incumbents and challengers rushed to declare their candidacies Tuesday as key matchups, including a potential high-stakes contest between Orange County Democrats, began to crystallize.
  • On Wednesday, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot requested an interview with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
  • What’s behind the retirement announcements on Capitol Hill? Almost two dozen Democrats have announced plans to leave the House of Representatives, with three announcing this week alone.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting and the latest action in Sacramento.

L.A. races to distribute housing vouchers

Los Angeles city and county officials are in a race against time as they work to pair homeless people with Emergency Housing Vouchers. Throughout the pandemic, Los Angeles has rented thousands of hotel rooms for homeless people to protect them from the virus. Nearly 1,400 rooms are still rented, but officials will begin to shut down the program in the New Year.

Nearly 7,000 vouchers were awarded to public housing authorities in Los Angeles County through the federal stimulus package passed this year. But so far, very few have resulted in leases for people who are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. The large gap between the number of vouchers and the number of units leased partially reflects how hard it is for anyone to rent in Los Angeles, where available units are quickly snatched up and affordable prices are hard to find.

Amid pandemic, a rise in gambling addiction emerges

Unlike more visible addictions, problem gambling is fairly easy to hide, yet nonetheless leaves about 2 million Americans annually feeling alone, ashamed and, in many cases, broke. A recent survey from the National Council on Problem Gambling showed that the risk has doubled since 2018. The group’s helpline has also seen a marked increase in use.

Increases in gambling addiction have been fueled by major growth in legalized sports betting and the pandemic, the council’s executive director said. The lure is tough for many to ignore, and with so many options available, the urge can often intensify. It also is a behavior that is often ignored.

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PHOTO OF THE DAY

What happens when you have a surging Omicron variant and a busy travel season? As many as 3.5 million people are projected to travel through Los Angeles International Airport from Dec. 16-Jan. 3. As the virus spreads, there is plenty of uncertainty — and high demand for testing. On Dec. 21, 2021, crowds of passengers in the arrival deck waited for shuttles at LAX.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

CALIFORNIA

Football powerhouse Mater Dei confronts a hazing scandal with a wall of silence. Allegations of scandals at schools often lead to calls for change. Not at Mater Dei, where employees, parents, students and the diocese have largely closed ranks after a lawsuit that accuses the school of trying to cover up a brutal locker room altercation.

The humble tugboat’s crucial role in easing a global crisis. The tugboats are assigned a spot inside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Their work, guiding ships through narrow waterways to within inches of a dock, is both delicate and brutish. Fifteen tugs serve the two ports, and the pace has been relentless for more than a year.

The pandemic transformed television. A new report shows the lasting impact. California remains the top locale for television productions industrywide, but the COVID-19 pandemic heavily disrupted the pipeline of new shows, according to a new report.

A slow-moving winter storm pounding Northern California with rain and snow is making its way south. It should deliver a wet holiday weekend for Los Angeles.

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NATION-WORLD

Mexico pressures asylum seekers to stay for months at its southern border. The United States has pushed Mexico to stop migrants from getting anywhere close to its border. Mexico has obliged. But conditions for migrants in Mexico are notoriously difficult. Often they become targets for assaults, kidnappings or worse.

Texas militia sanctioned by sheriff seeks government support to halt the flow of migrants. Militias have staked out the border for decades, but Patriots for America has managed to do what many others have not: Patrol armed, with landowners’ permission, in concert with local law enforcement.

As COVID-19 fueled the drug crisis, Native Americans were hit the worst. Deaths from drug overdoses surged by nearly 30%, climbing to a record high. The death rate last year was highest among Native Americans, for whom COVID-19 piled yet more despair on communities already confronting generations of trauma, poverty, unemployment and underfunded health systems.

HOLLYWOOD AND THE ARTS

Congress launches inquiry of Live Nation’s deadly Astroworld festival. The committee asked Michael Rapino, chief executive of Live Nation, to respond to questions regarding timelines for the disaster, security assessments, the on-site response and reports that the concert promotion giant withheld pay from employees until they signed contracts releasing the company from liability, among other issues.

The ‘Bachelor’ franchise made strides on diversity — until an ‘infuriating’ setback. This season’s love story was a breakthrough for a franchise that has been rocked repeatedly by charges of racism and cultural insensitivity. But some disappointed fans say the show’s choice for the next “Bachelor” feels like a step back.

After sexual misconduct allegations, James Franco admits he ‘did sleep with students.’ His latest remarks come several months after he reached a proposed settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed against him.

BUSINESS

Retail’s battle with COVID actually saved its stores. There was a shakeout with thousands of stores, and some chains, closing for good and an unknown number of workers getting sick. But the pandemic also brought overdue changes, including big investments in technology, the creation of new methods to connect with consumers and better online delivery.

U.S. opens formal investigation into Tesla letting drivers play video games. The action follows a complaint to the agency that Teslas equipped with “gameplay functionality” allow games to be played by the driver on a touchscreen while the vehicles are moving.

SPORTS

NHL players will not compete in Beijing Olympics amid a COVID surge. The league has been hit hard by the surge, postponing 50 games through Tuesday and extending its scheduled holiday break. Nine teams have recently shut down operations to curb the spread of the virus.

UCLA football keeps masks on and fingers crossed amid a COVID-19 threat. As they enter game week preparations for their Holiday Bowl matchup against North Carolina State, the Bruins are doubling down on precautions to guard against a COVID-19 outbreak that could spoil their first bowl game since 2017.

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OPINION

This, future historians, is how it all unravels. Nowadays democracies die due to things as normalizing authoritarianism and conspiracy theories or failing to hold accountable those who instigated events like the Jan. 6 terrorist attack. Democracy dies the moment people start acting as if it can’t. But it can. And it is, writes columnist LZ Granderson.

2021 IN REVIEW

The year of recovery and renewal. With the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, life in 2021 returned to something resembling normal, with stadiums again full, lockdowns eased and kids back in class. But there were also plenty of events to remind us that true normal still remains a way off.

America’s top mystery book critics break down the year in crime. Reading crime (fiction and nonfiction) has provided some much-needed escapism and, in the proliferation of diverse new voices and urgent themes, a bracing tonic — a harbinger of hoped-for change.

The 10 essential games of 2021 that helped us define who we are now. When I look back at the games that meant the most to me in 2021, I largely think of emotional experiences, games that asked me to rethink how I interact with a digital text, or left me with questions to ponder, writes game critic Todd Martens.

ONLY IN L.A.

Sometimes you need a gift at the last minute. It happens! So why not do something great and support a small business in Los Angeles this year? We have made it easy for you by compiling a list of more than 40 independent stores where you can shop for gifts in person this holiday season. And if that’s not doable, we have a few lists that are focused less on the material and more on the experiential.

FROM THE ARCHIVES

Tall trees line a residential street. A sign in the middle of the street says "Lights Out."

Dec. 24, 1948: The lights of Christmas Tree Lane in Altadena are switched on, as they would be nightly for one week for drive-by visitors.

(Los Angeles Times)

Seventy-three years ago this week, Altadena flipped the switch on its Christmas Tree Lane. The tradition was already nearly 30 years old when the photo above was taken on Dec. 24, 1948. The Times reported: “The lights on the 80-foot-tall Cedrus deodars — or Himalayan cedars — were turned on at 6 p.m. Altadena Sheriff’s deputies estimated that more than 1000 cars drove through the lane with lights out.”

The approximately 200 trees, The Times said, were raised from seeds brought from India. The avenue “once formed the driveway to the ranch home of Capt. Frederick J. Woodbury.” Iowa natives John and Fred Woodbury opened the 937-acre subdivision in 1887. (One of Altadena’s main draws at the time was you could drink, which was prohibited by neighboring Pasadena.) Christmas Tree Lane has endured, marking its 100th year in 2020. It became a California Historical Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It grew to include a choir, carolers, a jazz band, a drum squad parade and more.

But in 1948, it was a line of cars, with their headlights dimmed, driving along a lane, occupants looking out and up as they slowly passed towering trees draped in lights.

We appreciate that you took the time to read Today’s Headlines! Comments or ideas? Feel free to drop us a note at [email protected] — Elvia Limón, Laura Blasey and Amy Hubbard

Eleanore Beatty

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