Fauci urges boosters for omicron; Blinken Asia trip: COVID updates

December 15, 2021
Omicron variant in more states; delta surge continues: COVID updates
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The omicron variant compromises the effects of a two-dose vaccine, but boosters are a successful tool to quell the latest, fast-spreading COVID-19 threat, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday. 

“At this point there is no need for a variant-specific booster,” Fauci said at a press briefing of the White House COVID Response Team.

Fauci’s comments come as the nation struggles with a stubborn pandemic showing little sign of weakening. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, announced that hospitalizations averaged 7,800 per day, up 7.7% over the previous week, and that daily deaths averaged about 1,100 per day, an increase of about 5%.

Walensky said the omicron variant has now been reported in at least 36 states and 75 countries. Asked about recommendations for the holidays, she said Americans must be vigilant about masking in public and indoor settings in areas of high public transmission – now seen in about 90% of counties.

Fauci, Walensky and Jeff Zients, who heads the Biden administration effort, pressed their recurring theme of vaccination. Zients said the latest data shows unvaccinated Americans are eight times more likely to be hospitalized due to the coronavirus and 14 times more likely to die than vaccinated people.

Also in the news:

►A positive COVID-19 test among U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s traveling party has cut short his tour of Southeast Asia. A member of the press corps for what was to have been a trip to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand tested positive for the coronavirus on Wednesday in Malaysia.

►NFL teams are struggling as scores of players are placed on the league’s COVID-19 reserve list. Among the stars: Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. He and five teammates were placed on the list Wednesday, bringing the team’s total to 18 players.

►Kroger will eliminate paid pandemic-related leave and charge $50 per month to employees who haven’t gotten shots. The supermarket chain already offers a one-time $100 bonus to workers who get fully vaccinated.

►The U.S. has surpassed 800,000 coronavirus deaths. “There is no question that we will reach 1 million deaths sooner rather than later,” said Robert Glatter, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 50.2 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 800,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 271.3 million cases and 5.3 million deaths. More than 202 million Americans — 61% of the population — are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC

📘What we’re reading: Omicron is spreading “every place at once,” experts say. What it could mean for holiday plans.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY’s Coronavirus Watch free newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

Los Angeles schools delay vaccine deadline for students

Faced with more than 30,0000 unvaccinated older students, the Los Angeles Unified School District pushed back the deadline for its COVID-19 vaccine mandate hours before California’s universal indoor mask mandate went into effect Wednesday. 

The nation’s second-largest school district had planned to shift unvaccinated students age 12 and older into its online school, City of Angels, on Jan. 10. But many worried about its ability to accommodate tens of thousands of new students at the start of the next semester, and the disruption it would cause for staff and children.

“Kids shouldn’t suffer because adults refuse to follow science,” said Elmer Roldan, executive director of Communities in Schools of Los Angeles.

The school district’s decision came hours before indoor masking became required for Californians in all public spaces on Wednesday, regardless of vaccination status. 

Universities consider tighter restrictions as cases rise

Facing rising infections and a new COVID-19 variant, colleges across the U.S. are starting to require booster shots, extend mask mandates, limit social gatherings and even revert to online classes. Some schools that were hoping to relax safety measures this spring are telling students to prepare for another term of masking, testing and, if cases get bad, limits around social life. 

Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, reported 903 new student cases over the past week and moved final exams online. At Syracuse University, where officials had been “feeling pretty good” about the spring term, Chancellor Kent Syverud said omicron has changed that.

“It has made us go back and say, until we know more about this variant for sure, we’re going to have to reinstate some precautions,” he said.

Some experts say it might be time to cancel those holiday gatherings

The omicron variant of COVID-19 is moving faster than surveillance systems can track it and has so unnerved some medical experts they’re starting to put the brakes on preparations for their holiday gatherings

In some parts of the country there are hints omicron already accounts for about 15% of cases, said Jeremy Luban, a virus expert at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. 

Omicron has been moving “faster even than the most pessimistic among us thought that it was going to move,” said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, an infectious disease expert at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Personally, I’m reevaluating plans for the holidays,” said Bronwyn MacInnis, director of pathogen genomic surveillance at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University. “It’s the responsible thing to do and what feels right given the risk.”

— Karen Weintraub and Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

COVID-19 cost WNBA star two seasons

WNBA player Asia Durr tested positive for COVID-19 in June 2020. She would be sick for the next two months, and it would be nearly a year before Durr felt anything even close to normal. 

Now, 18 months after contracting COVID-19, Durr has finally been cleared to resume workouts and is hopeful of returning to the WNBA next year after missing the past two seasons.

“Some days, I really didn’t think I was going to make it because of how sick I was,” Durr told USA TODAY. “I always had a positive mindset, but I just got used to being sick for so long and doctors not being able to give me any type of response, answer, anything.” Read more here.

– Nancy Armour, USA TODAY 

New study says omicron variant is more resistant to COVID-19 vaccines

The new omicron variant of the coronavirus is substantially more contagious and reduces the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, a study from South Africa released Tuesday found. Early data from South Africa appears to show that people who are fully vaccinated are still largely protected against severe disease, according to early data by Discovery Health, South Africa’s largest private health insurer. Even though the variant so far seems to produce mostly mild disease, world health leaders warned it could bring a wave of illness that crushes health systems.

World Health Organization officials chided nations that are focusing on offering boosters to their citizens while ignoring the lack of vaccines globally.

“The priority in every country and globally must be to protect the least protected, not the most protected,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general.

— Karen Weintraub and Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

Contributing: The Associated Press

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