US has ‘tools’ to combat omicron variant, Dr. Rochelle Walensky says

November 30, 2021
Omicron prompts CDC recommendation for COVID booster for all adults
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For anyone on the fence about whether to get a COVID-19 vaccine or a booster shot, the emergence of the omicron variant should provide ample motivation to seek the nearest vaccination site – right away.

That’s the key message from the White House COVID-19 response team, which on Tuesday sought to reassure Americans that the Biden administration is prepared to fend off the challenge from the latest coronavirus variant but needs the public to do its part.

“We have far more tools to fight the variant today than we had at this time last year,’’ said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those tools include expanded testing, a tenfold increase in genomic sequencing from earlier in the year and enhanced detection of virus spread through travel, but none are as powerful as the free vaccines that are readily available throughout the country. Only 63% of the eligible U.S. population, including 71% of adults, is fully vaccinated.

Omicron was first identified in South Africa last week and much remains unknown about it, including its ability to elude vaccine protection.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said it would likely take 2-4 weeks to learn that as well as other critical information about the variant, such as its level of transmissibility and the extent of illness it causes.

But Fauci said that, based on experience with other variants, the vaccines will probably be at least partially protective against omicron, especially for those who have received booster shots.  

“There’s every reason to believe, as we talk about boosters, when you get a level (of antibodies) high enough, that you’re going to get at least some degree of cross protection, particularly against severe disease,’’ he said.

Like dozens of other nations, the U.S. is restricting entry from countries where omicron has been detected. The CDC has also expanded surveillance at four international airports – JFK in New York, Newark in New Jersey, San Francisco and Atlanta – and is working with airlines to enhance contact tracing.

Fauci said that as of Tuesday morning, 226 omicron cases had been confirmed in 20 countries, but not the U.S. yet, although he has noted the variant’s arrival is inevitable.

That further underscores the importance of enhancing defenses while the variant is at bay. Jeff Zients, coordinator of the response team, said free booster shots, which the CDC now recommends for all adults, are available at 80,000 locations across the country.

“More than 100 million adults are now eligible for a booster shot but have not gotten one,’’ Zients said. “Our message is simple: If you were fully vaccinated before June, go get a booster shot today. Getting boosted will give you the highest level of protection from COVID and this new variant.’’

Also in the news:

►A Food and Drug Administration panel was meeting Tuesday to discuss whether to recommend use of Merck’s antiviral COVID-19 pill. An FDA analysis released last week found the pill was effective against the virus but identified several potential risks, including possible toxicity and birth defects.

China plans to donate 600 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccines to Africa, Chinese President Xi Jinping said. Another 400 million doses will also be supplied through other means, including from Chinese companies operating in Africa

►The omicron variant will “bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control” for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Tuesday. But he said he was confident the games will be held.

► Greece announced Tuesday that it would mandate vaccination for all people 60 and older. Unvaccinated people will face a monthly 100 euro fine.

► A judge blocked the federal government on Monday from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for some health care workers in ten states.

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 48.4 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 778,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 262.4 million cases and 5.2 million deaths. Nearly 196 million Americans – roughly 59.3% of the population – are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

📘What we’re reading: How serious is omicron? Is it more transmissible than delta? It will take weeks to understand COVID-19 variant.

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.

Omicron detected in Netherlands before South Africa, Dutch officials say

While South Africa first alerted global health authorities to the omicron variant last week, Dutch health officials said Tuesday that they have found two omicron cases from before the alarm was raised, indicating the new variant was already spreading in parts of Europe.

Samples dated from Nov. 19 and Nov. 23 in the Netherlands were omicron variants, the country’s health officials said. South Africa reported the variant to the World Health Organization on Nov. 24.

France and Japan also reported their first cases of the variant Tuesday. The United States has not yet reported a case, but presidential adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci has said, ”inevitably it will be here.”

It remains unclear exactly how transmissible or severe an omicron infection is, but the WHO said preliminary evidence raises the possibility the variant has mutations that could help it both evade an immune-system response and make it more transmissible. Many of the reported infections, however, were in college-aged people who tended to have milder cases, WHO said.

Survey: Most employers will require workers to get COVID-19 shots

The majority of U.S. employers already have or will require their employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, a national survey conducted in mid-November found.

The survey from Willis Towers Watson, a global advisory, brokering and solutions firm, also found that just 3% of employers said their vaccination mandates have resulted in a spike in resignations. Nearly half of the employers surveyed believe the mandates could help recruit and retain employees.

President Joe Biden in November issued vaccination-or-testing requirements for companies with at least 100 employees, but businesses and several Republican governors and attorneys general have sued the administration over the rules.

– Craig Harris, USA TODAY

Unvaccinated federal workers won’t be fired during holiday season despite missing deadline

Most federal workers who failed to meet the Nov. 22 deadline to get vaccinated against the coronavirus will not risk being suspended or losing their jobs until next year, the Biden administration said in enforcement guidance Monday.

Instead, managers will continue “with robust education and counseling efforts through this holiday season as the first step in an enforcement process,” according to the guidance.

Ninety-two percent of federal workers received at least one dose of the vaccine by the deadline, the administration announced last week. The rest have either not complied with the president’s mandate or asked to be exempted for religious or medical reasons. 

While some agencies may need to accelerate enforcement if there are workplace safety issues or performance problems, agencies were encouraged not to take actions beyond education, counseling or, at most, a letter of reprimand until January.

The next step after a letter is suspension for a period of 14 days or less. Workers who remain unvaccinated who have not received an exemption can ultimately be dismissed. 

– Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY

Defense secretary says Oklahoma National Guard must get vaccinated

Members of the Oklahoma National Guard must get vaccinated against COVID-19 regardless of their duty status or personal beliefs, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Gov. Kevin Stitt on Monday.

The Oklahoma governor sent a letter to the defense secretary earlier this month requesting that members of the Oklahoma National Guard be exempted from the Defense Department’s vaccination mandate, which covers active-duty personnel, Guard, Reserves and civilian workers.

Austin rejected the governor’s proposal and told him in a letter that guard members who don’t get vaccinated may be barred from participating in drills and training, and their status in the Guard could be jeopardized.

“To maintain a healthy and ready military force capable of protecting the American people, the immediate vaccination against COVID-19 is an essential military readiness requirement for all components and units of the military, including the Oklahoma National Guard,” Austin said in a letter to Stitt dated Monday.

– Chris Casteel, The Oklahoman

Contributing: The Associated Press

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