Coronavirus Alert: Omicron Fears Escalate as Variant Overtakes Delta, First Related Death Reported in U.S., and Biden Addresses the Nation
Here is the latest news, data, and expert insight on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Total cases worldwide: 276,165,891 (up from 275,170,911 Monday)
Total deaths worldwide: 5,367,916 (up from 5,358,810 Monday)
Total cases in the United States: 51,261,499 (up from 50,970,391 Monday)
Total deaths in the United States: 809,776 (up from 807,023 Monday)
COVID-19: A Whole New Era
As the omicron variant continues to spread fear and uncertainty globally, with cases continuing to surge, the United States is ramping up its efforts to get more people vaccinated and tested. This comes just as families prepare to gather for the year-end holidays, and now word comes of the first omicron-associated death in the country.
An omicron death in Texas is believed to be the first in the nation. Harris County Public Health (HCPH) in Texas on Monday reported the first COVID-19 omicron-variant-associated death in the county, which at this point is thought to be the first omicron-related fatality in the United States. The man who died was between t50 and 60 years old, was unvaccinated, and had been infected with COVID-19 previously. The individual was at higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19 due to his unvaccinated status and because he had underlying health issues, according to HCPH.
“This is a reminder of the severity of COVID-19 and its variants,” said Barbie Robinson, HCPH executive director, in a statement. “We urge all residents who qualify to get vaccinated and get their booster shot if they have not already.”
County health data indicates that almost 7 in 10 residents have received at least one vaccine dose, leaving about 30 percent totally unvaccinated.
Omicron’s rapid spread and dominance is exceeding expectations. The omicron variant has swept through the United States like wildfire. On December 1, the first omicron case in the United States was identified in San Francisco. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) posted Monday shows that omicron (B.1.1.529) has overtaken the delta variant and now accounts for more than 73 percent of new cases in the country.
In New York and New Jersey, as well as in some regions of the South, Midwest, and Pacific Northwest, omicron makes up more than 90 percent of new infections.
“The rapid and exponential spread of omicron is concerning, especially five days before Christmas, as travel by road and air eclipses even pre-pandemic levels seen in 2019,” said Robert Glatter, MD, an attending physician in the department of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
“With a lack of rapid tests available in pharmacies, and long lines in major U.S. cities, the upcoming holidays represent a potential cauldron of viral spread with the U.S., as hospitals in the Northeast and Midwest struggle with reduced hospital bed capacity from the ongoing delta surge,” added Dr. Glatter. “The national guard has already been dispatched to at least six states, with many more expected in the coming weeks.”
President Biden addressed the nation, and pledged free testing and services. In an address to the nation on Tuesday, President Joe Biden pledged that millions of free rapid tests will immediately be distributed throughout the country and testing sites would be expanded. He also promised that support would be increased for hospitals under strain and urgently called for Americans to get vaccinated and receive boosters.
The WHO said omicron is much more transmissible than the delta variant. The World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday warned that the variant is spreading faster than the delta strain across the globe and it’s causing infections in people who have already been vaccinate or had the virus, according to Reuters.
The South African Centre for Epidemiological Modeling and Analysis (SACEMA) and the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) said that initial data shows that omicron poses a threefold higher risk of reinfection compared with currently dominant delta variant and the beta strain.
As Reuters reported, WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan, MD, stressed that it was too early to conclude if the omicron variant is milder that previous strains, although some studies have suggested that fewer hospitalizations have been associated with the variant. Early findings from a study by Imperial College London indicated that there was no evidence to suggest that omicron is less severe than delta.
Trump supporters booed him getting the booster. As CNN reported, former President Donald Trump was booed by a portion of an audience in Dallas on Sunday when he said he had received a COVID-19 booster shot. Trump rarely encourages others to get vaccinated and seldom discusses his own vaccination.
The NHL has paused its season. The National Hockey League (NHL) will pause its season on Wednesday, two days before its planned Christmas break, according to ESPN. More than 15 percent of the league's players were in virus protocols as of Monday night. The NHL schedule is set to resume on December 27.
"Don’t cancel holiday plans," Dr. Fauci says. Speaking on NBC's Today Show, Anthony Fauci, MD, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said, "If you don’t have the availability of the test and you are fully vaccinated and boosted, you should feel comfortable having a holiday meal or gathering with family members who are also vaccinated and boosted.” Fauci did warn, however, that omicron is spreading rapidly and we all must take precautions.
On the other hand, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, director-general of the WHO, urged people everywhere to rethink holiday events, according to USA Today. “It’s better to cancel now and celebrate later, (rather) than to celebrate now and grieve later,” Dr. Tedros said.
Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Governor Larry Hogan all have tested positive. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker said on Sunday they both tested positive for COVID-19 and were experiencing mild symptoms, according to CNBC. Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan reported the same on Monday. All have been fully vaccinate and received a booster. They are all also experiencing mild symptoms.
Congressman Jason Crow of Colorado also revealed on Twitter that he has tested positive despite being fully vaccinated and boosted. He is experiencing mild symptoms. Representative Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania announced that he, too, has tested positive and is experiencing mild flu-like symptom despite having received two vaccine doses.
I just returned from an official congressional delegation visit to Ukraine and tested positive for a breakthrough COVID infection.— Rep. Jason Crow (@RepJasonCrow) December 20, 2021
I’m thankful to be fully vaccinated and boosted and experiencing only mild symptoms (the vaccine is safe and effective).
Rhodes Island has the highest COVID-19 rate in the United States. Data analysis from The New York Times shows that as of last week Rhode Island has the highest rate of new coronavirus cases in the country. The state has been recording an average of 1,090 new infections per day.
A one-word plea appears in an ad from Cleveland hospitals: "Help." A group of hospitals in the Cleveland area issued a one-word plea in a full-page ad in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer as the omicron variant spreads across the country: "Help." “We need your help. We now have more COVID-19 patients in our hospitals than ever before,” the ad reads. “And the overwhelming majority are unvaccinated. This is preventable.” NBC News analysis found that Ohio is behind only Michigan in the highest share of new hospitalizations between November 10 and December 5.
Around the World
European countries are considering new curbs on movement. Reuters said on Tuesday that countries across Europe are weighing new limits on movement. Germany, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and South Korea are among countries to have reimposed partial or full lockdowns or other social distancing measures in recent days.
A dramatic drop in cases in Japan has surprised scientists. A feature from NPR revealed that infections in Japan have dropped by more than 99 percent from their peak, and the country has seen less than one death a day in recent weeks, its lowest level since July 2020. Hideaki Oka, MD, PhD, an infectious disease expert at the Saitama Medical University Hospital outside Tokyo, told NPR, “We have had zero COVID patients in our hospital for two months straight, so we've been able to concentrate on general medicine just as in pre-COVID times.” Health experts are not entirely sure why cases have plummeted but they point to a population that is nearly 80 percent fully vaccinated and widespread adoption of protective measures (such as mask-wearing) among its citizens.
Vaccine and Research News
Fully vaccinated individuals who get COVID-19 may then be "super immune." Research published last week in JAMA suggested that people who what received two vaccine doses and still get infected could develop a “super-immunity.” Based on analysis of 26 blood samples from breakthrough cases, scientists discovered that these antibodies were as much as 1,000 percent more effective than those generated two weeks following the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. The study’s senior author, Fikadu Tafesse, PhD, an assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology in the university’s School of Medicine, told The Independent, “You can’t get a better immune response than this.”
Moderna's booster increases antibodies against omicron. Moderna released lab-testing data Monday showing that its booster shot raises antibodies that can fight the omicron variant by roughly 37-fold. At 50 milligrams, the booster shot being given is currently half the amount of the original dose. Researchers found that a full-strength booster of 100 milligrams raises antibody levels about 83-fold.
“The dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases from the omicron variant is concerning to all. However, these data showing that the currently authorized Moderna COVID-19 booster can boost neutralizing antibody levels 37-fold higher than preboost levels are reassuring,” said Stéphane Bancel, chief executive officer of Moderna. “To respond to this highly transmissible variant, Moderna will continue to rapidly advance an omicron-specific booster candidate into clinical testing in case it becomes necessary in the future.”