US omicron cases on the rise as NY reports 5; antibody drug appears effective against new variant: Latest COVID-19 updates

·8 min read

Confirmed U.S. cases of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus ticked up on Thursday after New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said five have been identified in her state, another sign that infections are likely spreading throughout the nation.

"Let me be clear: This is not cause for alarm. We knew this variant was coming and we have the tools to stop the spread,'' Hochul said in the tweet.

"Get your vaccine. Get your booster. Wear your mask.''

The variant's presence in the country was first reported Wednesday with a case in San Francisco. The second and third known instances were confirmed earlier Thursday.

U.S. and New York City health officials said earlier in the day they were working closely with authorities in Minnesota after that state reported the nation's second confirmed case of the variant.

Then Colorado Gov. Jared Polis tweeted a midday alert saying omicron as been found in the state. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said the infected person is an adult woman who recently returned from southern Africa, where the variant was first identified. The woman, who is vaccinated but not boosted, has mild symptoms, the department said.

Omicron was first reported by scientists in South Africa, but the samples came from several countries in southern Africa.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the agency has been monitoring and preparing for omicron, partly by dramatically increasing its genomic sequencing capacity.

Vaccines, boosters, masking in indoor public settings, washing hands frequently and physical distancing "work to prevent the spread of COVID-19, no matter the genetic sequence," she said.

In laying out his multipoint plan for protecting Americans from COVID-19 over the winter, President Joe Biden said infections are expected to rise and the best defense against them are vaccines and booster shots.

"Our (doctors) and scientists believe that people who get a booster shot are more protected than ever from COVID-19,'' Biden said, urging the 100 million eligible adults who still haven't received the free boosters to get them.

Also in the news:

►Seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, teammate Mike Edwards and free agent John Franklin III were suspended for three weeks without pay by the NFL, which said they "misrepresented their vaccination status.''

►Zimbabwe’s vice president and health minister, Constantino Chiwenga, said the southern African country has recorded the omicron variant, making it the fifth African nation to report its presence after Botswana, South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria.

►A new study, which involved NBA players, their families and staff, found that people with breakthrough COVID-19 cases stopped producing the virus two days sooner than the unvaccinated.

►Vaccines have suddenly become scarce in some parts of Oregon after months of vaccine surplus in the state and across that nation, officials said.

📈Today's numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 48.8 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 785,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 264 million cases and 5.2 million deaths. More than 197.8 million Americans – roughly 59.6% of the population – are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

📘 What we're reading: The first case of the coronavirus omicron variant in the United States was confirmed on Wednesday. How did scientists find it?

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Biden seeks national unity as he unveils pandemic winter battle plan

Tighter travel rules, free at-home tests and booster shots are key elements of President Joe Biden's latest strategy to combat the rapidly evolving coronavirus. So is an appeal for Americans to come together in trying to defeat the virus, which may have become even more dangerous with the emergence of the new omicron variant.

Biden emphasized that he was not expanding or adding vaccination requirements as he presented Thursday his multipronged approach to confronting COVID-19 in the coming months.

"My plan I’m announcing today pulls no punches in the fight against COVID-19," Biden said. "It's a plan that I think should unite us."

Biden's plan, promoted during a visit to the National Institutes of Health as people begin hunkering down for winter and gathering for the holidays, includes these highlights:

  • Requiring travelers entering the country by air to test negative for COVID within a day of departure, regardless of vaccination status or nationality, instead of within three days.

  • Extending through March 18 the requirement that masks be worn on airplanes, trains and public transportation.

  • Requiring private health insurance companies to cover 100% of the cost of at-home tests for the coronavirus.

  • Launching a public education campaign to encourage 100 million adults to get boosters, with a special focus on seniors.

"We have the best tools, the best vaccines in the world and the best medicines and the best doctors,'' Biden said. "We're going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion.''

Maureen Groppe

Antibody drug appears effective against omicron variant

GlaxoSmithKline says its COVID-19 antibody drug appears to be effective against the omicron variant based on initial laboratory testing. The British drugmaker said it hopes to complete testing by year’s end to confirm whether the drug is effective against all the various mutations seen with the variant. The announcement on Thursday is one of the first indications that at least some of the current COVID-19 treatments will retain their potency against the emerging strain.

On Tuesday, drugmaker Regeneron cautioned that its antibody cocktail appeared to lose effectiveness against omicron.

Germany cracks down on unvaccinated

Germans who aren’t vaccinated are to be excluded from nonessential stores and cultural and recreational venues, and Germany’s parliament is also considering a general vaccine mandate. Officials have also agreed to require masks in German schools, impose new limits on private meetings, slash outdoor sports attendance to a maximum of 15,000 people and aim for 30 million vaccinations by the end of the year.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday that the measures were necessary amid concerns that hospitals in Germany could become overloaded with COVID-19 patients. Infections are more likely to be debilitating in those who haven’t been vaccinated.

“The situation in our country is serious," Merkel said.

Even those who have recovered from COVID are at higher risk, study shows

Patients who have recovered from severe COVID-19 have more than twice the mortality risk within the year following their illness than people who have not contracted the virus, according to a study by University of Florida researchers published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine. The researchers found that among patients who recovered from severe COVID-19 and later died, deaths attributed to cardiovascular, respiratory and clotting problems – common complications of COVID-19 infection – only accounted for 20% of deaths.

“These findings reinforce that the internal trauma of being sick enough to be hospitalized with COVID-19 has a big consequence for people’s health,” said Arch G. Mainous III, Ph.D., the study’s lead investigator. "This is a huge complication of COVID-19 that has not been shown before."

South Africa, some European nations see sharp rise in new infections

Global case counts are again exceeding 4 million per week, after spending most of October around 3 million per week. One of the biggest increases is in South Africa, where cases are being reported about 11 times faster than they were a month earlier. The country was the first to identify the omicron variant, which some experts worry could spread quickly.

Parts of Europe have also seen a strong resurgence of the virus, from relatively low rates before. Spain reported about 8,900 cases in the week ending Nov. 1, but nearly 63,000 cases in the week ending Dec. 1. France went from about 42,000 per week to 243,000. Germany's case count tripled, to about 400,000 per week.

Limited access to testing in many developing countries means the global numbers are likely significantly undercounted and may hide regional trends.

Mike Stucka

Tennessee signed $75M contact tracing deal with firm lacking epidemiology experience

With virtually no legislative oversight and largely shielded from the public's eye, Tennessee state officials agreed to pay a medical billing company $20 million last summer to conduct the state's contact tracing efforts. The price tag of that contract has now more than tripled to a total of $75 million, according to multiple amendments hashed out between the firm and the state Department of Health.

The extension of the no-bid contract with Hendersonville company Xtend Healthcare – first reported by The Tennessee Lookout – has raised eyebrows among lawmakers from both parties. Workers at the company have called into question how well Xtend Healthcare – a medical billing company with no previous experience in epidemiology –has managed contact tracing in Tennessee. Several Xtend Healthcare workers told WPLN they experienced significant case backups, with some reaching infected patients after they had to quarantine.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has defended the state's emergency purchasing process, arguing state officials had to make decisions quickly to secure supplies such as personal protective equipment and other services during the pandemic.

– Yue Stella Yu, Nashville Tennessean

Indiana reports highest increase in cases since January

Indiana reported 6,164 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, the highest number of new cases added to the state’s dashboard in a single day since early January. Holiday weekends, like the long Thanksgiving weekend, can wreak havoc on COVID-19 numbers because of delays in testing. So the cases confirmed Tuesday could be partly an artifact of testing being less available over the weekend.

Suggesting this could be part of a new disturbing trend, Indiana reported more than 4,000 new cases Tuesday, and by Wednesday the seven-day average for new cases reached 3,245, the highest number since September.

– Shari Rudavsky, Indianapolis Star

Contributing: Mike Stucka, Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY; Imani Cruzen, St. Cloud Times; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Confirmed US omicron cases up; Biden's winter plan: COVID news

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