Even before the omicron variant establishes a firm foothold in the U.S., coronavirus infections and hospitalizations are soaring again, including in highly vaccinated regions like New England.
The combination of the late fall's colder weather, holiday gatherings, increased travel and pandemic fatigue has likely played a major role in the surge, as has the failure to vaccinate a larger portion of the population. More than 35% of eligible Americans, including 28% of adults, still aren't fully vaccinated.
New cases in the U.S. climbed from an average of nearly 95,000 a day on Nov. 22 to almost 119,000 a day this week, and hospitalizations are up 25% from a month ago. The increases are almost entirely from the delta variant, though omicron has been confirmed in at least 21 states and is sure to spread even more.
Deaths are running close to 1,600 a day on average, back up to where they were in October. And the overall U.S. death toll less than two years into the pandemic figures to hit the 800,000 milestone in a matter of days.
Federal officials are touting vaccination rates that have climbed recently: 12.5 million shots administered last week, the highest total since May. It's still not clear how effective vaccines will be at fending off the omicron variant, though Pfizer-BioNTech said Wednesday a third shot of their vaccine produces a 25-fold increase in neutralizing antibodies compared to the original two-jab regimen.
The Biden administration has been promoting booster shots – a one-week high of nearly 7 million were administered last week – and especially focusing the messaging on seniors, who are more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Still, even states with high vaccine uptake like those in New England are encountering some of the worst infection surges since the start of the pandemic, as has much of the less-vaccinated Midwest. Many hospitals are postponing non-urgent surgeries in anticipation of a crush of COVID cases.
“The virus will find you,'' said Lawrence Gostin, director of the WHO Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights at Georgetown University. "It is searching for hosts that are not immune. The fact that you live in New England or New York doesn’t insulate you.”
Also in the news:
►The FDA on Wednesday granted emergency use authorization to AstraZeneca's Evusheld, a monoclonal antibody treatment for the prevention of COVID-19 on people who are immunocompromised and those who are allergic to the vaccine.
►Minnesota's intensive care units are at 98% capacity – the highest level yet during the pandemic.
►Louisiana’s Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will hear arguments in a pastor’s fight against criminal charges he faces for violations of pandemic gathering limits that were in effect last year.
►Surgery rates rebounded within months of initial COVID shutdowns and remained at pre-pandemic levels even through later peaks of the pandemic, a study published Wednesday in JAMA Network Open found.
📈Today's numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 49.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 793,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 267.7 million cases and 5.27 million deaths. More than 199 million Americans – 60% of the population – are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
📘 What we're reading: Is it the cold? The flu? Or COVID? Breakthrough infections of COVID-19 in vaccinated people typically result in mild symptoms that are easy to confuse.
CDC: More than 75% of omicron cases in US involve vaccinated people, but symptoms are mild
One disturbing development along with an encouraging one are emerging in the first days since the omicron variant was first confirmed in the U.S. on Dec. 1.
The new coronavirus variant appears fairly adept at piercing the protection from vaccines, even boosters in some cases, but not produce severe disease. The second indication is consistent with what scientists have observed in South Africa, where the variant was first identified.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, told the Associated Press on Wednesday that of the 40-plus people known to be infected by omicron so far in the U.S., more than three-quarters were vaccinated, and one third had received a booster shot.
However, she added that almost all the cases resulted in mild illness -- with cough, congestion and fatigue as the main symptoms. Only one case required hospitalization, and no deaths have been reported.
Also Wednesday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that of the 12 people infected by omicron in an East Bay outbreak, 11 were vaccinated and boosted staffers of an Oakland hospital who attended an out-of-state wedding. The newspaper said all have mild symptoms.
Pfizer says booster shot provides protection against omicron
A third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine appears to protect against omicron, the troubling new variant of the coronavirus that has been confirmed in at least 21 U.S. states and more than 50 countries.
The companies said Wednesday that two doses of their vaccine may provide protection from severe disease but may not be sufficient to protect against infection with omicron, according to preliminary lab data. A third dose offers more robust protection, providing a level of neutralizing antibodies against omicron similar to the level observed after two doses against the original coronavirus and other variants.
Antibody levels predict how well a vaccine may prevent infection with the coronavirus, but they are just one layer of the immune system’s defenses. The companies are also developing an omicron-specific vaccine.
"The first line of defense with two doses of vaccination might be compromised (by omicron), and three doses of vaccination are required to restore protection, Özlem Türeci, BioNTech's chief medical officer, said in a Wednesday news conference.
Scientists and health officials are still conducting studies to learn more about omicron. Early information indicates it could be more contagious but perhaps less dangerous than previous variants such as delta.
– Contributing: Karen Weintraub
Most Americans are concerned about omicron but won't nix holiday travel, poll shows
Less than two weeks after news of the omicron variant of the coronavirus spread worldwide, the vast majority of Americans have heard of it. While most are at least somewhat concerned about the variant, few say they will change their holiday plans because of it.
An Axios-Ipsos poll conducted Dec. 3 through Dec. 6 found that 94% of Americans have heard of omicron. Forty-seven percent of Americans said they've heard of it but know almost nothing about it.
Nearly three-quarters of Americans, 71%, said they were at least somewhat concerned by the variant. But only 23% said they would cancel holiday travel, and 28% said they would stop gathering with people outside their households, the survey found.
Judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers
A federal judge has ruled in favor of seven states and several contractors in the legal battle over enforcement of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal contractors.
In a 28-page order released Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge R. Stan Baker granted the states a preliminary injunction that halts enforcement of President Joe Biden's executive order that required all federal contractors to have their employees vaccinated.
Quoting a federal judge in Kentucky who also granted an injunction halting the enforcement of vaccine mandates last week, Baker wrote: "This case is not about whether vaccines are effective. They are." And Baker acknowledged the tragic toll of COVID in the United States and around the world.
"However, even in times of crisis, this court must preserve the rule of law and ensure that all branches of government act within the bounds of their constitutionally granted authority," Baker wrote.
– Sandy Hodson, The Augusta Chronicle
91-year-old UK woman reflects on being first to get COVID vaccine one year later
Margaret Keenan told the BBC on Wednesday that she has had a "wonderful year" since becoming the first person to get a COVID-19 vaccine in the West's first mass immunization program. And she's still encouraging others to get vaccinated.
Keenan, 91, got her Pfizer-BioNTech shot in the UK on Dec. 8, 2020, dubbed "V-Day" or "Victory Day" by then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock – a phrase that typically refers to the Allied victories in World War II. Images of Keenan rolling up her sleeve made news outlets worldwide and video showed hospital staff applauding.
The landmark moment in the coronavirus pandemic came less than a year after the disease first emerged.
Keenan, a former jewelry shop employee originally from Northern Ireland, told BBC that when strangers approach her in the street to thank her, she tells them to "please, please do have the jab.
"Don't think about it. Just go and have it done," she said.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pfizer says third dose of vaccine protects against omicron: Updates