January 18 coronavirus pandemic and Omicron variant news

By Jack Guy, Ed Upright, Aditi Sangal, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya and Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 6:57 a.m. ET, January 19, 2022
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2:48 p.m. ET, January 18, 2022

US CDC adds 22 destinations to its highest-risk category for travel

From CNN’s Forrest Brown

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added 22 destinations to its highest-risk category for travel on Tuesday, including Australia, Argentina and Egypt.

The CDC places a destination at "Level 4: Covid-19 Very High" risk when more than 500 cases per 100,000 residents are registered in the past 28 days.

In contrast, the CDC added just two nations — Canada and Curaçao – to Level 4 last week.

Twenty-two destinations were also added on Tuesday to Level 3, which is the CDC’s “High” risk category. The Level 3 category applies to destinations that have had between 100 and 500 cases per 100,000 residents in the past 28 days.

3:11 p.m. ET, January 18, 2022

Health pass prevented more than 6,000 Covid-19 deaths across three major European countries, study shows   

From CNN’s Xiaofei Xu in Paris   

A visitor has their smartphone Covid-19 health pass checked before entering the George Pompidou Center in Paris, France, in August 2021.
A visitor has their smartphone Covid-19 health pass checked before entering the George Pompidou Center in Paris, France, in August 2021. (Nathan Laine/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The adoption of a health pass saved close to 4,000 lives in France, 1,100 in Germany and 1,300 in Italy, between the time the three countries adopted a health pass and the end of 2021, according to a study published Tuesday by the French Council of Economic Analysis, an independent body that advises the government.   

A health pass requires full vaccination, proof of recovery or a negative Covid test mandatory in bars, restaurants, theaters and other entertainment venues. France and Italy announced the measure in July of last year and Germany in August.  

“Notably, the application of health pass substantially reduced the pressure on intensive care units (ICUs) and, in France, averted surpassing the occupancy levels where prior lockdowns were instated,” the study says.    

One main driver behind this is the positive effect health pass had on vaccination rates across the three countries. It boosted vaccination rate in France by roughly 13%, in Germany by 6.2% and in Italy by 9.7%, according to the model estimates.      

Health passes also helped avoid huge economic loss across the three countries -- 6 billion euros in France, 1.4 billion euros in Germany and 2.1 billion euros in Italy, it said.   

The French Constitutional Court is set to rule on a new bill on January 21, that will turn the country’s health pass into a vaccination pass, meaning proof of vaccination is necessary for access to a range of everyday activities, from entering restaurants and bars to traveling inside the country. It would no longer accept proof of a negative test or recent recovery from Covid.

Italy in December made a "super green pass" mandatory in bars, restaurants, theaters and other closed entertainment venues, which was an extension to the country's green pass, which requires full vaccination, proof of recovery or a negative Covid test. As opposed to the normal green pass, the "super green pass" does not accept a negative test in lieu of the vaccine — a move by the government to encourage more people to get vaccinated.   

3:12 p.m. ET, January 18, 2022

Here's the latest on schools across the US as Omicron continues to spread

(Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
(Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The spread of the highly transmissible Omicron coronavirus variant is forcing some US schools to halt in-person learning because of high case rates and teacher absences.

Here are some updates on schools across the county:

  • In New York City: New York City Mayor Eric Adams is standing firm on keeping schools open. He says any potential remote school option would be for sick children.
  • In Houston: All schools and offices in the Houston Independent School District are closed Tuesday due to rising infections in the area, the school district announced on its website.
  • In Massachusetts: Weekly at-home Covid-19 tests will be distributed to students and teachers who are enrolled in the state’s testing program starting next week, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday.
  • In Virginia: Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order Saturday stating parents will get to decide if their child must wear a mask in class, a departure from his predecessor's public health emergency order in August that masks were to be worn in schools. Several districts announced they will reject the latest order.

Meanwhile, some current and former health officials and physicians who have worked with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on health guidance are criticizing the organization's recommendation that schools "cancel or hold high-risk sports and extra-curricular activities virtually" any time a community has a "high" Covid-19 transmission rate.

In a statement, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the agency "prioritized academics over athletics because of the increased risks involved in some extracurricular sports. When followed, our school guidance has been incredibly effective."

Additionally, a review of studies has found that school closures have "consistent" negative health impacts on children.

1:43 p.m. ET, January 18, 2022

WHO director: There’s "hope that the worst of this latest wave is done with"

From CNN Health’s Naomi Thomas

The Omicron coronavirus variant is continuing to “sweep the world,” and there is concern about the impact it could have on healthcare workers and health care systems, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday.

“Omicron continues to sweep the world,” Tedros said at a briefing in Geneva. “Last week, there were more than 18 million reported cases. The number of deaths remains stable for the moment, but we’re concerned about the impact Omicron is having on already exhausted health workers and overburdened health systems.”


“In some countries, cases seem to have peaked, which gives hope that the worst of this latest wave is done with, but no country is out of the woods yet,” he said, adding that he was particularly concerned about countries with low vaccination rates, as the unvaccinated remain at higher risk for severe disease and death.

He also cautioned against the narrative that Omicron is a mild disease.

“Omicron may be less severe – on average, of course – but the narrative that it is mild disease is misleading, hurts the overall response, and costs more lives,” he said. “Make no mistake, Omicron is causing hospitalizations and deaths and even the less severe cases are inundating health facilities. The virus is circulating far too intensely with many still vulnerable.”

In many countries, the next few weeks will be critical for health workers and systems, Tedros said, and he urged everyone to do their best to reduce their risk of infection to help relieve pressure on systems.

“Now is not the time to give up and wave the white flag,” he said. “We can still significantly reduce the impact of the current wave by sharing and using health tools effectively and implementing public health and social measures that we know work.”


1:33 p.m. ET, January 18, 2022

US website to order free Covid-19 tests is up and running

From CNN’s Kaitlan Collins

A resident processes a self-administered at-home Covid-19 test, received through a government program, in Easton, New Hampshire, in December 2021.
A resident processes a self-administered at-home Covid-19 test, received through a government program, in Easton, New Hampshire, in December 2021. (John Tully/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The federal government quietly launched its website to sign up for free Covid-19 tests, allowing people to order a maximum of four tests shipped directly to their household.

Given the formal launch wasn't expected until Wednesday, a White House official said this is only the beta phase to ensure the site works seamlessly.

"In alignment with website launch best practices, covidtests.gov is currently in its beta phase, which means that the website is operating at limited capacity ahead of its official launch," a White House official told CNN. "This is standard practice to address troubleshooting and ensure as smooth of an official launch tomorrow as possible."

"We expect the website to officially launch mid-morning tomorrow," the official added.

Though the official said the site was only operating at a limited capacity, it's unclear how the initial phase of the site is limited. Once shipping information was entered online, the site instructed people that tests would begin shipping in "late January" and the United States Postal Service, which is handling the deliveries, "will only send one set of 4 free at-home COVID-19 tests to valid residential addresses.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki went on to confirm today that the government website to order free Covid-19 tests is up and running as part of a beta phase ahead of the government website's formal rollout Wednesday morning. 

"Covid test.gov is in the Beta phase right now, which is a standard part of the process typically as it's being kind of tested in the early stages of being rolled out," Psaki told reporters at the White House. "It will officially launch tomorrow morning." 

Psaki also noted that the administration went through a similar process for vaccines.gov, and she added that any orders placed during the Beta phase will go through.

The press secretary said there is no formal time for Wednesday's official rollout, but that her expectation is some time around "mid-morning."

"It's going to be out tomorrow morning, mid morning tomorrow. And we are looking forward to getting free tests out to the public," Psaki said. 

1:01 p.m. ET, January 18, 2022

Boston opens new high-capacity testing center

From CNN’s Paradise Afshar

A medical worker prepares a Covid-19 PCR test in Boston, Massachusetts on December 20, 2021.
A medical worker prepares a Covid-19 PCR test in Boston, Massachusetts on December 20, 2021. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images)

A high-capacity Covid-19 testing site opened at the Bruce C. Bolling Building in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood on Tuesday.

Cambridge-based CIC Health will provide free PCR testing services from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday on a walk-in basis, according to Mayor Michelle Wu.

“Today we are celebrating another testing site that the Boston Public Health Commission has set up to make sure testing is accessible across all of our neighborhoods in Boston,” Wu said.

Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, called the new testing center a “vital resource” for the Roxbury neighborhood, and its surrounding communities.

“We know COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted people of color and exacerbated existing barriers to care,” Ojikutu said. “So, we’re really proud to open this site in the heart of Boston’s Black and African American community.” 

To get the word out about the location, flyers will be posted across the Roxbury neighborhood in multiple languages.

“I am so excited at the potential for this to be one more way to cut down the lines that we’ve been seeing across the city,” Wu said.

Additional Boston testing sites are slated to be opened in the Dorchester and Mattapan neighborhoods starting this week.

12:37 p.m. ET, January 18, 2022

New York records about 22,000 new Covid-19 cases, down by 75% since peak on Jan. 7

From CNN's Taylor Romine

New York state reported a little more than 22,000 positive Covid-19 cases on Monday, which is down by about 75% from the peak of 90,000 cases less than two weeks ago, according to Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Cases have also dropped by about 43% in the last seven days and hospitalizations continue to decline, she said. The governor said that percent positivity is at 12.48% and has dropped by about 11% since the peak on Jan. 2.

The state's highest case count of the pandemic was 90,132 people on Jan. 7, state data shows. 

She said this steady decline is a hopeful sign that the state may be able to "close the books" on this winter surge soon so the state can focus on recovering from the pandemic.

12:21 p.m. ET, January 18, 2022

Omicron now accounts for 99.5% of US Covid-19 infections

From CNN'S Ben Tinker

The Omicron variant caused 99.5% of new coronavirus cases in the US last week – slightly higher than the previous week, according to estimates posted Tuesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Delta variant makes up the remaining 0.5%.

Over the past month and a half, Omicron has risen rapidly in estimates, accounting for:

  • 0.6% of cases the week ending Dec. 4
  • 89.1% of cases the week ending Jan. 1
  • 97.9% of cases the week ending Jan. 8.

Note on the data: Not every Covid-19 test is sent for the extra genetic sequencing needed to detect which variant has infected someone. The CDC works off samples and extrapolates its estimates based on that extra testing.

2:06 p.m. ET, January 18, 2022

Arkansas ACLU files lawsuit on behalf of inmates who say they were given Ivermectin without consent

From CNN's Tina Burnside

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of four inmates who claim they were given the drug Ivermectin to treat Covid-19 without their consent. 

The suit, which was filed on Jan. 13 in the US District Court of Western Arkansas against the Washington County Detention Center, Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder, jail physician Dr. Robert Karas, and Karas Correctional Health, accuses the defendants of administering Ivermectin to the incarcerated individuals without prior informed consent as to the nature, contents, or potential side effects of the drug. 

Ivermectin is used to treat parasites such as worms and lice in humans and it is also used by veterinarians to de-worm large animals.

Plaintiffs Edrick Floreal-Wooten, Jeremiah Little, Julio Gonzales, and Dayman Blackburn allege they were deceived over a period of days and possibly weeks after receiving "high amounts" of Ivermectin. The lawsuit states the plaintiffs say they were given Ivermectin as early as November 2020 and didn’t become aware of the treatment until July 2021- instead being told their treatment consisted of "vitamins", "antibiotics", and/or "steroids".  

In August 2021 at a county budget hearing Sheriff Tim Helder confirmed that Karas Correctional Health had been prescribing Ivermectin as a treatment at WCDC, the ACLU said in a news release. Last year the Sheriff's office defended the practices to the local paper saying that all treatment is "voluntary".

"They are able to refuse any medication they're offered. Even with the vaccine, it's all voluntary," Chief Deputy Jany Cantrell told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazett. 

Karas also publicly defended his practice on Aug. 25, 2021, stating that there had been no Covid-19 deaths reported out of the 531 cases in the jail at the time, the lawsuit stated. 

CNN previously reported that the Arkansas Medical Board had opened an investigation into the matter. CNN has reached out to the AMB for an update. 

The suit also alleges that the defendants knowingly and intentionally disregarded U.S. Food and Drug Administration warnings against using the drug to treat Covid-19.

Last March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cautioned against using Ivermectin to attempt to treat or prevent Covid-19. 

In a news release, Gary Sullivan, legal director of the ACLU of Arkansas accused the detention center of failing to use safe and appropriate treatments for Covid-19, even in the midst of a pandemic. 

“No one - including incarcerated individuals - should be deceived and subject to medical experimentation. Sheriff Helder has a responsibility to provide food, shelter, and safe, appropriate care to incarcerated individuals,” Sullivan said. 

In a statement to CNN, Washington County Sheriff's Office said they are unable to comment on pending litigation. CNN has also reached out to Karas Correctional Health. 

Arkansas Department of Health spokesperson Danyelle McNeill tells CNN that Karas is scheduled to appear in person before the Arkansas State Medical Board on Feb. 3, 2022.

CNN previously reported that the Arkansas Medical Board had opened an investigation into Karas' practice of administering the drug Ivermectin as treatment for Covid-19 to inmates detained in the Washington County Detention Center. 

You can read the complaint here.