The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and the Omicron variant

By Ivana Kottasová, Melissa Mahtani, Melissa Macaya, Meg Wagner and Aditi Sangal, CNN

Updated 0552 GMT (1352 HKT) December 22, 2021
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4:43 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

WHO: Omicron has been confirmed in 106 countries

From CNN’s Virginia Langmaid

A man walks past a sign indicating a vaccination point against Covid-19 in Bogota, on December 21. Colombian health authorities detected the first three cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 in passengers who arrived from the US and Spain.
A man walks past a sign indicating a vaccination point against Covid-19 in Bogota, on December 21. Colombian health authorities detected the first three cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 in passengers who arrived from the US and Spain. (Daniel Munoz/AFP/Getty Images)

The Delta variant of the coronavirus is dominant among global virus samples, but the Omicron variant is increasing and poses a risk, according to the World Health Organization’s newest weekly epidemiological report, published Tuesday.

In a section of the report on the spread of variants of concern, the organization said 96% of samples sequenced globally were Delta, down from 99.2% the previous week, and 1.6% were Omicron, up from 0.4% the previous week. 

According to WHO data, the Omicron variant has been confirmed in 106 countries. 

“Recent evidence indicates that Omicron variant has a growth advantage over the Delta variant and is spreading rapidly, even in countries with documented community transmission and high levels of population immunity,” the organization said. 

Data on severity is limited, but hospitalizations are rising in the UK and South Africa. 

“Given rapidly increasing case numbers, it is possible that healthcare systems may become overwhelmed. Preliminary data suggest that there is a reduction in neutralization of Omicron in those who have received a primary vaccination series or in those who have had prior SARS-CoV-2 infection, which may suggest a level of humoral immune evasion,” the organization said. 

Because of these factors, “the overall risk related to the new variant of concern Omicron remains very high.”

4:17 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

Chicago will require proof of vaccination for most businesses serving food or drinks

From CNN’s Kay Jones

An eight-year-old child receives a second dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at Northwest Community Church in Chicago, Saturday, Dec. 11.
An eight-year-old child receives a second dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at Northwest Community Church in Chicago, Saturday, Dec. 11. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

The city of Chicago will require proof of vaccination for most businesses that serve food or drinks starting Jan. 3, the mayor announced Tuesday.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a news conference that the new requirement will be in effect for anyone over the age of five at restaurants, gyms, theaters, bars, and other entertainment and sporting venues that serve food and drink throughout the city. 

All patrons must be fully vaccinated to enter these establishments, she said, and there is no testing option. Unvaccinated employees of these venues will have a test-out option, according to Lightfoot.

“The unvaccinated are affecting the health, well-being, and livelihoods of all the rest of us,” Lightfoot said. “To control the spread, we have to limit the risk.” 

Grocery stores, schools, places of worship, office buildings, and residential buildings are exempt from the requirement. 

Lightfoot said hospitalizations in the city are at their highest since the surge last winter and deaths are at a rate higher than the city has seen in months.  “I’ve not been this concerned about Covid-19 since the early days in February 2020,” she said. 

The order will remain in effect until the city deems that the risk is diminished and the city is out of the current surge, Lightfoot said on Tuesday.

4:07 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

New York state reports a decrease in daily Covid-19 cases and a slight increase in hospitalizations

From CNN's Laura Ly

New York state reported 22,258 new Covid-19 cases on Tuesday, marking a decrease of over 1,000 cases since Monday’s report, according to a news release from Governor Kathy Hochul’s office. 

Over 61% of Tuesday’s reported new cases are from New York City, data shows. Tuesday’s case count is the first number in five days that does not break a record for the state’s highest daily count of new cases.

An additional 308 hospitalizations were reported on Tuesday, bringing the state’s total number of Covid-19-related hospitalizations to 4,328, the release states.

3:35 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

Biden "considering" lifting travel ban on southern African countries

From CNN's Nikki Carvajal

President Biden said he is "considering" whether to lift the US' travel ban on South Africa and seven other southern African countries that was put in place as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus began to spread.

"I'm considering reversing (the travel ban), I'm going to talk to my team in the next couple days," Biden told reporters after a speech on Covid-19 at the White House.

In late November, Biden acted on advice from the nation's top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by restricting travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

The ban has come under increasing scrutiny as the strain is already the predominant one in new cases in the US, and has run rampant in other countries that have not seen similar travel restrictions.

"Remember why I said we put the travel ban on – it was to see how much time we had before it hit here so we could begin to decide what we needed by looking at what was happening in other countries," Biden said. "And we're past that now, and so it's something that's being raised with me by the docs and I'll have an answer for that soon."

For days the White House has been giving a similar answer on the restrictions. On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the ban was never meant to be permanent, and that the administration was “continuing to assess day to day the decision to lift that ban.”

3:23 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

Biden says lack of tests in US "not a failure"

From CNN's Nikki Carvajal

President Biden defended his administration’s actions on testing Tuesday, telling reporters that the shortage of tests in the US was “not a failure.”

“No it’s not,” the President responded to CNN’s Phil Mattingly, “because Covid is spreading so rapidly. We know this, it just happened almost overnight, it happened in the last month.”

Biden reiterated that while the lack of tests was “not a failure,” he admitted, “the alarms are going off.” 

“I don’t think anybody anticipated this would be as rapid at spreading as it did,” he said, “then all of the sudden it was like everybody rushed to the counter was a big, big rush.”

“I knew that was coming,” Biden insisted, “so what I tried to do was meet with the companies to use the Defense Production Act to get a half a billion more tests.” 

Asked by another reporter what took so long to ramp up production of tests, Biden seemed irritated at the question. 

“Come on, 'what took so long?',” he asked. “What took so long is it didn’t take long at all.”

“What happened was, the Omicron virus spread more rapidly than anyone thought,” he said. “If I told you four weeks ago that this would spread on a daily basis 50, 100%, 200% 500%, I think you look to me and say, 'Biden, what are you drinking?'”

He said that while it’s not clear what’s going to happen with the variant, hospitals would not be in a position where they run out or run low on critical supplies. 

4:11 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

Biden: "This is a critical moment"

From CNN's Maureen Chowdhury

(Patrick Semansky/AP)
(Patrick Semansky/AP)

President Biden closed his remarks on the current surge in coronavirus cases in the country by encouraging people to have faith during this "critical moment."

"I know you're tired. I really mean this, and I know you're frustrated. We all want this to be over. But we're still in it. And this is a critical moment. We also have more tools than we have ever had before. We're ready. We'll get through this," Biden said from remarks from the White House.

He continued, "As we head into the holidays, I want us to all keep the faith. I want to sincerely thank you for your perseverance, your courage, your countless acts of kindness, love and sacrifice during these last two years. Throughout our history, we have been tested as a people, and as a nation. Through war and turmoil, we had to ask whether we would be safe, whether we would be okay. Whether we can get back to who we are. We have always endured because remember: there is no challenge too big for America."

3:10 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

President Biden says vaccine requirements are in place "not to control your life, but to save your life"

(Patrick Semansky/AP)
(Patrick Semansky/AP)

President Biden noted during his speech on Tuesday that the courts reinstated his "vaccination or test rule" requiring businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure all workers are vaccinated or tested each week or go home. 

"These rules are going to keep workers safe ... and will help keep businesses open," he said.

The President said that he knows vaccination requirements are "unpopular" for many reasons. But he said that the administration has put the vaccination mandates in place "not to control your life, but to save your life and the lives of others." 

"400,000 Americans died from Covid this calendar year, and almost all were unvaccinated. Almost all were preventible," Biden said. "The rule is legal and effective, and it's going to save thousands of American lives."

4:16 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

Biden announces plans to expand at-home testing in January

From CNN's Elise Hammond

(Patrick Semansky/AP)
(Patrick Semansky/AP)

President Biden announced an expansion of at-home rapid tests to combat the surge of new cases, adding it's "critically important to know who's infected."

The President said the federal government will purchase a half-billion at-home rapid Covid-19 tests and plans to distribute them free to Americans who request them through a website.

The 500 million new tests will be made available next month and will reach Americans through the mail, he said.

Biden said also starting next month, private insurance will cover at-home testing so that you can get reimbursed for those orders. There are additional plans to provide tests to those who don't have insurance as well, he said.

Previously, CNN reported that an administration official said that the website will launch "in January or around January." The official also said the White House is "working through all the details" when asked how Americans without internet access could secure tests.

"But it's not enough. We have to do more. We have to do better – and we will," Biden said. "Starting this week the federal government will set up emergency testing sites in areas that need additional testing capacity," which includes places where people have been waiting in long lines for tests, like New York City.

The President said the government will continue to use the Defense Production Act to produce as many tests as quickly as possible.

"The bottom line is it's a lot better than it was.  But we're taking even more steps to make it easier to get tested and get tested for free," Biden said.

3:01 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

President Biden calls on those pushing "dangerous misinformation" about the Covid-19 vaccine to "stop it now"

(Patrick Semansky/AP)
(Patrick Semansky/AP)

President Biden said this afternoon that the number of Americans getting the Covid-19 vaccine "slowed this summer as vaccine resistance among some hardened." 

The President blamed "dangerous misinformation" for the slowdown

"Look, the unvaccinated are responsible for their own choices. But those choices have been fueled by dangerous misinformation on cable TV and social media," Biden said.

He called on those pushing the information to "stop it now."

"You know, these companies and personalities are making money by peddling lies and allowing misinformation that can kill their own customers and their own supporters. It's wrong. It's immoral, I call on the purveyors of these lies and misinformation to stop it, stop it now."