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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2:44 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

NOW: Biden delivers speech on Omicron and his administration's response to Covid-19 surge

From CNN's Kevin Liptak, Nikki Carvajal and Jeremy Diamond

President Biden is delivering remarks on the pandemic and is expected to announce a purchase of a half-billion at-home rapid Covid-19 tests and a plan to distribute them free to Americans who request them through a website, one of a series of new steps he'll unveil as the country faces a wintertime surge of infections.

The 500 million new tests will be made available next month and will reach Americans through the mail, the official said. The administration is still working to determine how many tests each household may request.

Among the President's new initiatives is a plan to prepare 1,000 military service members to deploy to overburdened hospitals across the country in January and February, administration officials said. Those service members will include doctors, nurses, medics and other military medical personnel.

Biden hopes to reassure Americans that if they are vaccinated, they can still proceed with their holiday plans without fear of becoming seriously ill. Conversely, he wants to warn those who have not yet received shots of the potential for severe illness or death in the coming months.

"The President will tell the American people if they're vaccinated and follow the precautions we all know well, especially masking while traveling, they should feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays as they planned," a senior administration official said ahead of time, previewing a speech that Biden hopes will reassure anxious Americans ahead of the festive season.

By contrast, Biden will warn the tens of millions of Americans who have so far declined to get vaccinated that they run a high risk of becoming ill or hospitalized as the highly transmissible Omicron variant spreads rapidly across the country.

Biden will also announce new vaccination sites and increased vaccine access, and will deploy hundreds of additional federal vaccinators who will help add "thousands of appointments each week," the official said.

More background: The speech, coming just days before Christmas, reflects Biden's renewed focus on the coronavirus pandemic as anxiety rises around the country at the potential for new restrictions and lockdowns.

Lines for testing centers have stretched for blocks in certain areas, including the northeast, leading the White House to develop plans to open new federal testing sites in New York City before Christmas.

Distributing free at-home tests to all Americans was written off by the White House as recently as this month. Press secretary Jen Psaki scoffed earlier this month when asked if tests should be free and given out, available everywhere.

2:34 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

WHO Europe Director warns of "storm coming" as Omicron becomes dominant strain across region

From CNN's Niamh Kennedy

Hans Kluge is seen in St. Petersburg, Russia, in November.
Hans Kluge is seen in St. Petersburg, Russia, in November. (Alexander Demianchuk/TASS via Getty Images)

The World Health Organization on Tuesday warned of a "storm coming" as Omicron spreads in a host of countries across Europe. 

Omicron has now become the dominant strain of Covid-19 in countries such as Denmark, Portugal, and the UK where cases are doubling every 1.5 to three days, WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr. Hans Kluge said.

"We can see another storm coming," Kluge said at a news conference in Vienna, Austria. "Within weeks Omicron will dominate in more countries of the region, with a threat to push already overwhelmed health systems further to the brink." 

Countries in WHO's Europe region recorded at least 2,749,122 new Covid-19 cases in the past week, according to WHO data released Tuesday. The "sheer volume" of new Covid-19 cases may culminate in more hospitalizations and the disruption of other critical health services, Kluge said.

He also hailed boosters as "the single most important defense against the Omicron" variant. Despite the ability of vaccination to prevent severe disease and hospitalizations, it does "not necessarily interrupt transmission," Kluge said, stressing the need for other complementary measures.

"We need to double the number of people in our region wearing masks indoors," Kluge said as an example. Acknowledging that although it "is important to celebrate Christmas" and New Year's, Kluge said there is a firm need to "celebrate safely" in Europe this year.

On Monday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged people to consider canceling festive events, saying that "an event canceled is better than a life canceled."

1:55 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

Atlanta mayor reinstates indoor mask mandate

From CNN’s Gregory Lemos

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced Tuesday she signed an executive order that reinstates the city’s indoor mask mandate. 

“The order is in response to the rising number of COVID-19 infections and the impact of the Omicron variant,” the City of Atlanta tweeted

The order also moves the city back into the"yellow zone" of the Covid-19 Resilience Plan. The city considers metrics such as positive cases and hospitalizations when deciding whether Atlanta is in the blue, green, yellow or red zone, according to the city’s Covid-19 website

1:25 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

New York City mayor says federal Covid-19 testing sites are coming to NYC

From CNN's Laura Ly

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday that city officials have gotten word that federal Covid-19 testing sites will be set up in the city in the coming days.

“We’ve gotten word there will be additional federal testing sites in New York City, that’s gonna help. There’s obviously a huge demand for testing. We’re increasing the city sites to 112 sites – fixed sites and mobile sites – by the end of this week. The federal government’s coming in to help. They’re going to up and running in the next few days,” de Blasio said.

De Blasio said he is also in touch with President Biden’s Covid-19 Czar Jeff Zients about a major shipment of at-home test kits.

City officials did not yet have details on where the federal testing sites will be located or how many people they are expected to accommodate, but de Blasio said President Biden is expected to announce more information this afternoon.

1:24 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

Portugal will implement stricter Covid-19 measures starting Sunday to tackle rising cases

From CNN's Vasco Cotovio in Lisbon

Schools, bars, and clubs will all close in Portugal starting on Dec. 26 in a bid to tackle rising Covid-19 cases in the country, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa announced Tuesday.

People have also been told to work from home, and negative tests will be required for ceremonies such as weddings as well as all cultural and sporting events.

The prime minister said these measures will be in place until January 10.

Costa said he knew the county was entering a “particularly tough period,” but added that there cannot be “this idea that at the Christmas table there will only be affections and there is no virus.”

He recommended people wear masks indoors where possible and said the government would speed up its vaccination campaign.

12:49 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

Montreal declares state of emergency as cases in Quebec hit highest single-day numbers

From CNN’s Jennifer Henderson and Paula Newton

People wear face masks due to the coronavirus pandemic as they walk along Ste-Catherine Street in Montreal on December 4, 2021. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/AP)
People wear face masks due to the coronavirus pandemic as they walk along Ste-Catherine Street in Montreal on December 4, 2021. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/AP)

A state of emergency has been declared for Montreal due to Covid-19, according to a tweet from Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante.

“Montreal is declaring a state of emergency to better deal with the turbulence caused by the Omicron variant. This allows us to guarantee services to essential workers and vulnerable people, among others. We are making sure that no one is left behind during this pandemic,” the tweet reads.

Canada's province of Quebec said it reported 5,043 new cases of Covid-19, according to the data on Covid-19 in Quebec website. This represents the highest single-day number of Covid-19 cases since the pandemic began, Quebec’s Ministry of Health & Social Services data shows.

 

12:59 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

Sweden will implement tighter restrictions to curb Covid-19 spread

From CNN's Amy Cassidy and Henrik Pettersson

Sweden will tighten its Covid-19 restrictions to prevent further spread as Covid-19 cases rise, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson announced Tuesday.  

Starting on Dec. 23, bars and restaurants will be able to operate sit-down service only with mandatory social distancing, the prime minister said. Those without proof of vaccination will be limited to gathering in groups of eight people in those settings.

Employees will be advised to work from home if possible, she added.

The new restrictions come as worst-case scenario modeling from Sweden’s Public Health Agency estimates daily cases could exceed 15,000 by mid-January. In the last seven days (Dec. 14 to 20), Sweden has reported an average of 3,556 new coronavirus cases per day.

The agency has also recommended the government decide on restricting the number of people at private gatherings to 50 people in rented spaces, as well as introduce a requirement for foreign travelers to produce a negative Covid-19 test upon arrival to Sweden.

12:22 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

UK PM says there's not "enough evidence" to justify tougher Covid-19 measures before Christmas

From CNN's Livvy Doherty and Lauren Kent

There will be no further Covid-19 restrictions brought in for England before Christmas, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Tuesday, adding that there is not currently "enough evidence" to justify tougher measures.

In a pre-recorded statement released on his Twitter account, Johnson said “in view of the continuing uncertainty about several things – the severity of Omicron, uncertainty about the hospitalization rate or the impact of the vaccine rollout or the boosters, we don’t think today that there is enough evidence to justify any tougher measures before Christmas.”

He did not rule out bringing in any further measures after Christmas, however, adding “if the situation deteriorates we will be ready to take action if needed.”

"What this means is that people can go ahead with their Christmas plans but the situation remains finely balanced and I would urge everyone to exercise caution, to keep protecting yourselves and your loved ones, especially the vulnerable," Johnson added.

What the numbers look like: On Tuesday, the UK reported at least 90,629 new coronavirus cases and 172 deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test. The country also reported 15,363 additional confirmed cases of the Omicron variant, bringing the total number of confirmed Omicron cases to at least 60,508, according to data from the UK Health Security Agency. 

Watch Johnson's message on Twitter:

12:17 p.m. ET, December 21, 2021

Minnesota governor and family test positive for Covid-19

From CNN’s Kay Jones, Brad Parks & Jessica Jordan

(Stephen Maturen/Getty Image)
(Stephen Maturen/Getty Image)

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, his wife, and son have all tested positive for Covid-19, according to a statement from his office.

The statement said his son tested positive on Monday, and he and his wife, Gwen, initially tested negative. After a second round of tests, they returned positive tests.

“Thankfully, my son has mild symptoms and Gwen and I have no symptoms,” Walz’s statement said. “My son is vaccinated, and Gwen and I are vaccinated and have received our booster shots, and I am confident that these vaccines are protecting my family and me from serious illness.”

The family is isolating at home and Gov. Walz said he is continuing to work from home until he feels better and tests negative.