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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11:01 a.m. ET, December 21, 2021

US education secretary: "There's no reason our schools should be going remote fully"

From CNN's Elise Hammond

(CNN)
(CNN)

US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said there is "no reason our schools should be going remote fully," but in order to protect students, teachers and families, everyone needs to do their part and practice mitigation strategies that are proven to work.

"Back at a time we didn't have vaccines, we lost so many lives, and I believe that precautions that we took were necessary, but we're a year removed from that. We know what works. We know how to protect ourselves," Cardona told CNN on Tuesday.

"We need to keep our kids in the classroom," he added.

Cardona said while a lot of things about the pandemic have changed in the last year and a half, things like masking and other preventive measures are still effective.

He encouraged parents to have conversations with their children and remind them of the importance of practicing these things.

"We can all do our part so that our schools stay open full-time," he said.

Cardona also praised the Biden administration for prioritizing vaccines for educators and now for taking steps to improve access to testing. He said the Department of Education is working with its partners at the Department of Health and Human Services to make sure tests are available for schools.

"Student safety, staff safety is the number-one priority, but, yes, our children need to be in school. We know how to keep them safe. We have a year's worth of experience," he said.

10:58 a.m. ET, December 21, 2021

Omicron becomes dominant variant in Denmark

From CNN's Antonia Mortensen and Lauren Kent

Omicron is already the dominant variant in Denmark, said Danish Health Minister Magnus Heunicke on Tuesday, citing data from the Statens Serum Institut (SSI), part of Denmark’s Ministry of Health.

"We are seeing a growing epidemic, and today a record high infection with 13,558 confirmed cases including reinfections," Heunicke said in a tweet. "SSI estimates that omicron is the dominant variant already now and continues to grow. Take care of yourself and others, get (re) vaccinated!"

Projections issued earlier this week by the Danish Ministry of Health anticipated between 9,000 to 45,000 new daily Covid-19 infections by Christmas Day, and up to 250 hospital admissions per day in light of the Omicron variant.

New restrictions came into effect on Sunday in an attempt to curb the spike in infections. Distancing measures and nightlife restrictions are also back in place, and passes are required in parts of the public transit system.

10:43 a.m. ET, December 21, 2021

New York City mayor announces $100 incentive for booster shots through the end of the year

From CNN's Laura Ly

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $100 incentive on Tuesday for any New York City resident who gets a Covid-19 booster shot at a city-run vaccination site. 

The incentive begins Tuesday and will run until Dec. 31, de Blasio said.

“I want to see New Yorkers respond. This is the moment. Come out in real big numbers, get those booster shots and help make your family safer, and help make this whole city safer,” de Blasio said.
10:35 a.m. ET, December 21, 2021

Preliminary data suggests Omicron may be less likely to cause severe disease in the lungs

From CNN's Jacqueline Howard

New research adds to growing evidence that the Omicron coronavirus variant may be less likely to cause severe disease in the lungs and appears to be less sensitive to current vaccines compared with other variants – but a booster dose can help improve protection.

Researchers from the United Kingdom, Japan and South Africa analyzed blood serum samples from vaccinated people and found that neutralization of Omicron was not detectable for most people who received two doses of either the AstraZeneca or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines; but a third dose of vaccine – or booster shot – rescued neutralization in the short term.

"The Omicron variant appears to be much better than Delta at evading neutralising antibodies in individuals who have received just two doses of the vaccine. A third dose ‘booster’ with the Pfizer vaccine was able to overturn this in the short term, though we’d still expect a waning in immunity to occur over time," Ravi Gupta, an author of the study, which was posted Tuesday to the preprint server biorxiv.org, and a professor at the University of Cambridge's Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease, said in a statement Monday.

To better understand how Omicron may infect our cells, Gupta and his colleagues also tested how pseudoviruses infected cells within a mini model of parts of the lungs. The researchers found that Omicron has lower infectivity of lung cells compared with the Delta variant.

"We speculate that the more efficient the virus is at infecting our cells, the more severe the disease might be. The fact that Omicron is not so good at entering lung cells and that it causes fewer fused cells with lower infection levels in the lab suggests this new variant may cause less severe lung-associated disease," Gupta said in the statement.

"While further work is needed to corroborate these findings, overall, it suggests that Omicron’s mutations present the virus with a double-edged sword: it’s got better at evading the immune system, but it might have lost some of its ability to cause severe disease," he added.

10:21 a.m. ET, December 21, 2021

Fauci: If you're vaccinated and boosted, the likelihood of getting seriously ill "is very, very low"

From CNN's Naomi Thomas

(from CBS)
(from CBS)

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that while we are seeing breakthrough cases of coronavirus among people who are vaccinated and who have gotten their booster doses, "the likelihood of a vaccinated and boosted person of getting seriously ill from the infection is very, very low."

“When you're dealing with a virus, a variant like Omicron, which has really a spectacular capability of spreading from person to person, we will be seeing breakthrough infections of vaccinated people, as well as people are vaccinated and boosted, that is going to happen," he said today on “CBS Mornings."

He continued: "The issue is that people need to understand that even with that the likelihood of a vaccinated and boosted person of getting seriously ill from the infection is very, very low. It's the unvaccinated people who are the most vulnerable not only to getting infected, but to getting a serious outcome.”

When asked if it’s possible we begin to live with Covid-19 long term, like the flu or common cold, Fauci said, “That's entirely conceivable and likely, as a matter of fact."

"We are not going to be in a situation of this degree of intensity indefinitely, for sure," he added. "And what we're hoping that when we get through this Omicron wave that we will have enough people vaccinated and or having been infected and recovered well, that there will be a degree of immunity in the community, such that you don't have a situation where it's dominating your life, with a level of infection and control is very low. We hope we get there soon.”

9:37 a.m. ET, December 21, 2021

Biden will give an Omicron variant-focused speech today

From CNN's Nikki Carvajal and Kevin Liptak

President Biden will “announce additional steps” in the fight against Covid-19 during his planned remarks about the Omicron variant Tuesday, the White House said, but he won’t necessarily talk about additional restrictions in the face of rising cases.

Biden 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 potentially crippling 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.

The President's speech today follows a meeting he held Monday with members of his Covid-19 response team.

“This is not a speech about shutting the country down,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a Monday afternoon press briefing. “This is a speech outlining and being direct and clear with the American people about the benefits of being vaccinated, the steps we're going to take to increase access and to increase testing, and the risks posed to unvaccinated individuals.”

Psaki said Biden will “issue a stark warning and make clear unvaccinated individuals will continue to drive hospitalizations and deaths.”

“That is not trying to scare people – or maybe it is, trying to make clear to people in the country what the risks are here of not being vaccinated,” she continued. “What is clear is that we're not in the same place that we were in.”

“To be clear,” Psaki added, “Covid-19 is not the same threat to fully vaccinated individuals that it was in March 2020.”

9:22 a.m. ET, December 21, 2021

Daily US Covid-19 case numbers with Omicron "could exceed previous peaks," CDC warns

From CNN's Michael Nedelman

Drivers line up to receive Covid-19 swab tests at a testing site in Longmont, Colorado, on December 14.
Drivers line up to receive Covid-19 swab tests at a testing site in Longmont, Colorado, on December 14. (Chet Strange/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

New modeling from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that Omicron cases will likely cause higher case rates than we’ve seen with previous peaks, the agency posted on its website this week.

“Current increases in Omicron cases are likely to lead to a national surge in the coming weeks with peak daily numbers of new infections that could exceed previous peaks,” CDC says. 

Previously, cases peaked at their highest level in January 2021, with 7-day averages exceeding 250,000 new cases per day. Last week, the former director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, told CNN that ”we might see hundreds of thousands of cases every day – maybe even a million cases in a day from Omicron.”

Experts say this doesn’t mean hospitalizations and deaths will rise at the same level we’ve seen with earlier surges, in part because the country has higher levels of immunity to Covid-19, and also because early data suggest Omicron may causes less severe disease.

Still, CDC notes that Omicron cases could still lead to “surges of hospital demand even if severity is reduced, because of the large number of anticipated cases occurring in a short period of time.”

CDC’s modeling looks at a number of scenarios by asking two key questions: How much more transmissible is Omicron versus Delta, and how well does Omicron evade the immunity we get through vaccination or prior infection?

With low immune evasion, for example, peaks would be lower and occur several months later. But CDC says emerging case data “are consistent with the faster growth scenarios.”

”Upcoming holiday gatherings may further accelerate these trends,” CDC adds.

On Monday, CDC posted separate estimates that Omicron accounted for nearly three-quarters of cases last week.

9:37 a.m. ET, December 21, 2021

Increased testing demand in New York is "straining the health system," urgent care official says

New York, like many other parts of the country, is seeing "a serious increased demand for testing," said Dr. Neal Shipley, medical director of Northwell-GoHealth Urgent Care, adding that while they are not short on tests, they really need a "little bit of breathing room." 

"Unfortunately, it feels a lot like it did last year, where the demand for testing and the surge is really straining the health system," he told CNN. "We don't have testing shortages right now ... What we really need is a little bit of breathing room."

Asymptomatic people should consider taking a home test if they can, he added.

"What we really want to do in the urgent care is test the sick and the ill, and help distinguish those who have Covid from those who don't ... So what we need is a little bit of breathing room," he said.

Currently, the facility is serving New Yorkers who are sick, who are getting tested because they have been exposed to the virus and those who are getting tested ahead of a family visit for Christmas, according to Shipley.

"But it posed challenges for us because demand is very high," he said. "The challenge right now is also flu season. There is lots of other respiratory viruses out there ... and they all look like Covid at the beginning. Everybody has a cough. Everybody has a fever. Everybody feels lousy. The challenge is to distinguish those from Covid [patients] and get those people the care they need." 

Shipley emphasized the importance of vaccines, boosters, masking, social distancing and hand-washing, which have been the expert guidelines for protection against Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

Watch:

9:03 a.m. ET, December 21, 2021

"No answer yet" on whether vaccines will need to be adapted for Omicron, European Medicines Agency says

From CNN's Hannah Ritchie

Nurses prepare and check vaccine syringes during a Covid 19 vaccination marathon in South Tyrol, on December 11, 2021 in Bolzano, Italy. 
Nurses prepare and check vaccine syringes during a Covid 19 vaccination marathon in South Tyrol, on December 11, 2021 in Bolzano, Italy.  (Francesca Volpi/Getty Images)

There is “no answer yet” on whether vaccines will need to be adapted with different compositions in order to tackle Omicron, or other potential coronavirus variants, the European Medicines Agency's (EMA) Executive Director Emer Cooke said in a media briefing Tuesday. 

“Let me stress, there’s no answer yet on whether we will need an adapted vaccine with a different composition to tackle this or any other variant, we need to see more data,” Cooke said. 

“From a regulatory perspective, we are prepared in case there is a need to change the existing vaccines or therapeutics,” she added. 

In its final regular media briefing of 2021, the EMA stressed that Europe is in a “stronger position than this time last year,” due to having “five vaccines and six treatments” to fight the virus. 

“Although we’re seeing increased transmission of the virus, all the data shows that the authorized vaccines help to protect us from death, severe disease, and hospitalization,” Cooke told reporters.