December 29 coronavirus pandemic and Omicron variant news

By Rhea Mogul, Adam Renton, Tara John and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 0601 GMT (1401 HKT) December 30, 2021
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3:17 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

Unvaccinated people "are 17 times more likely" to be hospitalized with Covid-19, CDC chief says

From CNN’s Maggie Fox

A syringe is prepped for a Moderna COVID-19 booster vaccine at a pharmacy in Portland, Ore., Monday, Dec. 27.
A syringe is prepped for a Moderna COVID-19 booster vaccine at a pharmacy in Portland, Ore., Monday, Dec. 27. (Jenny Kane/AP)

Vaccinated people may be more likely to develop a breakthrough coronavirus infection with the Omicron variant than with Delta, but vaccines still keep most people out of the hospital, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday.

“What I can tell you is that compared to people who are boosted, if you are unvaccinated, you are 10 times more likely to be a case and 20 times more likely to be a fatality. Compared to people who are (vaccinated), you are 17 times more likely to be in the hospital,” Walensky said at a White House Covid-19 briefing. 

“So our vaccines are working really well to prevent severe disease and hospitalization and death. They're actually also working quite well to prevent cases, although we do know more breakthrough cases are happening in the context of Omicron,” she added.

And it’s too soon to consider asking people who are boosted to get another dose, said Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“Before we start talking about a fourth shot, it will be very important for us to determine the durability of protection, particularly against severe disease for the third shot booster of an mRNA and the second shot of a J&J. Right now, we don't have that information,” Fauci, who is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at the briefing.

“It is conceivable that in the future, we might need an additional shot, but right now, we are hoping that we will get a greater degree of durability of protection from that booster shot,” Fauci added. “So we're going to take one step at a time, get the data from the third boost and then make decisions based on the scientific data.”

2:30 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

CDC forecast predicts over 44,000 new Covid-19 deaths over next 4 weeks

From CNN's Naomi Thomas

A healthcare worker puts on PPE on the Covid-19 ICU floor of the University of Massachusetts Memorial Hospital in Worcester, MA, on Monday, Dec. 27.
A healthcare worker puts on PPE on the Covid-19 ICU floor of the University of Massachusetts Memorial Hospital in Worcester, MA, on Monday, Dec. 27. (Allison Dinner/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

An ensemble forecast from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published Wednesday predicts that more than 44,000 people could die of Covid-19 in the next four weeks. 

By comparison, the US typically sees between 12,000 and 52,000 deaths from flu over an average year.

According to data from Johns Hopkins University, the coronavirus has killed at least 821,251 people in the United States. The CDC forecast estimates that number could rise to 866,000 deaths reported by Jan. 22.  

The forecast could mean an average of up to 1,800 Covid-19 deaths per day, up from a current average of 1,523 each day, according to JHU data. 

The CDC included projections indicating that the quickest rise in deaths may happen in early January, with the average slowing after Jan. 22. 

Hospitalizations are predicted to increase for the sixth straight week, with 11,400 to 28,800 new confirmed Covid-19 hospital admissions reported on Jan. 21.

According to US Department of Health and Human Services data, there were 76,779 people hospitalized with Covid-19 on Dec. 28. 

The forecast for cases did not predict an increase or decrease. The CDC has not included this information for many months. But this week, for the first time, it also did not give a predicted number of cases.

“Recent case forecasts have shown low reliability, with more reported cases than expected falling outside the forecast prediction intervals for 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-week ahead case forecasts. Therefore, case forecasts will continue to be collected and analyzed but will not be summarized until sustained improvements in performance are observed,” the CDC said. 
2:37 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

More than 20,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases reported in New Jersey

From CNN's Taylor Romine

Cars line up at a drive-through Covid-19 testing center in North Bergen, New Jersey, on December 22.
Cars line up at a drive-through Covid-19 testing center in North Bergen, New Jersey, on December 22. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

New Jersey has reported more than 20,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases on Tuesday, which is almost double the over 11,000 cases reported on Monday and a new record.

Tuesday's confirmed case count of 20,483 is the highest of the pandemic, beating out the previous high of 16,626 confirmed cases on Dec. 25, according to state data. The state's rate of transmission currently sits at 1.76. 

In addition to Tuesday's confirmed cases, the state also reported 6,590 probable cases through antigen testing. 

A little under 3,300 people were reported hospitalized Tuesday, which is about 10% higher than Monday.

2:00 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

Omicron is highly transmissible but may cause milder disease than Delta, Fauci says

From CNN's Maggie Fox

Indications are building that while the Omicron variant of coronavirus is very contagious, it may cause a milder course of disease than Delta does, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday. 

“We know now, incontrovertibly, that this is a highly, highly transmissible virus. We know that from the numbers we're seeing,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a White House Covid-19 briefing.

“And clearly, there is a degree of immune evasion, particularly against infection and, to some degree, against hospitalization,” he added.

Omicron can infect vaccinated people, though not as easily as it infects unvaccinated people, and certain monoclonal antibody treatments do not help against it.

“However, importantly, and the bottom line message here, is that boosters bring back up that degree of protection to a level that is approximately what it was before. So boosters are critical in getting our approach to Omicron to be optimal,” Fauci said.

Several studies from South Africa and the UK, as well as lab studies in animals, indicate that the Omicron variant may cause less severe disease, Fauci said. In Britain, the risk of hospitalization admission for Omicron was 40% that of the risk seen with Delta.

“In the United States, we are getting an accumulation of data,” Fauci added. “The spike in cases is out of proportion to the increase in hospitalization.”

He said that over 14 days in December, the US racked up a 126% increase in the number of cases but just an 11% increase in hospitalizations.

“Now, we must remember that hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators,” Fauci noted. “However, the pattern and disparity between cases and hospitalizations strongly suggest that there will be a lower hospitalization-to-case ratio when the situation becomes more clear. 

“So in conclusion, the data are encouraging but still in many respects preliminary,” Fauci noted. “But having said this, all indications point to a lesser severity of Omicron versus Delta. It is difficult to determine what degree of lessened severity is due to pre-existing immunity or the intrinsically lower virulence of Omicron — as suggested by the animal studies — or a combination of both.”

And the sheer numbers could still mean that, even with lower hospitalization rates for Omicron, the number of people infected could add up to more people in the hospital and a strain on the nation’s health care system, Fauci noted.

2:01 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

DC students and staff must show proof of negative Covid-19 test before return to school on Jan. 5

From CNN's Sarah Fortinsky

Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Wednesday that all public school students and staff will be required to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test result before returning from winter break Jan. 5.

Previously, Bowser had recommended tests for those returning to the classroom. 

Bowser said the city will likely need to transition to "situational learning throughout the semester, especially in the coming weeks," but added that "decisions about specific classrooms and grade levels within a school will be made on a case-by-case basis," based on staff availability and the percentage of students and staff in quarantine. 

1:50 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

UK Covid-19 infections hit new daily record with 183,037 additional cases

From CNN’s Mia Alberti

Shoppers on Oxford Street in London, on Monday, Dec. 27.
Shoppers on Oxford Street in London, on Monday, Dec. 27. (David Cliff/AP)

On Wednesday, the United Kingdom registered 183,037 new cases of Covid-19, a new record of daily infections, according to government data.

In the last seven days, the UK registered more than 900,000 new cases — a more than 41% increase compared to the previous week. 

The death rate remained low, compared to previous waves in the UK, at 0.9 fatalities per 100,000 people. 

There were 57 additional deaths reported Wednesday that were related to Covid-19.

1:26 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

Chicago vaccine requirement for restaurants and gyms will go into effect Monday

From CNN’s Carma Hassan

The city of Chicago will implement a vaccine requirement starting Monday, Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Acting Commissioner Ken Meyer announced Wednesday.

“As we've seen over the course of this holiday season, Covid-19 cases continued to rise. So in response, on Monday, January 3, the Chicago vaccine requirement will go into effect to slow the spread of Covid-19 and to help us continue our path to recovery,” Meyer said.

Anyone age five and up will be required to show proof of vaccination in order to dine indoors, visit gyms, or go to entertainment venues where food or drinks are being served.

Additionally, anyone over the age of 16 will need to show identification to compare with their vaccination card, Meyer said.

“The vaccine requirement is a collaborative effort that prioritizes the health of Chicagoans. This is a necessary and intentional policy, which in fact has already been placed voluntarily by many establishments in the hospitality and performing arts industry thus far,” Meyer said. “The new order will standardize health protocols across businesses and industries.”

12:58 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

CDC director outlines what the new quarantine and isolation recommendations mean for you

From CNN's Maggie Fox

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tried Wednesday to lay out what her agency’s new quarantine and isolation guidelines mean for individual Americans.

The CDC released new guidelines cutting in half the recommendations for how long people should isolate after being infected with Covid-19 and how long they should quarantine if exposed. Walensky tried to clarify these at a White House coronavirus update Wednesday and added simplified definitions.

“Let me walk you through exactly what these new recommendations mean for you. First, isolation refers to what you do when you have Covid-19, most likely diagnosed by a positive test. Isolation prevents those who are known to be infected from transmitting the virus to others,” she said.

“Quarantine, on the other hand, is different. This is what you do when you have been exposed to someone who has disease and are unsure if you yourself were infected. Quarantine prevents further spread of the virus in the time before someone may develop symptoms or from those who are asymptomatic from their infection,” she added.

“If you're infected with SARS-CoV-2, regardless of your vaccination status, you should isolate for five days. During periods of isolation, it's best for you to wear a mask around those in your household to avoid spreading the virus at home,” she said. “After five days, if you're asymptomatic or if your symptoms have largely resolved, you may leave isolation as long as you continue to wear a mask around others, even in the home, for an additional five days.”

Quarantine for people exposed to the virus depends on whether people are fully vaccinated or boosted.

“If you are boosted or have been vaccinated with your Pfizer or Moderna series in the past six months or your J&J shot in the past two months, no quarantine is needed. However, a mask must be worn for 10 days following your known exposure. And we also recommend getting a test on day five after your exposure,” Walensky said.

“If you're not vaccinated or you were vaccinated with your Pfizer or Moderna series over six months ago or with J&J over two months ago and have not yet received your booster, you should quarantine for five days following your last exposure. After five days, you should continue masking around others for an additional five days, and you should also get a test at day five,” she said.

“If it's not possible for you to quarantine, it is really important that you do the right thing and wear a mask at all times around others for 10 days after your exposure. Here, we also emphasize that you should get a test at day five. And if at any point you develop symptoms of Covid-19 during your quarantine period for your 10 days after exposure — like fevers, runny nose, a cough, headaches or body aches — you should get a test and isolate until your test results return. And of course, then isolate if your test returns positive.”

The CDC did not include many recommendations for using quick at-home tests because it’s not clear that they tell whether a person is likely to transmit the virus to others, Walensky said.

“On the other hand, we know that after five days, people are much less likely to transmit the virus and that masking further reduces that risk. And this is why people need to mask for five days after their five days of isolation. This science, as well as what we know about the protection provided by masking, vaccination and booster doses and about our testing programs, are all part of what informed our updated recommendations.”

12:57 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

UK health agency: Omicron variant now accounts for over 90% of all community Covid-19 cases in England

From CNN's Niamh Kennedy

The data shows the Omicron variant now accounts for more than 90% of community Covid-19 cases recorded in England, the UK's public health agency said in a tweet.

An additional 39,923 cases of the variant were recorded in the UK on Wednesday by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA). 

The London region has so far recorded the highest number of Omicron cases in England with a total of 45,245 cases. 

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson played down concerns regarding the threat of the variant during a visit to a vaccination center Wednesday, saying that Omicron is "obviously milder than Delta." 

Johnson attributed England's ability to "go ahead with New Year in the cautious way that we are,” to the high uptake of the booster vaccine.