The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and the Omicron variant

By Fernando Alfonso III and Adrienne Vogt, CNN

Updated 3:58 p.m. ET, December 18, 2021
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3:02 p.m. ET, December 18, 2021

White House says it is "prepared for the rising case levels”

From CNN’s Jasmine Wright & DJ Judd

The White House says it is “prepared for the rising case levels” of Covid-19 and confirmed President Biden will give a speech on the virus Tuesday.

“On Tuesday, the President will deliver remarks on the status of the country's fight against Covid-19, as the country sees rising cases amid the growing Omicron variant,” White House Press Sec. Jen Psaki said in a series of tweets Saturday.

“Building off his Winter Plan, @POTUS will announce new steps the Administration is taking to help communities in need of assistance, while also issuing a stark warning of what the winter will look like for Americans that choose to remain unvaccinated. We are prepared for the rising case levels, and @POTUS will detail how we will respond to this challenge. He will remind Americans that they can protect themselves from severe illness from COVID-19 by getting vaccinated and getting their booster shot when they are eligible,” she added.

Psaki’s comments that the administration is “prepared for the rising case levels” comes as Vice President Kamala Harris told the Los Angeles Times in an interview published Friday that officials were caught unprepared for the rise of Covid variants.

We didn’t see Delta coming. I think most scientists did not — upon whose advice and direction we have relied — didn’t see Delta coming,” Harris told the LA Times. “We didn’t see Omicron coming. And that’s the nature of what this, this awful virus has been, which as it turns out, has mutations and variants.”

2:57 p.m. ET, December 18, 2021

5 NHL teams' seasons are now on pause due to Covid-19

From CNN's Kevin Dotson

The National Hockey League has shut down the Boston Bruins and the Nashville Predators, citing a “rising number of positive cases as well as the potential for continued Covid-19 spread in the coming days.”

Each team’s games will be postponed through Dec. 26.

Now, five NHL teams have been forced to shut down in the past week, as the Bruins and Predators join the Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers.

The NHL has also postponed three additional games due to several players on the Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks entering the league’s Covid-19 protocols over the past two days. Saturday night’s scheduled game between Toronto and Vancouver has been postponed, as have Sunday games between Toronto and the Seattle Kraken and between Vancouver and the Arizona Coyotes.

“The Bruins, Predators, Maple Leafs and Canucks organizations have followed, and will continue to follow, all recommended guidelines aimed at protecting the health and safety of their Players, staff and communities at large as set by the NHL, local, state/provincial and federal agencies,” the NHL said in a statement.

Earlier Saturday, the NHL and NHL Players Association announced newly enhanced Covid-19 protocols would be put into effect through at least Jan. 7. The league and the NHLPA cited the increased number of positive cases within the last two weeks, as well as the new Omicron Covid-19 variant, as the reason for the enhanced protocols. 

In the new protocols, the league said all fully vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals will be required to wear masks at all times while inside team facilities and during travel. Daily testing for Covid-19 will also be required for all members of the team’s traveling party. 

CNN’s Homero De La Fuente contributed to this report

2:30 p.m. ET, December 18, 2021

Biden to give Omicron-focused speech Tuesday

From CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Jeff Zeleny

President Biden will give an Omicron variant-focused speech on Tuesday, according to a White House official.

The US is contending with higher case numbers, deaths and hospitalizations from the coronavirus heading into the holidays.

NBC News was first to report on the speech.

3:21 p.m. ET, December 18, 2021

The Netherlands will impose strict lockdown measures to curb Omicron spread, prime minister says

From CNN’s George Engels and Martin Goillandeau

Dutch outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte gives a press conference in The Hague, Netherlands, on December 18.
Dutch outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte gives a press conference in The Hague, Netherlands, on December 18. (Robin Utrecht/ANP/AFP/Getty Images)

The Netherlands will impose a strict new lockdown starting Sunday at 5 a.m. local time to curb the spread of the Covid-19 Omicron variant, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced in a televised news conference Saturday, according to CNN affiliate RTL News.

Indoor gatherings will be limited to a maximum of two guests until Jan. 14, except on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when that will be extended to four guests, according to RTL News.

All schools and extracurricular activities will also close until at least Jan. 9, RTL reported. On Jan. 3, the cabinet will decide whether education can reopen after Jan. 10.

Most indoor sports facilities will be closed except for swimming lessons, while outdoor facilities will be open for all ages. Most events will not be permitted, except for funerals, weekly markets selling groceries, and professional sports matches and competitions without spectators.

2:48 p.m. ET, December 18, 2021

Brooklyn Nets stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving placed on NBA's health and safety protocol

From CNN's Homero DeLaFuente

Kevin Durant, left, and Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets look on during a game at Barclays Center on June 1, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Kevin Durant, left, and Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets look on during a game at Barclays Center on June 1, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Brooklyn Nets stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have been placed on the NBA’s health and safety protocol, the team confirmed to CNN on Saturday. 

Durant and Irving become the eighth and ninth members of the Nets to be placed on the list this week. Since Monday, Nets star guard James Harden, along with forwards Paul Millsap, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre' Bembry, James Johnson and guards Jevon Carter and Bruce Bowen, were also placed on the list. 

Some context: The news comes one day after the team announced Irving would re-join to practice and play in games outside New York. 

Irving, who has said he’s unvaccinated against Covid-19, had been sitting out this season after the team ruled he could not participate in practice or games until he was eligible to be a full participant. Local New York City policy prohibits any unvaccinated player from playing in home games. 

On Saturday, Brooklyn announced it signed James Ennis III and guard Shaquille Harrison to 10-day contracts as it deals with the Covid-19 outbreak. 

The Nets are scheduled to host the Orlando Magic on Saturday.

Since Irving has been away from the team, he is required to test negative for five days straight in order to be allowed to re-join the team. Being placed on the list indicates that Irving either tested positive, provided an inconclusive test or is considered a close contact to someone who has tested positive. This is the case for Durant as well.

Starting on Dec. 26, per new league protocols, all players and staff will be tested on game days. Players who got a booster shot or recovered from the virus recently will be exempt. The team didn’t specify if Irving and Durant tested positive or if they’re considered close contacts.

Players who are placed in the NBA’s health and safety protocols must test negative twice in a span of 24 hours. 

12:12 p.m. ET, December 18, 2021

More than 5,000 new coronavirus cases reported in NYC, according to mayor

New York City recorded more than 5,000 new coronavirus cases as of Saturday, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio.

There were also 214 hospitalizations and nearly 13 million vaccine doses administered, the mayor wrote in a tweet.

On Friday, the Radio City Rockettes' "Christmas Spectacular" show was canceled for the rest of the season “due to increasing challenges from the pandemic.” 

On Thursday, New York City reported its positivity rate from PCR tests doubled over a four-day period. The NYC health commissioner said cases have tripled in the past month.

New York state reported 21,027 cases on Thursday, the highest single day count of new Covid-19 cases, according to data released Friday.

Positive Covid-19 cases in the state jumped 154% in less than a week, according to the state data.

11:42 a.m. ET, December 18, 2021

UK reports more than 90,000 daily new infections for 2 days in a row

From CNN’s Martin Goillandeau

The United Kingdom on Saturday reported 90,418 new cases of Covid-19, reaching over 90,000 infections for two days in a row, according to government data. The country also reported 125 deaths in the past 24 hours. 

There were 93,045 cases reported on Friday.

British health authorities announced earlier in the day that over 10,059 Omicron variant cases had been confirmed in its latest daily figures as the variant surges across the UK.

11:35 a.m. ET, December 18, 2021

Paris cancels New Year’s Champs-Elysées fireworks display

From CNN’s George Engels and Dalal Mawad

Fireworks are ignited as 'Paris 2020' is projected onto the Arc de Triomphe during the New Year's Celebration on the Champs-Elysees on December 31, 2019, in Paris.
Fireworks are ignited as 'Paris 2020' is projected onto the Arc de Triomphe during the New Year's Celebration on the Champs-Elysees on December 31, 2019, in Paris. (Marc Ausset-Lacroix/Getty Images)

Paris has canceled its traditional fireworks display over the iconic Champs-Elysées avenue to welcome the New Year due to the renewed Covid-19 surge, Paris City Hall announced Saturday.

“The City of Paris regrets to cancel all the festivities planned on the Champs-Elysées this December 31st due to the resurgence of the pandemic and the new governmental announcements specified this Friday December 17,” Paris City Hall said in a statement.

“We hope that the year 2022 will allow us to celebrate joyful moments together and wish you in this expectation to share with your loved ones a beautiful holiday season,” according to the statement.

The news follows French Prime Minister Jean Castex’s announcement Friday that big outdoor events and gatherings will be banned on New Year’s Eve as the country faces its fifth wave of Covid-19 infections.

Castex said the Omicron variant was rapidly spreading across France and that “it will become the dominant variant in early 2022.” He called on people to get tested “in the hours preceding the holiday gatherings,” and to “act responsibly.”

France reported 48,808 new Covid-19 cases, an increase of almost 7% over the last week, as of Dec. 13, according to French government data.

11:33 a.m. ET, December 18, 2021

WHO: Omicron cases doubling every 1.5 to 3 days in countries where transmission is documented 

From CNN's Robert Iddiols

Cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant are doubling every 1.5 to 3 days in the countries where transmissions are documented, the World Health Organization said on Saturday. 

In a technical brief shared with CNN, the WHO states that Omicron has been identified in 89 countries as of Thursday and consistently shows a substantial growth advantage over the Delta variant. Omicron has a high number of mutations, “some of which are concerning” and may be associated with higher immune escape potential and transmissibility. 

“It is spreading significantly faster than the Delta variant in countries with documented community transmission, with a doubling time between 1.5-3 days,” according to the document. 
“Omicron is spreading rapidly in countries with high levels of population immunity and it remains uncertain to what extent the observed rapid growth rate can be attributed to immune evasion, intrinsic increased transmissibility or a combination of both,” the WHO said. 

“There are still limited data on the clinical severity of Omicron,” the WHO added. “More data are needed to understand the severity profile and how severity is impacted by vaccination and pre-existing immunity.” 

“There are still limited available data, and no peer-reviewed evidence, on vaccine efficacy or effectiveness to date for Omicron,” the WHO continued.

Preliminary data from England indicates "a significant reduction in vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic disease for Omicron compared to Delta after two vaccine doses of either Pfizer BioNTech-Comirnaty or AstraZeneca-Vaxzevria vaccines. There was, however, higher effectiveness two weeks after a Pfizer BioNTech-Comirnaty booster, which was slightly lower or comparable to that against Delta.” 

The WHO declared Omicron a “variant of concern” on Nov. 26. On Thursday, leaders of the G7 nations called the Omicron variant "the biggest current threat to global public health.”