January 11 coronavirus pandemic and Omicron variant news

By Rhea Mogul, Adam Renton, Jack Guy and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 1:53 AM ET, Wed January 12, 2022
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1:33 p.m. ET, January 11, 2022

FDA head: "Most people are going to get Covid," and focus must be on hospitals and essential services

From CNN's Jamie Gumbrecht

US Food and Drug Administration Acting Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock said during a Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions committee hearing on Tuesday the situation right now is that most people are going to get Covid-19, and the focus now must be on making sure hospitals and essential services function. 

Woodcock was responding to a question from Sen. Mike Braun, a Republican from Indiana, about whether it’s time for the United States to change its strategy on Covid-19. Her statement was not a new assessment of Covid-19, but in order to make clear the need to prioritize essential services as the Omicron variant surges.

“Well, I think that we're talking about a natural disaster and you can fire your board of directors because your factory was devastated by a hurricane or tornado or a wildfire, but I don't know whether that would improve this situation,” Woodcock said. 

“I think right now, we need to focus on continuity of operations for hospitals and other essential services as this variant sweeps through the population. I don't think that will last a really long time, but that, I think that's where we are right now. So I don’t think prior approaches reflect what’s going on right now," she said.

“I think it's hard to process what's actually happening right now, which is: Most people are going to get Covid. All right, and what we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function, transportation, you know, other essential services are not disrupted while this happens," the official continued.

“I think after that will be a good time to reassess how we're approaching this pandemic," Woodcock added.

1:17 p.m. ET, January 11, 2022

Israel won't go under lockdown despite Omicron "tsunami," prime minister says

From Hadas Gold and Amir Tal

People shop in a market in Tel Aviv, Israel, on January 4.
People shop in a market in Tel Aviv, Israel, on January 4. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Despite a "tsunami" of Covid-19 cases per day, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett vowed on Tuesday not to send the country into another lockdown because "it doesn't work in the face of Omicron."

On Monday, Israel recorded more than 38,500 positive cases, the highest since the beginning of the pandemic.

Experts like professor Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute estimate that the real number may be as high as 100,000 because of home tests and accuracy issues, and that soon, up to 30% of the workforce will be in quarantine.

Across the country, there have been long lines for rapid antigen tests as the government tightened the eligibility for PCR tests. 

At a press conference, Bennett said that the government is trying to keep the economy open while protecting the vulnerable and safeguarding children. 

People in quarantine will receive compensation for days missed from work, Bennett announced, adding that the government is working to "hermetically seal" nursing homes while administrating fourth doses of the vaccine.

All school children will receive three free antigen tests for their families to use, he added.

"We are facing a wave that is hitting the whole world," Bennett said. "These will be tough weeks. We'll get through it." 

Additionally, the Israeli Ministry of Health has decided to shorten the isolation days for positive cases from 10 to seven days if three days are without symptoms. 

The decision comes after the ministry conducted a test that showed the chance of infection after seven days is low.

12:34 p.m. ET, January 11, 2022

NY governor says some regions are concerned about hospital capacity, but case rates offer "glimmer of hope"

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a new approach to dealing with lessening hospital capacity amid the rise in Covid-19 hospitalizations: pausing elective procedures on a regional basis in Central New York for the next two weeks.

“Hospital capacity is a concern of ours, because what’s happening is we have regions where vaccination rates are not what they should be, infection rates are going up and hospital systems are overtaxed,” Hochul said Tuesday. 

The three regions where hospitals will pause elected procedures include the Finger Lakes, Mohawk Valley and Central New York.

Under previous directives, hospitals with 10% less capacity would pause elective procedures; however, this new strategy expands to the neighboring hospitals. 

There were 12,540 hospitalizations across the state, according to recent data. 

However, the Covid-19 case rate is “slowing down,” Hochul said, adding that data shows “we might be cresting over that peak.”

In particular, New York City appears to be plateauing in case rates, she said. 

“We are not at the end,” Hochul said, “but this, to me, is a glimmer of hope.”

The state is also altering its approach to contact tracing. Health departments are no longer required to contact a Covid-positive patient, officials said. 

The state is “moving to more self-management and less active” approach in Covid-19 cases, and will offer isolation and quarantine guidance that will be made available online at ny.gov/isolation and ny.gov/quarantine beginning Wednesday, the state’s acting Department of Health Commissioner Mary T. Bassett said.

The state will also offer “clear guidance” for employers, Bassett said. 

“We are going to be allowing counties to decide if they want to contact trace and leave that optional for them,” according to Hochul. 

“We have 12,000 new cases a day. It’s almost impossible to do contact tracing the way we have been in the past,” she added.

1:12 p.m. ET, January 11, 2022

Facebook's parent company delays return to office for US based employees

From CNN’s Brian Fung

Facebook headquarters is seen in Menlo Park, California, on October 28, 2021.
Facebook headquarters is seen in Menlo Park, California, on October 28, 2021. (Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images)

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, is delaying its return to the office for US based employees until March 28, and will require proof of booster shots for in-office workers. The company already requires that in-office workers be vaccinated. 

Janelle Gale, vice president of Meta's human resources department, told CNN in a statement that the move is intended to give employees "more time to choose what works best for them."

"We're focused on making sure our employees continue to have choices about where they work given the current COVID-19 landscape," Gale said. "We understand that the continued uncertainty makes this a difficult time to make decisions about where to work."

Meta employees must decide by March 14 how they would like to continue working — whether in the office, full-time remote, or temporarily from home for another three to five months. 

12:13 p.m. ET, January 11, 2022

White House says plan to send free rapid tests to Americans wasn't rolled out earlier due to testing supply

From CNN's Nikki Carvajal 

A White House plan to send free tests to Americans “only became possible” when the global supply of tests available would support it, a senior Biden administration official said, responding to criticism that the plan should have rolled out sooner. 

“This is being done in a way that does not disrupt the existing over-the-counter test,” the senior administration official told reporters in a background call on Tuesday.

In December, 200 million tests were available, and the new program will add an additional 500 million tests to the US market, the official said. “That's a stipulation of the contract that these tests have to be provided in a way that does not disrupt the US federal or state program or commercial operation using these tests.” 

In the past, President Biden himself has admitted that US testing efforts have fallen short. Late last month, Biden told governors in a virtual meeting that the efforts “clearly” were “not enough,” and implied that was because the administration didn’t realize an extreme Covid surge was on the horizon. 

“If I had — we had — known, we would have gone harder, quicker, if we could have," Biden said. "We have to do more. We have to do better, and we will." 

The senior administration official admitted that the increase in cases, particularly due to the highly contagious Omicron variant, added to the administration’s challenges. 

“For perspective, the current reported cases in the United States are more than 50 times the number of cases we were having a daily basis back in June,” the official said. “So trying to get a program that can scale to keep up with that level of rights cases is challenging, and we're doing all we can to meet that challenge.” 
But, the official said, “because of the actions we've been taking to expand supply…we now have 10 times the supply we did even at the end of summer time,” of over-the-counter tests. “We know the demand is huge for these tests and will likely stay very high.” 

On Monday, more than 50 lawmakers, including some top Democrats, argued that the Biden administration must do more immediately to bolster the testing capacity in the country. Among their recommendations, lawmakers called for enough rapid tests for every American to have one per week. The official argued that the administration is focusing on telling Americans when it’s important to test, rather than on a certain number of times. 

“If they have symptoms of Covid, they should consider using them, if they have been exposed to someone with Covid, and they should consider using them if they're going to go into an indoor gathering and into a meeting,” the official said.

Lawmakers also argued that the President needs to deploy the Defense Production Act for testing, writing that “understanding the complexities of the manufacturing and distribution processes, we respectfully urge that you utilize the full scope of your executive power under Defense Production Act to manufacture enough rapid tests to ensure that each American can take at least one rapid test per week.” 

The official said that “Defense Production Act authorities” had been used “about two dozen times” for testing materials like swabs and reagents. 

“All those are in public record, every one of those had an announcement related to the contract,” the official said.

1:07 p.m. ET, January 11, 2022

First of 500 million home Covid-19 tests will go out later this month, US HHS official says 

From CNN's Jamie Gumbrecht

Dawn O'Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the US Department of Health and Human Services, is seen during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the federal response to Covid-19 and new emerging variants on January 11 at Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Dawn O'Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the US Department of Health and Human Services, is seen during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the federal response to Covid-19 and new emerging variants on January 11 at Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Greg Nash/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

The first of 500 million Covid-19 tests the Biden administration plans to send directly to Americans will go out later this month, and the rest will be shipped over the next 60 days, Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the US Department of Health and Human Services, said during a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

O’Connell noted that they’ve completed four contracts and secured 50 million tests “and are in the process of securing the additional tests over the next several days.”

For the first tests shipping out, they worked with warehouses to find where tests were stored “and are bringing that capacity to bear for these initial tests that are going out, which is why you're seeing contracts with warehouses and not with test manufacturers,” O’Connell said.

HHS is working through the Department of Defense to purchase tests, O’Connell said, because it’s able to work “extraordinarily quickly.” The US Postal Service is lined up to deliver the tests and the US Digital Service will help build the website where people can request tests.

O’Connell said outreach to Covid-19 test manufacturers began as cases from the Omicron variant began to surge in South Africa and Europe, and they have been meeting “daily with them to make sure that they have what they need from their suppliers.”

A $3 billion investment in the fall increased manufacturing staffing, which increased available over-the-counter tests from 46 million per month in October to 300 million available now, O’Connell said, acknowledging “that’s not enough.”

11:38 a.m. ET, January 11, 2022

Omicron now accounts for 98% of US Covid-19 infections, CDC estimates show

From CNN's Ben Tinker

Rochelle Walensky, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, January 11, 2022. The hearing is titled "Addressing New Variants: A Federal Perspective on the COVID-19 Response."
Rochelle Walensky, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, January 11, 2022. The hearing is titled "Addressing New Variants: A Federal Perspective on the COVID-19 Response." (Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The Omicron variant caused 98.3% of new coronavirus cases in the US last week – slightly higher than the previous week, according to estimates posted Tuesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Over the past month, Omicron has risen rapidly in estimates, accounting for:

  • 7.5% of cases the week ending Dec. 11
  • 39.4% of cases the week ending Dec. 18
  • 71.6% of cases the week ending Dec. 25
  • 92.3% of cases the week ending Jan. 1

The Delta variant makes up virtually all of the rest.

To note on the data: Not every Covid-19 test is sent for the extra genetic sequencing needed to detect which variant has infected someone. The CDC works off samples and extrapolates its estimates based on that extra testing.

 

11:35 a.m. ET, January 11, 2022

United Airlines reduces flight schedule due to Covid-related staff shortages

From CNN's Pete Muntean

United Airlines airplanes on the tarmac at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) in Newark, New Jersey, U.S., on Monday, January. 3, 2022.
United Airlines airplanes on the tarmac at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) in Newark, New Jersey, U.S., on Monday, January. 3, 2022. (Christopher Occhicone/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

United Airlines says it is reducing its flight schedule in hopes of stemming off Covid-related staffing shortages that have caused thousands of flight cancelations industrywide. However, CEO Scott Kirby praised the company’s vaccine mandate for keeping employees out of the hospital.

In a new companywide memo, Kirby said the airline is “reducing our near-term schedules to make sure we have the staffing and resources to take care of customers.” He did not say by how much the airline is drawing down flights.

Kirby said that while “the Omicron surge has put a strain on our operation,” with nearly 3,000 United employees who are currently positive with coronavirus, there is a silver lining – the company’s vaccine mandate.

“Prior to our vaccine requirement, tragically, more than one United employee on average *per week* was dying from COVID. But we’ve now gone eight straight weeks with zero COVID-related deaths among our vaccinated employees – based on United’s prior experience and the nationwide data related to COVID fatalities among the unvaccinated, that means there are approximately 8-10 United employees who are alive today because of our vaccine requirement,” he said.
10:58 a.m. ET, January 11, 2022

Scotland to lift restrictions on large outdoor events starting Monday

From CNN's Amy Cassidy

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon arriving to deliver a Covid-19 update statement in the main chamber at the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh on Tuesday January 11, 2022.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon arriving to deliver a Covid-19 update statement in the main chamber at the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh on Tuesday January 11, 2022. (Fraser Bremner/Daily Mail/PA/Reuters)

Scotland will lift its attendance limit of 500 people at large outdoor events from Monday but with enhanced checks on vaccine certification, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced to the Scottish Parliament. 

Sturgeon said at least 50% of attendees rather than the current 20%, or at least 1,000 people – whichever is more – will be checked for “Covid certification” at outdoor events.

“The requirement to be ‘fully vaccinated’ for the purposes of Covid certification will include having a booster if the second dose was more than four months ago,” said Sturgeon, but continued to say people will still be able to attend by showing proof of a negative lateral flow test.  

“There is reason to be optimistic,” Sturgeon said, with Covid-19 cases not reaching the mid-January heights initially projected in Scotland, and there are “also some signs that we may be starting to turn a corner."  

However, Sturgeon stopped short of announcing a full easing of social distancing requirements at indoor public places, meaning nightclubs will remain closed until at least Jan. 24.