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January 11 coronavirus pandemic and Omicron variant news

Covid-19 pushes the US health care system to the brink
02:05

What we covered here

  • US health officials testified in the Senate today about the Biden administration’s pandemic response as data shows Covid-19 hospitalizations in the US have reached a new record high. Still, Dr. Anthony Fauci but advised vaccinated people will still fare better.
  • In Europe, the Omicron coronavirus variant is forecast to infect more than 50% of the region’s population in the next six to eight weeks, WHO said Tuesday.
  • Meanwhile, a third Chinese city has been placed under strict lockdown, leaving about 20 million people confined to their homes.

Our live coverage has ended. You can track the latest on Covid-19 numbers in the US here.

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DC mayor declares limited public health emergency due to Covid-19 until Jan. 26

Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser has declared a limited public health emergency due to Covid-19 beginning immediately until Jan. 26. The emergency powers, announced Tuesday, are intended to help the city’s hospitals and public health facilities that are feeling the strain under the rise in Covid-19 cases. 

“Notwithstanding the large number of persons vaccinated against Covid-19 in the District and the effectiveness of those vaccinations at preventing severe illness and death, stress on the District’s hospitals and healthcare providers has recently increased,” the order says. “The physical capacity of hospitals remains strong, but emergency rooms are overwhelmed. Hospitals cannot use all their bed capacity due to staff shortages. Some hospitals are experiencing 25% staff out on Covid-related leave.”  

The directive says that the emergency posturing will allow the city “to appropriately protect public health and provide the authority necessary to modify administrative procedures, deadlines and standards” while it is in place. The mayor does reserve the right to extend the emergency if she feels it is necessary.  

On Monday, the mayor announced during a press conference that the District was creating six new testing centers dedicated to senior residents and an enhanced system for testing kits for young school children and staff.  

Canadian province of Quebec says it will impose a "significant" fine on those who remain unvaccinated

Quebec Premier François Legault speaks during a news conference on January 11.

The Canadian province of Quebec announced Tuesday that residents who have so far refused a Covid-19 vaccine will have to pay a fine in the coming weeks as a way for them to contribute to the overburdened public health care system. 

“Right now, these people, they put a very important burden on our health care network, and I think it’s normal that the majority of the population is asking that there be a consequence,” Quebec Premier François Legault said at a news conference Tuesday. “It’s a question also of fairness for the 90% of the population who made some sacrifices, and I think we owe them this kind of measure.”

The fine would not apply to those with a medical exemption, and no details have been announced, although the premier said the amount to be levied would be “significant.”

The Quebec government says that while nearly 90% of eligible Quebecers have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, the unvaccinated remain a burden on the province’s public health system.

Nearly a quarter of all Canadians live in Quebec, and while the province was one of the first in the country to introduce a vaccine passport, public health officials say the vast majority of patients in Quebec hospitals remain unvaccinated. Officials did not give a specific percentage of how many hospitalized Covid patients were unvaccinated.

Last week, Quebec announced that residents would now have to be vaccinated to buy alcohol or cannabis, and the health minister claimed on social media that vaccine appointments spiked as a result. 

“In just a few days, appointments for the 1st dose went from 1.5K per day to over 6K yesterday. Thank you to everyone who decided to get vaccinated. It is not too late to get your 1st dose. Protect yourself,” Christian Dubé, Quebec’s health minister, posted on Twitter after retweeting a newspaper story about the uptick in vaccination appointments. 

Quebec already requires proof of vaccination to eat in restaurants, go to the gym or attend sporting events and has had some of the most restrictive public health measures in North America, including a nighttime curfew that was reimposed for a second time during the pandemic last month.

Nevada's largest school district postpones 2 scheduled days of classes due to Covid-19

Nevada’s largest school district is telling students to stay home this Friday and next Tuesday due to Covid-19.

The Clark County School District – which is one of the largest public school systems in the country with more than 300,000 students – says the calendar change is the result of “extreme staffing shortages based on the high number of positive COVID-19 cases.”

The district says staff members will work from home on those two days, but there will be no school for students. Monday was already scheduled to be a day off due to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. The missed days will be made up later in the semester.

“This five-day pause will promote a safe, healthy learning environment in our schools to ‘Stop the Spread’ in order to continue face-to-face instruction,” according to the district.

In a written statement, Gov. Steve Sisolak did not criticize the district’s decision but did emphasize that he intends to keep kids in classrooms.

“There is no substitute for having kids on our campuses, learning in classrooms with their teachers and peers,” said Sisolak. “And I will use every resource I have as Governor of the State of Nevada to keep schools open for in-person learning. I know the School District leadership shares this same goal.”

CDC preparing to update its Covid-19 mask information

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is preparing to update its website to best reflect the mask options available to people and the different levels of protection they provide, a CDC official told CNN.

The agency continues to recommend that any mask is better than no mask, the official said. The update is expected later this week, according to the official.

The agency has not indicated if the updated masks page will say that if people can tolerate wearing a KN95 or N95 mask all day, they should. The Washington Post reported Monday that the agency is considering such an update.

What the guidance says now: The current guidance, last updated in October 2021, does not favor N95 or KN95 masks, which require a proper fit and may feel harder to breathe through than a cloth mask, according to the CDC. While the CDC still recommends three-ply cloth masks, many experts say they aren’t adequate, especially given how easily the Omicron variant spreads.

At least 1 in 5 eligible people in the US remain unvaccinated against Covid-19, according to CDC data

A healthcare worker prepares to administer a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to a person at a drive-thru site in Tropical Park on December 16, 2021, in Miami.

Here’s the latest data on vaccination efforts in the United States, published Tuesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Fully vaccinated: 62.6% of the total US population (all ages), about 208 million people
  • About two-thirds (66.6%) of the eligible population (age 5+) is fully vaccinated
  • Not vaccinated: At least 20.8% of the eligible population (age 5+) has not received any dose of Covid-19 vaccine, at least 65 million people
  • Current pace of vaccinations (seven-day average): 1,213,113 doses are being administered each day 
  • Most doses being administered – about 678,000 – are booster doses
  • Only about 339,000 people are initiating vaccination each day
  • About 76.4 million people have received a booster dose
  • About 23% of the total US population is now fully vaccinated and boosted 

Remember: CDC data on Covid-19 vaccinations are estimates. The agency notes that data on people who are fully vaccinated and those with a booster dose may be underestimated, while data on people with at least one dose may be overestimated. 

NJ gov announces public health emergency as state sees record Covid-19 hospitalizations

New Jersey has reinstated a public health emergency amid another day of record-high Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Tuesday.  

Effective immediately, Murphy announced the new executive order declaring a public health emergency, in addition to restating the existing state of emergency across all 21 counties in New Jersey.

“COVID-19 remains a significant threat to our State and we must commit every resource available to beating back the wave caused by the Omicron variant,” Murphy said in a statement.

On Monday, Murphy said the state had more residents hospitalized since April 2020.

The state is currently registering nearly 35,000 new cases a day and more than 10,000 hospitalizations in the past two weeks, marking the highest numbers since spring 2020, the governor said in a video announcement

The measure will help state agencies and departments to utilize resources to assist the state healthcare system and communities, but will not impact day-to-day life, according to Murphy.

Specifically, it will help the state continue vaccine distribution efforts, vaccination or testing requirements in certain settings, Covid-19 data collection, staffing and resource allocation and other measures.  

The order will also allow New Jersey to adopt recommendations of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and maintain existing masking requirements in school and daycare settings.  

Unless it is renewed, the public health emergency will expire after 30 days. State officials will reevaluate Covid-19 metrics at the time of expiration to determine if an extension is necessary, according to the statement.  

Omicron will eventually "find just about everybody," Fauci says

Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House Chief Medical Advisor and Director of the NIAID, speaks 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.

With the accelerated spread of the Omicron variant, many more people will find themselves at least exposed to the virus, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said Tuesday.

“I think in many respects, Omicron with its extraordinary, unprecedented degree of efficiency of transmissibility, will ultimately find just about everybody,” Fauci told J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in response to a question on whether the pandemic had entered “a new phase.”

“Those who have been vaccinated and vaccinated and boosted would get exposed. Some, maybe a lot of them, will get infected, but will very likely, with some exceptions, do reasonably well in the sense of not having hospitalization and death,” Fauci said.

“Unfortunately, those who are still unvaccinated are going to get the brunt of the severe aspect of this,” he said.

Fauci said it’s still realistic to aim for a place where the virus is controlled, but the US is not there yet.

“Mainly, getting the level of infection that causes severe disease low enough that we can incorporate this infection – some people have said learning to live with it – that I believe we are possibly approaching that. Now the reason I say possibly is that we still now have close to a million infections a day. We have 150,000 people in the hospital and over 1,200 to 1,300 die,” he said.

“As Omicron goes up and comes down, I do hope that we will see a situation where there be enough protection in community, enough drugs available, so that when someone does get infected and is in a high risk group, it will be very easy to treat that person,” Fauci said.

Chicago health department distributing 1.9 million KN95 masks this week

The Chicago Department of Public Health is distributing 1.9 million KN95 masks into communities this week. 

According to the department’s commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, they have more than 100 community-based organizations, such as churches and libraries, helping to distribute the masks, which are an upgrade from many of the cloth masks out there.

“We know a lot of people, frankly even a 50-cent or one-dollar mask is just one extra cost at a time that is difficult,” Arwady said.

Arwady said they made sure Chicago Public Schools had some for staff right when they returned.

Rapid tests aren't going toward total case count in the US, CDC head says. Here's why they're still useful.

Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Rochelle Walensky speaks 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.

Although the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not including positive rapid tests in its total Covid-19 case counts, the tests are still important for making individual decisions about behavior, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday. 

“We have been using the PCR test — not the rapid test — the lab tests, the molecular tests, to really capture our case counts and really get a good view of where we are in terms of the epidemiology, anticipating what was going to be coming into the hospitals,” Walensky said in a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing. 

“The self-tests are a really important, valuable tool for people to empower themselves, their own health, to not expose themselves to other people, to get some information about their own health,” she added. 

Walensky said those who feel sick and test positive should talk to a physician, but those who are asymptomatic can use a positive rapid test to figure out whether they need to isolate and how much contact they should have with other people. 

“I think that it’s less about the absolute case count of understanding whether you have asymptomatic infection or a runny nose and your rapid test is positive than it is really about empowering you to do the right thing and not be forward-transmitting,” she said.

Walensky said other countries, like the UK, are including rapid tests in their case count, “but they too, while they capture more than we have tried to, they also agree that they’re missing some as well.”

New Orleans reinstates mask mandate ahead of Carnival season

New Orleans will reinstate its indoor mask mandate starting Wednesday morning to address rising Covid-19 infections and hospitalizations in the city.

The mandate, which begins at 6 a.m. local time on Wednesday, applies to all indoor spaces — including schools — and is expected to remain in place “until further notice,” Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the director of the New Orleans Health Department, said during a news conference on Tuesday.

“We strongly recommend a high-quality mask, and by that, I mean a surgical mask, KN95 or N95, to provide the most robust protection,” Avegno said. 

With Carnival season slated to take place next month, Avengo said New Orleans is “at risk in a way that no other big city is.”

New Orleans currently has a positivity rate of just under 32% and is awaiting the shipment of additional tests for residents.

The positivity rate is the percentage of people who test positive for the virus of those overall who have been tested. 

“This is a simple step, putting masks back on, to tackle our biggest problem,” Avengo said.

Every year in New Orleans Carnival season culminates in Mardi Gras. In 2021, the city was forced to cancel Mardi Gras celebrations due to the rise of Covid-19 cases in the city. 

US to buy 600,000 more doses of monoclonal antibody that works against Omicron variant

The US government is buying 600,000 more doses of sotrovimab, the monoclonal antibody that has been found to work against the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology announced Tuesday.

The doses will be delivered in the first quarter of the year. The purchase agreement includes an option for the United States to buy more doses in the second quarter.

In November, the companies announced about $1 billion in contracts with the US government to purchase sotrovimab for delivery by Dec. 17, 2021.

The US Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for sotrovimab in May 2021 for the treatment of mild to moderate Covid-19 in anyone age 12 and older who is at high risk of severe illness. It has also issued EUAs other monoclonal antibodies, but they are unlikely to be effective against Omicron.

Fauci hits back at GOP Sen. Paul about consequences of ongoing Covid-19 misinformation

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, hit back at Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, during a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday after Paul again attacked President Biden’s chief medical adviser.

Fauci said Paul’s claims “kindles the crazies,” had led to direct threats against Fauci and his family, and were “irresponsible.”

“There are two reasons why that’s really bad. The first is it distracts from what we’re all trying to do here today, [which is to] get our arms around the epidemic and the pandemic that we’re dealing with, not something imaginary,” Fauci said to Paul.

“Number two, what happens when he gets out and accuses me of things that are completely untrue, is that all of a sudden that kindles the crazies out there and I have life – threats upon my life – harassment of my family and my children with obscene phone calls because people are lying about me,” he continued.

Fauci then talked about a specific death threat that was made against him:

“Now, I guess you could say, ‘Well, that’s the way it goes.’ I can take a hit. Well, it makes a difference. Because as some of you may know, just about three or four weeks ago, on Dec. 21, a person was arrested who was on the way from Sacramento to Washington, DC, at a speed stop in Iowa. And … the police asked him where he was going. And he was going to Washington, DC, to kill Dr. Fauci. And they found in his car an AR-15 and multiple magazines of ammunition, because he thinks that maybe I’m killing people,” he said.

The California man that Fauci referenced was arrested in Iowa. The story was reported in The Des Moines Register and the Los Angeles Times, and federal court documents show the man was charged with making threats against a former president, as his threats also included former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The complaint also states the man made references to President Biden.

Fauci suggested Paul was attacking him as a way to raise money and seek political gain.

“So I asked myself, why would [the] senator want to do this? So, go to Rand Paul website. And you see, ‘Fire Dr. Fauci’ with a little box that says contribute here, you can do $5, $10, $20, $100. So you are making a catastrophic epidemic for your political gain,” Fauci said, holding up a printout of his picture on the site.

Watch more from the exchange:

Widely shared video clip on mortality and comorbidities was taken out of context, CDC director says

An interview clip of US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky explaining Covid-19 mortality rates and comorbidities was “taken out of context,” Walensky told Sen. Bob Casey on Tuesday. 

“I’m really grateful for the opportunity to explain this, and to step back, that interview on Friday I recently spoke to a study on the high level of protection against vaccines. It was a pre-taped interview and much of it was cut and that phrase was taken out of context,” she said in a Senate hearing. 

“The study was a cohort of 1.2 million people who were vaccinated and 36 people passed, demonstrating their remarkable effectiveness of our vaccines, but no less tragic is the 36 people who passed because of Covid-19 and that many of them had comorbidities,” she said. 

Walensky spoke of some of the ways the CDC is addressing the “critical importance” of reaching those with disabilities, including materials available in data collection systems that track vaccination status by disability. 

“If anything, this issue on Friday has redoubled our commitment to continuing to make sure that we have access for people with disabilities. Thank you for allowing me to clarify,” she said. 

When Casey suggested she meet with disability and aging community leaders, Walensky said “we’re already planning.”

Read a fact-check from CNN’s Daniel Dale:

Nepal bans public gatherings and closes schools as Covid-19 cases rise

Nepal has banned large public gatherings until further notice and closed schools until Jan. 29 due to a spike in new Covid-19 cases.

Public gatherings of over 25 people have been banned effective immediately, according to an order issued Monday by the Home Ministry.

In addition, hotels, offices, restaurants, cinemas and parks will also be closed.

On Tuesday, Nepal reported 2,444 new coronavirus cases – the biggest single-day jump since August last year, according to the country’s health ministry data. The death toll currently stands at 11,607.

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

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.

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

People shop in a market in Tel Aviv, Israel, on January 4.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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

Facebook headquarters is seen in Menlo Park, California, on October 28, 2021.

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. 

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

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.

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

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.

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.”

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

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."

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.

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

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 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.

Scotland to lift restrictions on large outdoor events starting Monday

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.

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.  

Poland’s Covid-19 death toll surpasses 100,000

Medical personnel wear personal protective equipment (PPE) as they transport a COVID -19 unvaccinated patient inside the Emergency Ward converted to a COVID -19 dirty zone at the Bochnia Hospital on December 07, 2021 in Bochnia, Poland.

Total deaths from Covid-19 in Poland surpassed the 100,000 mark on Tuesday, figures from the country’s Ministry of Health show. 

The ministry reported 493 Covid-19 deaths in the last 24 hours.

Currently, the country has reported 100,254 Covid-19 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the ministry.

Other European nations that have reported more than 100,000 Covid-19 deaths include Germany, France and the UK.

US Covid-19 hospitalizations reach record high, HHS data shows

Registered nurse Akiko Gordon, left, and Repertory Therapist Janssen Redondo, right, are working inside the ICU with a covid-19 positive patient at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital (MLKCH) on Friday, December 31, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA.

Covid-19 hospitalizations in the United States have reached a new record high, surpassing the previous peak from January 2021, according to data from the US Department of Health and Human Services.

There are 145,982 people currently hospitalized with Covid-19 – about twice as many than two weeks ago. There are nearly 24,000 intensive care unit beds in use for Covid-19 patients.

Hospitalizations reached a previous peak about a year ago, with more than 142,000 people hospitalized with Covid-19 on Jan. 14, 2021. During the Delta surge over the summer, Covid-19 hospitalizations peaked at about 104,000 on Sept. 1, 2021.

There have been only 23 days since the beginning of the pandemic that there have been more than 125,000 people hospitalized with Covid-19 at one time, HHS data shows.

Pediatric hospitalizations have already far surpassed previous peaks – with nearly 5,000 children currently hospitalized with confirmed or suspected Covid-19. That’s nearly double the previous peak from September during the Delta surge.

There have been about 3.9 million total hospital admissions for Covid-19 since August 2020, and there were about 18,600 new admissions each day during the first week of January 2022, according to federal data.

According to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of hospitalization is eight times higher for unvaccinated people than it is for fully vaccinated people. This varies week to week, but in the last week of November, CDC data shows that hospitalization rates were about 17 times higher for unvaccinated people than for fully vaccinated people.

Right now, Covid-19 hospitalization rates are highest in Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Ohio – each with more than 60 current Covid-19 hospitalizations for every 100,000 people.

The HHS data on Covid-19 hospitalizations includes both those patients who are hospitalized because of Covid-19 complications and those who may have been admitted for something else but test positive for Covid-19. This has been true throughout the pandemic, though the share of patients who fall into each category may have changed over time.

British opposition criticizes UK prime minister after news of lockdown party 

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner in the House of Commons, Westminster, on Tuesday January 11, 2022 asking an urgent question over the lockdown-busting Downing Street drinks party allegedly attended by Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie. Police are in contact with the Cabinet Office over claims that Martin Reynolds, a senior aide to the Prime Minister, organised a "bring your own booze" party in the garden behind No 10 during England's first lockdown in May 2020.

In urgent questions in the House of Commons, the deputy leader for the opposition, Angela Rayner, criticized British Prime Minister Boris Johnson after news of a BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle) party during lockdown in May 2020 emerged.

She said it was “incredibly disappointing” Johnson was not present for the urgent questions.

Rayner said “the public has already drawn their own conclusions. He (Boris Johnson) can run but he can’t hide.”

“It won’t wash Mr Speaker, to blame this (party) on a few junior civil servants, the prime minister sets the tone,” she said.

Ian Blackford, leader of the Scottish National Party, echoed the criticism, saying Johnson and his staff had “partied behind the walls of his private gardens” while citizens watched loved ones dying.

An investigation into alleged gatherings during lockdown on May 15 and May 20, 2020, led by Sue Gray, second permanent secretary in the cabinet office, is underway, Michael Ellis, UK Paymaster General, has confirmed.

Covid-19 is "still a way off" of being endemic, WHO official says 

Covid-19 cannot yet be referred to as an endemic disease, a senior World Health Organization (WHO) official has said.

Dr. Catherine Smallwood, Covid-19 incident manager at the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, told a virtual WHO Europe news conference Tuesday that Covid-19 is “still a way off” endemicity. 

Smallwood explained endemicity assumes there is “stable circulation of the virus at predictable levels, and potentially known and predictable waves of epidemic transmission.” 

“But what we’re seeing at the moment coming into 2022 is nowhere near that, we still have a huge amount of uncertainty, we still have a virus that’s evolving quite quickly and posing quite new challenges. So we’re certainly not at the point of being able to call it endemic,” she went on. 

“It may become endemic in due course, but pinning that down to 2022 is a little bit difficult at this stage,” Smallwood said, adding “all of this of course depends on how we respond to it and widespread vaccination uptake on an equitable basis will be very, very key in moving towards such a scenario.” 

Schools should be "last places to close and the first to reopen," says WHO chief

A student takes a Covid-19 test on the first day of term in Halifax, northern England on January 4, 2022.

Dr. Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) regional director for Europe, has emphasized the need to do everything to keep children in schools throughout further waves of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Looking ahead, the numbers of infected people are going to be so high in many countries that schools may be unable to keep all classes open all the time, due to a lack of staff,” Kluge said at a virtual news conference Tuesday. 

However, he stressed that: “Keeping schools open has important benefits for children’s mental, social and educational well-being. Schools should be the last places to close and the first to reopen.

“This winter, it is advisable to make arrangements for online learning alongside physical presence, so children can continue with their education when they are unable to attend school in person,” Kluge told the conference. 

He reiterated that the WHO’s recommendations for educational settings – ventilation, hand hygiene and the use of appropriate face masks – remained essential.

Kluge also added that “countries may wish to consider reviewing the protocols on testing, isolation and quarantine of classroom contacts to minimize disruption to learning, mitigating these risks as far as possible with good ventilation and mask usage.”