The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and the Omicron variant

By Aditi Sangal and Adrienne Vogt, CNN

Updated 1:22 a.m. ET, January 20, 2022
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2:50 p.m. ET, January 19, 2022

The coronavirus pandemic is "nowhere near over," WHO says

From CNN's Eliza Mackintosh and Isabelle Jani-Friend

Nearly two years since the coronavirus pandemic was officially declared by the World Health Organization (WHO), we're still no closer to knowing when it will end.

The highly transmissible Omicron variant has swept the globe since it was first detected in South Africa in November. Cases in the United States are at a record high and continue to climb. From Australia to Germany, infections are leaping to never-before-seen levels, putting a significant strain on health care systems.

But the fact that it is less likely to cause severe disease than previous coronavirus variants has led to heavy speculation over whether it might mark a turning point — or a conclusion — to the pandemic.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus poured cold water on that theory Tuesday, saying, "this pandemic is nowhere near over."

"Omicron may be less severe — on average, of course — but the narrative that it is mild disease is misleading, hurts the overall response, and costs more lives," Tedros said. "Make no mistake, Omicron is causing hospitalizations and deaths and even the less severe cases are inundating health facilities. The virus is circulating far too intensely with many still vulnerable."

And yet some governments seem to be resigning themselves to the virus ripping through their populations indefinitely. According to their logic, "we need to learn to live with this virus."

But what exactly does that look like, and how long will it last?

In some European countries, pandemic strategy continues to down-shift toward fewer mitigation measures, reduced quarantine periods and fewer restrictions on travel. In fact, in places such as Spain, the thinking is to treat Omicron more like the flu — despite public health officials, including WHO, cautioning against that approach.

In Britain, an Omicron spike threatened to put the country's health service on a "war footing." But now that the wave seems to have crested — 93,890 new cases were reported on Tuesday compared to 129,544 on the same day last week — the restrictions imposed in December, which included masks on public transport, will be eased next week.

Read the full story here.

Watch the moment WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says no country is "out of the woods" with Omicron:

10:16 a.m. ET, January 19, 2022

USPS is on the hook to deliver the White House's free at-home Covid-19 tests

From CNN's Gabe Cohen

United States Postal Service trucks are seen in April 2020 in Farmingdale, New York.
United States Postal Service trucks are seen in April 2020 in Farmingdale, New York. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The new government website where people can order free Covid-19 at-home rapid antigen tests is up and running. With just names and addresses, families can go to COVIDtests.gov and request up to four free tests to be delivered to their homes.

The website comes online as the Biden administration faces growing pressure to fix the coronavirus testing shortage amid the Omicron surge. The White House says it already has tens of millions of tests ready to go. It is spending $4 billion to deliver the first 500 million tests to homes across the US.

The program passes the testing pressure to the US Postal Service, which says it's prepared to deliver.

"We have been working closely with the Administration and are well prepared to accept and deliver test kits on the first day the program launches," Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said in a statement.

But right now, USPS is facing problems, with communities in several states dealing with mail delays because of the Omicron variant of coronavirus.

As of Tuesday, more than 19,200 postal workers were either sick from Covid-19 or quarantining, just shy of the agency's pandemic high last January and more than twice as many as just two weeks ago, according to the American Postal Workers Union.

USPS is now ramping up operations. It's setting up 43 centers that will pack and ship the tests and is hiring more than 7,000 temporary workers, many of whom were brought on for the holidays, according to the American Postal Workers Union.

USPS defended its service performance during the Omicron surge in a news release last week, saying 90% of first-class mail had been delivered on time in the first week of January.

But even if all goes right, don't expect overnight delivery: The White House predicts most tests will ship in seven to 12 days, and not until late January.

The Biden administration says the tests should be used in three situations: if you have Covid-19 symptoms; at least five days after exposure; or before gathering indoors with unvaccinated people or those at higher risk for Covid-19.

Read the full story here.

9:11 a.m. ET, January 19, 2022

Have you tried to order free Covid-19 tests from the federal website? Tell us about it

From CNN's Tami Luhby

The Biden administration launched covidtests.gov to provide Americans up to 1 billion free Covid-19 at-home tests.

Have you tried to order tests through the site? Share your experience with CNN. You could be included in an upcoming story.

9:16 a.m. ET, January 19, 2022

Biden administration to distribute 400 million free N95 masks to the public

From CNN's Jeremy Diamond and Paul LeBlanc

(Angus Mordant/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
(Angus Mordant/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Biden administration will make 400 million N95 masks available to Americans for free starting next week, a White House official told CNN, the latest federal step aimed at reining in the US' Covid-19 surge.

The masks — which are coming from the Strategic National Stockpile — will be made available at a number of local pharmacies and community health centers, the official said, adding that the program will be "fully up and running by early February."

Some background: The 400 million non-surgical N95 masks amount to more than half of the 750 million stored in the US' Strategic National Stockpile, a figure that tripled over the last year as the White House sought to boost reserves. The US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention recently advised that well-fitting respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health -- such as N95 masks -- offer "the highest level of protection" against Covid-19.

The administration's step comes as the US grapples with an unprecedented surge in Covid-19 cases. An average of more than 750,000 new Covid-19 infections were reported every day over the past week, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Beyond masks, the federal government has also quietly launched its website to sign up for free Covid-19 tests, allowing people to order a maximum of four tests shipped directly to their household.

8:45 a.m. ET, January 19, 2022

Japan will put Tokyo and 12 prefectures under quasi-state of emergency due to Covid-19 surge

From CNN’s Emiko Jozuka and Junko Ogura in Tokyo

Japan will place Tokyo and 12 other prefectures under a quasi-state of emergency from Friday until mid-February amid a rapid surge of coronavirus cases, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Wednesday.

The emergency measures will be applied to Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa, Saitama, Gunma, Niigata, Aichi, Gifu, Mie, Kagawa, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, and Miyazaki and be in place until Feb. 13, Kishida told a government task force meeting on Wednesday.

Okinawa, Yamaguchi and Hiroshima have been under a quasi-state of emergency since Jan. 9, with measures set to stay in place until the end of the month.

Some background: Under a quasi-state of emergency, local governors can request that dining establishments shorten their operating hours and stop serving alcohol. Residents in these areas are also asked to avoid traveling across prefectural borders.

Tokyo reported 7,377 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, up 2,192 cases from the day before and the highest daily case count of the pandemic, according to local government data.

The capital has 10 severely ill patients as of Wednesday – up three from the day before. 

Meanwhile, Osaka prefecture in western Japan recorded about 6,101 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, according to local government data.

Nationwide, Japan recorded 32,087 cases on Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University.

In his first policy speech at the start of a 150-day regular Diet session on Monday, Kishida said he will dedicate himself to containing Covid-19 in Japan as the Omicron variant fuels a surge in cases nationwide. He asked for public cooperation to win the battle against the virus.

Kishida also pledged on Monday to roll out booster shots more quickly, vaccinate young children and ensure medical care services available for those with severe Covid-19 symptoms even when cases climb.

8:26 a.m. ET, January 19, 2022

Growth in global Covid-19 cases slows compared with previous week, WHO says 

From CNN’s Naomi Thomas

From Jan. 10-16, global Covid-19 cases increased 20% compared to the week before, with over 18 million new cases reported, according to the World Health Organization’s weekly epidemiological update published Tuesday. 

In the previous epidemiological update, published Jan. 11, there was a 55% increase in new cases compared with the week before. 

“Despite a slowdown of the increase in case incidence at the global level, all regions reported an increase in the incidence of weekly cases with the exception of the African Region, which reported a 27% decrease,” according to the current update. 

In the update, the highest increase was reported in the South-East Asia region with 145%, followed by the Eastern Mediterranean region (68%), the Western Pacific region (38%), the region of the Americas (17%) and the European region (10%). 

The US reported the highest number of new cases, followed by France, India, Italy and the United Kingdom. 

As of Jan. 16, there have been over 323 million confirmed cases worldwide.

The number of new deaths remained similar to the previous week, with over 45,000 new deaths reported. 

Two regions, the South-East Asian region and the region of the Americas, reported increases in deaths of 12% and 7% respectively. The other regions reported numbers similar to the previous week. 

As of Jan. 16, over 5.5 million deaths have been reported globally.

8:22 a.m. ET, January 19, 2022

Beijing Winter Olympics village enters "closed loop" management system 

From CNN's Beijing bureau

With just over two weeks to go until the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics, the Olympic Village has begun its "closed loop" management system, which is designed as part of the country's Covid-19 countermeasures.

The Olympic Village officially entered the closed loop system Tuesday ahead of the first groups of athletes moving in on Jan. 23, the village's media manager told state media Global Times.

Staff members, all of whom have received Covid-19 booster shots, had entered the village weeks in advance to the athletes arriving, according to state media.

Since Jan. 4, when China launched a "pre-game" version of the system, thousands of people including staff have entered the closed loop system. Several venues are also already operating under the system ahead of its official launch on Jan. 23, the Global Times reported.

Despite Beijing's recent spread of Covid-19 cases, operations under the system have run smoothly so far, officials from the Beijing Organizing Committee said Monday.

On Monday, the Beijing Winter Olympics Organizing Committee announced tickets for the upcoming Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games would not be sold to the general public in response to Covid-19, but would be distributed by authorities.

So far, Beijing has confirmed four local cases of Covid-19, including the city's first Omicron case and two cases subsequently linked to that case.

8:20 a.m. ET, January 19, 2022

Covid-19 cases in India hit an 8-month high

From CNN's Manveena Suri in New Delhi

India reported its highest daily increase of Covid-19 cases in eight months on Wednesday. 

With levels not seen since May during its brutal second wave, the country registered at least 282,970 new infections, according to the figures released by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

This is the highest 24-hour increase since May 17, when India reported 281,386 cases. 

India has recorded more than 200,000 cases for seven consecutive days.

On Tuesday, India’s health ministry requested state officials to ramp up testing in a strategic manner, keeping in mind rising case positivity rates in specific areas. 

The steady rise in cases comes despite recently revised testing guidelines issued by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

The changes mean only contacts of Covid-19 patients identified as high-risk should get tested. Both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals, patients who have completed home isolation or have been discharged from a Covid-19 facility and those traveling domestically no longer need to be tested.

8:54 a.m. ET, January 19, 2022

Virginia parents sue Gov. Youngkin over executive order ending mask mandates in public schools

From CNN's Tierney Sneed

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin signs executive orders in Richmond, Virginia, after being sworn in as governor on January 15.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin signs executive orders in Richmond, Virginia, after being sworn in as governor on January 15. (Steve Helber/AP)

A group of parents of public school students in Chesapeake, Virginia, filed a lawsuit Tuesday asking Virginia's Supreme Court to block a new executive order issued by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin that makes masks voluntary for children in the state's public schools.

The lawsuit, obtained by CNN affiliate WTKR, points to guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as to a law passed by Virginia's General Assembly last year directing local school boards to adopt in-person schooling policies that reduce the spread of Covid-19 based on CDC recommendations.

The lawsuit alleges that the order, which Youngkin issued Saturday, is in "direct conflict" with that statute and therefore runs afoul of a separation of powers provision of Virginia's Constitution. The lawsuit also names as defendants the acting state health commissioner, the acting superintendent for Virginia's public schools and local school officials in Chesapeake.

Asked for comment on the lawsuit, Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said, "We will continue to protect parents' fundamental right to make decisions with regard to their child's upbringing, education and care."

The CDC recommends "universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of their vaccination status or the area's transmission rates," adding that "the benefits of mask-wearing are well-established."

Read the full story here.

-Dan Merica and Eva McKend contributed to this report.