The Omicron variant is now dominant in the US

By Jack Guy, Melissa Mahtani, Melissa Macaya, Meg Wagner and Aditi Sangal

Updated 7:20 a.m. ET, December 21, 2021
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4:25 p.m. ET, December 20, 2021

Quebec will close schools and bars and return to teleworking as Covid-19 cases increase

From CNN's Raja Razek 

Quebec will implement new restrictions, closing schools, bars and casinos as Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations increase, Quebec's Health Minister Christian Dubé said during a news conference on Monday.

"The situation is critical," he said. "With the increase of cases and hospitalization, we must put in place new measures, starting at 5 p.m. today, we are closing bars, casinos, movies theaters, and performance venues. Teleworking is now mandatory."

"Regarding schools, we are closing elementary and high schools," he said. "The return to class in attendance will be on Monday, January 10."

Gyms and spas would also be closed, "with the exception of personal care," according to the health minister. 

Additionally, professional, and amateur sports performances "will have to be behind closed doors," according to Dubé, and restaurant hours would be limited from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.

"I know the situation is tough, but now is the time again not to get discouraged and to be strong. I ask everyone to be part of the effort again. It can make all the difference," Dubé said. 

4:35 p.m. ET, December 20, 2021

Panama detects first case of Omicron Variant

From CNN's Karol Suarez and Ana Cucalon

Panama's Health Ministry said the first Omicron coronavirus case has been detected inside the country. 

"We inform the population that through epidemiological, genomic, and traceability surveillance at the national level, the presence of the new variant of the coronavirus named by the World Health Organization, Omicron, was detected," the ministry tweeted Monday.

"[The case] was detected in a 50-year-old citizen, whose immigration status is foreigner residing in the country, who arrived on December 8 with recent travel history to South Africa to work on a mining project," the ministry added. 

The health ministry said the worker is isolated in the mine and had no contact with other people or other workers. The worker remained asymptomatic during the quarantine and isolation. They added that he will have another PCR test on Monday.

4:17 p.m. ET, December 20, 2021

WHO: "An event cancelled is better than a life cancelled" this holiday season

From CNN’s Virginia Langmaid

 World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference on Monday, December 20, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva.
 World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference on Monday, December 20, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images  

The spread of Covid-19, particularly the Omicron variant, might mean holiday gatherings need to be cancelled, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday.

“There can be no doubt that increased social mixing over the holiday period in many countries will lead to increased cases, overwhelmed health systems and more deaths,” Tedros said in a media briefing for Geneva-based journalists.

“All of us are sick of this pandemic. All of us want to spend time with friends and family. All of us want to get back to normal. The fastest way to do that is for all of us – leaders and individuals – to make the difficult decisions that must be made to protect ourselves and others.”

Tedros said this might mean cancelling in-person events, “but an event cancelled is better than a life cancelled.”

“It’s better to cancel now and celebrate later, than to celebrate now and grieve later. None of us want to be here again in 12 months’ time, talking about missed opportunities, continued inequity, or new variants.”

Some context: Stricter Covid-19 measures have come into effect across Europe, as several nations rush to curb the spread of the Omicron variant. Omicron has also been identified in at least 45 US states as of Sunday, according to state officials in their respective states, as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. And with the Delta variant still present, Covid-19 cases in some areas are rising. Health experts are urging people to get vaccinated or boosted to protect themselves and others before they face greater chances of infection.

You can read Tedros’ full statement here.

3:52 p.m. ET, December 20, 2021

Costa Rica detects first case of Omicron variant

From CNN's Karol Suarez and Ana Cucalon

The first case of the Omicron variant has been detected in Costa Rica, the Institute for Nutrition and Health Research (INCIENSA) said on Sunday.

"It's a minor male, Costa Rican, eight years old; his sample was taken in a private hospital and sent for genomic surveillance. The patient had a fever, body aches, and general ill feeling. He's currently in stable condition and is in isolation in his house in the province of San José," the statement reads.

Authorities said they are aware of a family trip the child had during the first week of December to the United States, adding that "we are working on the epidemiological investigation of the case and its contacts."

According to the statement, Costa Rica's President Carlos Alberto Quesada said this finding doesn't imply changes in the current measures.

He called on the population to follow self-care protocols: ventilated spaces, correct use of face masks, hand washing, and completing the vaccination scheme against Covid-19.

3:32 p.m. ET, December 20, 2021

White House previews Biden's Covid-19 remarks: "This is not a speech about shutting the country down"

From CNN's Nikki Carvajal

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

President Biden will “announce additional steps” in the fight against Covid-19 during his planned remarks about the Omicron variant Tuesday, the White House said, but he won’t necessarily talk about additional restrictions in the face of rising cases.

“This is not a speech about shutting the country down,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki at a Monday afternoon press briefing. “This is a speech outlining and being direct and clear with the American people about the benefits of being vaccinated, the steps we're going to take to increase access and to increase testing, and the risks posed to unvaccinated individuals.”

Psaki said Biden will “issue a stark warning and make clear unvaccinated individuals will continue to drive hospitalizations and deaths.”

“That is not trying to scare people – or maybe it is, trying to make clear to people in the country what the risks are here of not being vaccinated,” she continued. “What is clear is that we're not in the same place that we were in.”

“To be clear,” Psaki added, “Covid-19 is not the same threat to fully vaccinated individuals that it was in March 2020.”

4:23 p.m. ET, December 20, 2021

NJ hits highest daily positive case count in nearly a year, but hospitalizations not rising at same rate

From CNN’s Evan Simko-Bednarksi

New Jersey Governor's office
New Jersey Governor's office

New Jersey's Covid-19 case count is spiking, but hospitals remain within their capacity, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday.

"We are now seeing the daily case count hitting levels we haven't seen since mid-January of this year," Murphy said, a figure echoed by Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli, who said that Sunday's 6,533 positive PCR tests marked the highest single day of positive tests since January 2021.

The statewide percent-positivity is 12.11%.

Still, the governor said, hospitalizations are not growing at the same rate.

"We continue to stay at hospitalization levels that are just a fraction of what they were at this time last year, even as the recent case counts are going up with such speed," Murphy said.

"This is only possible because the vaccines are keeping even those folks who have breakthrough case of infection from developing a serious Covid-related illness," he added.

The state reports 1,902 people currently hospitalized with the virus. Hospitalizations peaked early in the pandemic with 8,270 reported hospitalizations in April 2020. 

"We're nowhere near where we were," Murphy said.

According to state data, 73% of eligible New Jersey residents have received a full initial course of vaccination, and 40% of those who can be are boosted.

There has been an uptick of in-school Covid-19 transmission, Murphy said, with 47 outbreaks tied to in-school transmission in the week of Dec. 6 — the most recent available data — up from 15 outbreaks three weeks prior. 

Murphy said that despite the rise, "these cases do remain somewhat rare."

To that end, Murphy was supportive when asked about a so-called test-and-stay program for students in New Jersey schools. He and Persichilli said they were preparing a pilot program for such a policy, in which students known to be close contacts of Covid-positive individuals can take frequent Covid-19 tests in lieu of quarantining.


3:10 p.m. ET, December 20, 2021

English Premier League Covid-19 testing numbers show surge in infections

From CNN's Kevin Dotson

The English Premier League released Covid-19 testing numbers for the past week, which show a sharp rise in new cases among players across the world’s richest top-flight division. 

From Dec. 13 to 19, the Premier League reported 90 new positive cases, more than twice the total of 42 positive tests the week before. Prior to that, the league saw just 100 positive tests in the four months between Aug. 2 and Dec. 5.

Earlier on Monday, the Premier League announced that fixtures over the festive period will go ahead as planned despite a number of clubs experiencing Covid-19 outbreaks among players and staff. The decision was made following a virtual meeting of all 20 clubs and the league. 

Each Premier League team is set to play three times between Dec. 26 and Jan. 3 in what is traditionally the busiest period of fixtures in the domestic league calendar.

Ten Premier League games have already been postponed this month due to Covid-19 outbreaks.

The Premier League announced last Monday that it was instituting its Covid-19 emergency measures, which require all clubs to follow protocols such as wearing face coverings while indoors, observing social distancing and limiting treatment time. The league also increased lateral flow and PCR testing of players and staff.


3:10 p.m. ET, December 20, 2021

NYC officials say they are ramping up Covid-19 testing capacity after Omicron increased demands

From CNN's Laura Ly

New York City officials said Monday that they did not expect Omicron to move so quickly and drive up demand for testing, but are now working to increase Covid-19 testing capacity across the city.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city previously saw “a very decreased demand” for testing and began moving to a focus on mobile testing sites before Omicron.

“Obviously Omicron then changed the whole picture and we started to ramp everything up again. And we are quickly ramping up. So, we were responding to the experiences we were having, and we did not – and I’ve been very clear about this in what I said yesterday – we did not expect Omicron to move quite this quickly. And so we are moving quickly to adjust but we will,” de Blasio said.

Dr. Mitch Katz, president and CEO of the NYC Health + Hospitals public health system, added that they did not anticipate so much news about Omicron, nor supply chain issues that affected the supply of in-home tests.

“I’m sorry that demand was so enormous over the last few days – we did not anticipate so much news about Omicron, we did not anticipate that the supply chain would run out of the home tests. In my own pharmacies last week, there were shelves and shelves of home tests to take care of the demand. When I went by yesterday, there were none,” Katz said.

Katz noted that the city’s contact tracing team has doubled its testing capacity in the last three weeks. He also said that the city often closes test sites if there is little demand for testing in that area.

“We do constantly close testing sites and move them to places where the demand is. And that’s part of our model. So when someone says, ‘Well, we closed X site, that’s only because our own community advisory board said you’re going to reach more people if you move from here to there.’ So we constantly are moving them to try to reach New Yorkers in the greatest of need,” Katz said. “We’re gonna keep expanding to meet that need and I feel really confident that New Yorkers this week will have a different experience this week than they did this weekend.”

2:29 p.m. ET, December 20, 2021

CDC adds 8 more places to its highest-risk category for travel, including Spain

From CNN’s Forrest Brown

Coral Beach, Hilma Hooker, along the southwest coast of Bonaire.
Coral Beach, Hilma Hooker, along the southwest coast of Bonaire. G. Cozzi/De Agostini Editorial/Getty Images/FILE

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday added eight destinations to its highest-risk category for travel, including Spain.

In its weekly update of Covid-19 travel advisories, the CDC also added the following places to its "Level 4: Covid-19 Very High" category: Bonaire, Chad, Finland, Gibraltar, Lebanon, Monaco and San Marino.

The CDC places a destination at Level 4 when more than 500 cases per 100,000 residents are registered in the past 28 days.