The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and the Omicron variant

By Jack Guy, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Maureen Chowdhury, Melissa Mahtani, Melissa Macaya and Meg Wagner, CNN

Updated 7:23 p.m. ET, December 22, 2021
42 Posts
Sort byDropdown arrow
3:14 p.m. ET, December 22, 2021

ICU nurse: Officials against mask mandates should spend a day watching trauma unfolding in hospitals

ICU nurse Haleigh Seizys
ICU nurse Haleigh Seizys (CNN)

Front line workers have returned to exhausting work days as Covid-19 cases rise rapidly across the United States. ICU nurse Haleigh Seizys, who works at a hospital in Omaha, Nebraska, says elected leaders and officials who oppose mask mandates should spend a day in the hospital.

"I genuinely wish that they could come and follow me for just an hour so they could see how much their feet hurt, and see how many people are trying to hold back tears day to day, and they can see the trauma these patients are going through," she said Wednesday. "These people are dying very traumatic deaths, and it's so hard to watch."

"I think that a lot of opinions would be different if they could see that just as much as we do," she added.

The hospital staff is "very worried about what's to come after the holidays," she told CNN.

"I think that masks help that kind of steady plateau outside of our spikes," she said. "As far as spread goes within those small groups, I think that vaccinations are what would help that most, just protect your small circles who in turn are going to take it to that larger population."

Her biggest support system is her coworkers, she said.

"I think since we're all going through the same thing, we can kind of rally around each other and encourage each other, but I think also just continuing to acknowledge my own mental health and needs, that's the biggest part of it," she said.

4:28 p.m. ET, December 22, 2021

Belgium will cancel indoor events and activities starting Sunday due to Omicron rise

From CNN’s Arnaud Siad

Belgium is canceling indoor events and activities, including indoor Christmas markets and villages, cinema showings and shows due to uncertainty surrounding the Omicron variant, Belgium Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said in a news conference on Wednesday.

The measures will come into force on Sunday, and will also extend to indoor spaces of amusement parks and zoos, the Prime Minister added.

Some activities such as weddings and funerals will still be allowed, while museums and gyms will be kept open, he said.

“Experts estimate the Omicron variant will soon be dominant here too. Already we are seeing that close to 30%, almost 3 people out of 10, who are being tested turn out to be infected with the Omicron variant,” De Croo said.

“One thing is clear: we have to be more careful than ever,” he added. “We see that pressure in our hospitals has decreased slightly but this diminution remains very small."

1:51 p.m. ET, December 22, 2021

DC will require proof of vaccinations for restaurants, gyms and other gathering places starting next month

From CNN’s Sarah Fortinsky

Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Wednesday the city will require proof of vaccination for restaurants, gyms and other gathering places for people over 12 years old.

The vaccine requirement for gathering places will go into effect on Jan. 15, when patrons will be required to show proof of at least one dose. On Feb. 15, patrons will be required to show proof of two doses. 

Bowser also announced Covid-19 vaccines will be mandated for all students in DC who are eligible to receive vaccines, after the DC Council voted on legislation Tuesday.

"In 2020, we had to shut down because we didn't know a lot about the virus, and we knew it was very dangerous and we didn't have effective pharmaceutical interventions. But now we do," Bowser said at a news conference Wednesday. "The vaccines are working, and they're working well to keep people out of the hospital and to keep people from dying from COVID-19. So we don't need those type of shutdowns, but we do need more people to get vaccinated and boosted."

On March 1, eligible students in all DC schools — including public, charter, independent, and private — will be required to be vaccinated.

DC officials stressed at a news conference that the requirement for proof of vaccines will be directed at places where people are likely to congregate. Officials said grocery stores, retail stores and museums would not be required to check for proof of vaccines.

Religious institutions would be exempt, but a DC official said "it depends" when asked whether office space would be exempt.

Officials said there will be further guidance issued next week, but Bowser outlined four categories of businesses that would need to verify proof of vaccinations:

  • Restaurants, bars, and nightclubs
  • Indoor cultural and entertainment facilities
  • Indoor exercise and recreational establishments
  • Indoor event and meeting establishments

Patrons can prove their vaccination status’ using the original or photocopy of the CDC-issued vaccination card, an immunization record print-out from a health care provider, and using various vaccination apps including VaxYes and CLEAR. 

2:17 p.m. ET, December 22, 2021

Omicron has now been detected in every US state

From CNN’s Paul Murphy 

Cars line up at a Covid-19 testing site at Tropical Park in Miami on December 21.
Cars line up at a Covid-19 testing site at Tropical Park in Miami on December 21. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

The Covid-19 Omicron variant has been identified in every US state, as well as in Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, according to public statements from hospital systems and state officials in their respective states.

It's been 22 days since the US detected its first case of Omicron.   

South Dakota was the 50th state it was detected in. 

1:39 p.m. ET, December 22, 2021

Top scientific researcher says South Africa has passed the peak of its Omicron outbreak

From CNN's Hamilton Wende and Niamh Kennedy

South Africa has passed the peak of its Omicron outbreak, according to one of the country's top scientific researchers.

Ridhwaan Suliman, senior researcher at the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, told CNN on Wednesday that the country has "surpassed the peak of the Omicron wave now, driven by the significant decline in the populous province and epicenter, Gauteng."

This was echoed by one of the country's top scientists, Dr. Michelle Groome of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, who told a media briefing earlier on Wednesday that all indications show "that we've surpassed the peak of infections in Gauteng." 

Most other provinces in the country have also passed their peaks, Suliman added

National Chair of the South African Medical Association Dr. Angelique Coetzee, who was one of the first doctors to treat patients with Omicron, told CNN's New Day on Monday that the country was "over the curve," highlighting that Gauteng's numbers were "much lower."

Suliman characterized the country's fourth wave as a "steeper wave," that was "significantly shorter" than those prior, saying in a tweet it took "about half the number of days to reach the peak compared with previous waves in South Africa.

There was a 20.8% decrease in the number of new Covid-19 cases detected in South Africa as of Saturday, according to the NICD's epidemiology brief published Wednesday. 

According to Suliman, although test positivity remains "still high at 29.8%," the fact the figure is decreasing confirms "the decline in infections is real and not a testing artifact."

On hospitalizations and deaths: South African vaccinologist Shabir Mahdi also told CNN on Wednesday that although there may be a "slight increase in deaths" the figure will be "substantially lower" than that experienced with the Delta variant. 

Suliman also said that hospitalizations and deaths from this wave have proven to be "significantly lower relative to that experienced in previous waves."

1:38 p.m. ET, December 22, 2021

World Health Organization discussing whether to reclassify Alpha, Beta and Gamma variants

From CNN’s Virginia Langmaid

The World Health Organization is discussing whether to reclassify the Alpha, Beta and Gamma variants out of "variant of concern" status as the Delta and Omicron variants now make up more than 97% of variants sequenced, WHO Technical Lead for Covid-19 Maria van Kerkhove said Wednesday.

“Since Oct. 20, less than 0.1% of the sequences uploaded to platforms like GISAID have been Alpha, Beta and Gamma. Ninety-six percent of the sequences available are still Delta, and about 1.6% of sequences that have been shared in recent weeks is Omicron. We definitely see increasing growth rates of Omicron where it's being detected, and it's now been recorded in more than 106 countries to date,” Van Kerkhove said in a media briefing. 

“We have actually been having some discussions about whether we need to reclassify Alpha, Beta and Gamma to change them from being called a variant of concern to maybe a variant of interest, or they become variants of monitoring strictly because they're not circulating anymore, and because Delta has out-competed those variants,” she said.

“The discussion that we've been having is how we reclassify them, and once you have a variant of concern, how do you reclassify it as something else when in fact the properties of that variant are really what allowed us to classify it as a variant of concern?”

Currently, the WHO has identified five variants of concern and two variants of interest. Van Kerkhove said the Omicron variant is unlikely to be the last variant of concern of the pandemic.

“The virus is changing. You've been hearing us say that Delta would not be the last variant of concern that we would speak about. Omicron is likely not going to be the last variant of concern that you hear us speak about as well,” she said.

Van Kerkhove said the virus is likely to eventually become endemic, but the world is not there yet.

“It is a respiratory pathogen, as you know, so we expect to see some kind of seasonal variation, you know, just due to behavioral factors, but we haven't seen that yet. This virus thrives wherever we allow it. And we don't get that reprieve in those summer months or certain times of the year,” she said.

“We expect to see flareups. It will depend on how big those outbreaks are as we go forward, but they will occur in under-protected populations, people who don't have vaccine and people who are, don't yet have their full dose of vaccine. So I think there is some understanding of where this virus is going. But we remain humble to it because I think it still has quite a few tricks up its sleeve,” she added.

1:37 p.m. ET, December 22, 2021

Uneven distribution means booster programs could "prolong" pandemic, WHO director-general says

From CNN's Virginia Langmaid

A booster dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine is drawn up in a vaccination clinic set up at St Columba's Church in Sheffield, England, on December 15.
A booster dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine is drawn up in a vaccination clinic set up at St Columba's Church in Sheffield, England, on December 15. (Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images)

Unbalanced Covid-19 vaccine distribution around the world means that booster programs in high-income countries could prolong the pandemic by leaving poorer countries unvaccinated, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday.

“It's frankly difficult to understand how a year since the first vaccines were administered, three in four health workers in Africa remain unvaccinated,” Tedros said in a media briefing.

“While some countries are now rolling out blanket booster programs, only half of WHO’s member states have been able to reach the target of vaccinating 40% of their populations by the end of the year, because of distortions in global supply. Enough vaccines were administered globally this year that the 40% target would have been reached in every country by September if those vaccines had been distributed equitably," he continued.

“About 20% of all vaccine doses administered every day are currently being given as boosters, or additional doses. Blanket booster programs are likely to prolong the pandemic rather than ending it by diverting supply to countries that already have high levels of vaccination coverage, giving the virus more opportunity to spread and mutate,” Tedros said.

Tedros has previously called for a moratorium on booster doses worldwide, and Wednesday referenced a new statement from WHO examining the use of booster doses worldwide.

“Today, the WHO strategic advisory group of experts on immunization, or SAGE, is issuing an interim statement on booster doses. SAGE concluded that the focus of immunization must remain on decreasing deaths and severe disease and expressed concern that blanket booster programs will exacerbate vaccine inequity,” Tedros said.

In this statement, the organization cited a preprint study from Mid-November, showing that when studied together, the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines saw vaccine effectiveness against severe Covid-19 decrease by about 8% over six months.

In people over age 50, the study showed a decrease in effectiveness of 10% against severe disease after six months. WHO called this a “minimal to modest” reduction in efficacy, but said the Omicron variant could change the situation.

“It's important to remember that the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths are in unvaccinated people, not unboosted people. And we must be very clear that the vaccines we have, remain effective against both the Delta and Omicron variants,” Tedros said.

The statement said in the interest of equity, the focus inside countries should be on “improving coverage of the primary vaccination series in high risk populations as the top priority use of vaccine doses.”

The WHO and SAGE statement also noted that 126 member countries have recommended some form of booster or additional vaccination, mostly high- and middle-income countries. “In several of these countries which are administering booster doses the coverage rates for complete primary vaccination are below 30%,” the statement said.

1:27 p.m. ET, December 22, 2021

Spain set to require face masks outdoors again following Omicron rise

From CNN's Al Goodman in Madrid

People walk in downtown Madrid on December 21.
People walk in downtown Madrid on December 21. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Spain is set to reimpose a nationwide requirement to wear face masks outdoors, according to a statement from the prime minister's office on Wednesday. The office of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said he will convene a cabinet meeting on Thursday to approve the measure.

The country previously ended outdoor mask requirements in June, but wearing masks remains mandatory in crowded outdoor spaces and public indoor spaces.

The announcement comes as the prime minister meets on Wednesday afternoon with the presidents of Spain's 17 regional governments to discuss pandemic measures and the rise of the Omicron variant.

Spain registered its highest daily number of new Covid-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, with 49,823 cases recorded in the past day, the country’s health ministry said late Tuesday, in the latest available figures. The Ministry said, in a separate report, "at the present time, the data drawn from sequencing of specific PCR indicates that there's a rapid substitution of the Delta variant by the Omicron."  

1:18 p.m. ET, December 22, 2021

Germany to require negative PCR tests for travelers arriving from UK, southern African countries

From CNN's Chris Stern and Fred Pleitgen

Germany will soon require negative PCR tests from travelers arriving from "areas of variants ofconcern," which includes the United Kingdom, South Africa and other southern African nations, according to the German government website.

The government did not specify when the requirement will come into force.

Negative PCR tests taken within the last 48 hours will soon be required to enter Germany from all areas of concern, according to the government. The requirement will apply to all passengers ages 6 and up, as well as for passengers transiting through Germany. 

The government's list of "areas of variants of concern" changes continuously, but as of this week includes Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, the United Kingdom and all British Overseas Territories, and Zimbabwe.