December 23 Omicron variant and coronavirus news

By Helen Regan, Amy Woodyatt and Adam Renton, CNN

Updated 1:15 AM ET, Fri December 24, 2021
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7:04 p.m. ET, December 23, 2021

United cancels more than 100 flights, citing Omicron cases

 From CNN's Pete Muntean

United Airlines planes sit on the runway at Newark Liberty International Airport on November 30, in Newark, New Jersey.
United Airlines planes sit on the runway at Newark Liberty International Airport on November 30, in Newark, New Jersey. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

United Airlines says it has had to “cancel some flights” because of the Omicron variant.  

“The nationwide spike in Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation,” said a United memo obtained by CNN.

United has canceled more than 100 Christmas Eve flights according to flight tracking site FlightAware. 

United says it is "notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport," according to a company statement. "We’re sorry for the disruption and are working hard to rebook as many people as possible and get them on their way for the holidays." 

6:47 p.m. ET, December 23, 2021

Health care workers with Covid-19 no longer need to isolate for 10 days, CDC says

\From CNN Health’s Michael Nedelman

A healthcare worker labels a test tube containing a Covid-19 test in Omaha, Nebraska, on November 10.
A healthcare worker labels a test tube containing a Covid-19 test in Omaha, Nebraska, on November 10. (Dan Brouillette/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday released updated guidance for health care workers who test positive for Covid-19, saying they can return to work after seven days if they are asymptomatic and test negative.

”That isolation time can be cut further if there are staffing shortages,” CDC said in a statement, citing surging cases due to the Omicron variant. 

In a statement, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, “our goal is to keep healthcare personnel and patients safe, and to address and prevent undue burden on our healthcare facilities.”

The agency also specified that health care workers don’t need to quarantine “following high-risk exposures” if they’ve gotten all recommended vaccinations, including a booster shot. (Remember: Quarantine refers to people who have been exposed to the virus but have not yet been diagnosed with an infection.) 

CDC stressed that the new guidelines don’t extend to the general public and only apply to health care workers.

 “CDC continues to evaluate isolation and quarantine recommendations for the broader population as we learn about the Omicron variant and will update the public as appropriate,” the agency said.

5:57 p.m. ET, December 23, 2021

It will be months before we know if another booster is needed, Moderna official says

From CNN's Amanda Sealy

While some other countries are taking steps to offer a fourth dose of Covid-19 vaccine, we will need to wait months before we know whether it is necessary in the United States, Paul Burton, Moderna’s chief medical officer, said on Thursday.

“I think, Wolf, we're going to have to wait for a couple of months yet, until we can see how those data develop and mature to understand when will that additional booster dose – if needed – have to be given,” Burton told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

However, Burton said he did not want to downplay the importance of boosters right now. “I think we can be confident, Wolf, getting a booster shot will provide protection throughout the holiday season and throughout these winter months.”

Moderna announced on Monday that preliminary data suggests its half-dose booster shot increased antibody levels against the Omicron variant compared with the levels seen when a fully vaccinated person has not received a booster.

When it comes to the variant-specific booster Moderna is developing, Burton confirmed the company would be starting clinical trials in early 2022, and it would take a couple of months. “It’s a second quarter scale-up” when it comes to availability,” he said.

But Burton stressed that we need to “wait and see” regarding how frequently we need boosters, and whether variant-specific boosters will be necessary.

“I think we'll have to continue to see how the Omicron phase of this pandemic continues.” 

“We need to keep in mind that Delta is still there, very strongly. Omicron is here right now, but on a very strong background of Delta,” he added.

4:59 p.m. ET, December 23, 2021

Airline industry asks CDC to shorten isolation period for airline workers with breakthrough infections

From CNN’s Pete Muntean 

The head of the airline industry’s top lobbying group on Thursday requested the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shorten the isolation period for fully vaccinated airline workers who experience breakthrough Covid-19 infections.  

In a letter to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the group said that the 10 day isolation period should be shortened to five days following symptom onset.

“To address the potential impact of the current isolation policy effectively, we propose an isolation period of no more than 5 days from symptom onset for those who experience a breakthrough infection,” said Nick Calio, president and CEO of Airlines for America.

Calio also said those people ending isolation would enter an appropriate testing protocol. 

“We believe that these combined variables justify a hastened reassessment of isolation guidelines and look forward to working with you to implement sound policies that protect the health and safety of our workforce and customers as the pandemic evolves.” 

The letter mirrors a plea sent by Delta Air Lines to the CDC earlier this week.

"With the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the 10-day isolation for those who are fully vaccinated may significantly impact our workforce and operations," Delta CEO Ed Bastian and the company's top health officers wrote in a letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on Tuesday.

3:39 p.m. ET, December 23, 2021

Ecuador makes Covid-19 vaccines mandatory for everyone 5 and older

From CNN's Marlon Sorto and Karol Suarez

A health worker prepares a dose of the Sinovac vaccine as part of the immunization plan against COVID-19 for children aged 5 to 11 at Colegio Abdón Calderón on December 20, 2021 in Cuenca, Ecuador.
A health worker prepares a dose of the Sinovac vaccine as part of the immunization plan against COVID-19 for children aged 5 to 11 at Colegio Abdón Calderón on December 20, 2021 in Cuenca, Ecuador. (Xavier Caivinagua/Agencia Press South/Getty Images)

Ecuador announced that vaccination against Covid-19 will be mandatory in the country for those five years and older, becoming the first country in Latin America to impose such a measure for the entire eligible population.  

The decision was made due to an increase in new coronavirus cases, including the Omicron variant, the health ministry said in a statement.  

The ministry stressed that the measure has a legal foundation, saying the country’s Organic Health Act provides the government power “to declare the mandatory nature of immunizations against certain diseases, in terms and conditions that the national and local epidemiological reality requires.”  

The vaccination will not be mandatory for those with pre-existing medical conditions, the statement said. 

3:16 p.m. ET, December 23, 2021

Italy imposes new restrictions due to Omicron variant

From CNN's Livia Borghese

People line up at a pharmacy to book nasal swabs tests, in Milan, Italy on Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021.
People line up at a pharmacy to book nasal swabs tests, in Milan, Italy on Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021. (Luca Bruno/AP)

The Italian government has introduced new Covid-19 restrictions, including an outdoor mask mandate, as the Omicron variant now accounts for nearly one-third of cases.

Effective immediately, masks will be mandatory outdoors for any public activity, with the exception of outdoor sports, a government news release said on Thursday. The more protective FFP2 (filtering face-piece) mask will be required to enter stadiums, museums, cinemas, and theaters, as well as to travel on public transport, including local public transport.

Beginning on Dec. 30, the restrictions will also include the closure of nightclubs and a ban on eating in public squares. The new measures will last until Jan. 31, the release said.

From Feb. 1, the government will also reduce the timeframe for the validity of vaccination certificates, known as ‘"green passes," from nine to six months.

People who have tested negative but are not vaccinated will not be able to enter bars and restaurants. A "green pass" will also be necessary to be served at a bar counter.

Research from Italy's Superior Health Institute published Thursday shows that the Omicron variant is "rapidly increasing" across the country and likely accounts for around 28% of cases, a news release from the Superior Health Institute said.

"Even if the results are still preliminary, they confirm the great circulation speed of the variant, which provokes large outbreaks and in a short time it will be predominant, as is already happening in several other European countries,” Silvio Brusaferro, president of the Superior Health Institute, said. 

The Health Ministry reported 44,595 new Covid-19 cases on Thursday – a record number since the pandemic began. Italy also recorded 168 deaths in the last 24 hours.

2:25 p.m. ET, December 23, 2021

Fauci: "Premature" to be discussing a fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose

From CNN’s Virginia Langmaid

It’s too early to be discussing a potential fourth Covid-19 vaccine shot for most people, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday. 

“I think it's too premature to be talking about a fourth dose,” Fauci told Michael Wallace and Steve Scott of WCBS 880. 

On Tuesday, Israel’s prime minister announced the country would be rolling out a fourth dose for health care workers, people with suppressed immune systems and those age 60 and older.

“One of the things that we're going to be following very carefully is what the durability of the protection is following the third dose of an mRNA vaccine,” Fauci said. 

“If the protection is much more durable than the two-dose, non-boosted group, and we may go a significant period of time without requiring a fourth dose. So I do think it's premature at least on the part of the United States to be talking about a fourth dose.”

Fauci said the only population where this might be different is in people who are severely immunocompromised. 

Fauci also emphasized the importance of getting a booster now for the best protection against the virus. 

“Sometimes when people hear the word booster, they think it's a luxury or an add on. It's not, it really is an essential part of the optimal type of protection that you want,” he said. 

“From the standpoint of if you want to be optimally protected, no doubt you should get boosted," he added.

2:16 p.m. ET, December 23, 2021

New York City mayor announces "scaled back" NYE celebration in Times Square

From CNN's Laura Ly

The 2022 sign that will be lit on top of a building on New Year's Eve is displayed in Times Square, New York, on December 20.
The 2022 sign that will be lit on top of a building on New Year's Eve is displayed in Times Square, New York, on December 20. (Seth Wenig/AP)

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced plans for a “scaled back” New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square with fewer revelers and mask requirements, according to a news release from de Blasio’s office.

The NYE celebration in Times Square typically holds around 58,000 people in viewing areas, but this year will be limited to 15,000 people and visitors will not be allowed entry into the area until 3 p.m. ET.

Additionally, everyone will be required to wear a mask and show photo identification at the fully-outdoor event, de Blasio’s office said.

As previously announced, all visitors to the Times Square celebration are required to be fully-vaccinated if they are older than five. Any unvaccinated minors under the age of five must be accompanied by a vaccinated adult in order to attend, the mayor’s office said.

 

1:52 p.m. ET, December 23, 2021

Risk of Covid-19 hospitalization lower with Omicron than Delta, according to UK real-world analysis

From CNN's Jacqueline Howard

A new analysis by the United Kingdom's Health Security Agency (UKHSA) adds to the growing evidence that the risk of being admitted to the hospital for Covid-19 due to the Omicron variant appears lower than the risk because of Delta.

But even though preliminary data suggests the risk of hospitalization due to the Omicron coronavirus variant appears to be reduced, the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant still could lead to large numbers of people being admitted to the hospital, according to the UKHSA's latest technical brief on coronavirus variants, released Thursday.

"It is important to highlight that these lower risks do not necessarily imply reduced hospital burden over the epidemic wave given the higher growth rate and immune evasion observed with Omicron," according to the report.

The report includes real-world data on Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations as of Dec. 20. Based on an assessment of the data, the report finds that the risk of hospital admission alone with Omicron infection was approximately two-fifths of that for Delta infection, and the risk of needing emergency or hospital admission was approximately three-fifths of that for Delta.

These findings are consistent with a separate paper released Wednesday by the Imperial College Covid-19 Response Team, which estimates the risk of being hospitalized for a day or longer due to the Omicron variant to be 40% to 45% lower than for the Delta variant.

The UKHSA report also examines vaccine effectiveness against Omicron – especially among people who received booster shots.

The report finds that among people who received two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, effectiveness against symptomatic disease was around 60% two to four weeks after either a Pfizer or Moderna booster, then dropped to 35% with a Pfizer booster and 45% with a Moderna booster by 10 weeks after the booster. Among people who received two doses of Pfizer, effectiveness averaged around 70% after a Pfizer booster, dropping to 45% after more than 10 weeks. After a Moderna booster, effectiveness stayed around 70% to 75% for up to nine weeks.

"There are insufficient severe cases of Omicron as yet to analyse vaccine effectiveness against hospitalisation, but this is expected to be better sustained, for both primary and booster doses," according to the report. "This analysis will be iterated next week, although numbers may still restrict a robust analysis of protection against more severe outcomes."

The brief notes that Omicron has continued to increase sharply as a proportion of cases in England, and relative to Delta, Omicron is currently more concentrated among young adults in their 20s and is less prevalent in children.