The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and Omicron variant

By Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Melissa Mahtani, Helen Regan, Joshua Berlinger and Adam Renton, CNN

Updated 7:30 PM ET, Fri December 24, 2021
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10:55 a.m. ET, December 24, 2021

About 500 flights have been canceled within, into or out of the US on Christmas Eve

About 500 flights have been canceled within, into or going out of the United States on Christmas Eve so far, according to flight-tracking site FlightAware.

As of 10:49 a.m. ET, exactly 503 flights were canceled, with about 30 flights canceled over the course of one hour.

Globally, there were over 2,000 flight cancellations in total, according to FlightAware.

The Transportation Security Administration says it screened 2.19 million people at airports across the country on Thursday, the highest figure since the uptick in holiday travel started a week ago.

10:23 a.m. ET, December 24, 2021

Europe is reinstating a host of Covid-19 restrictions over the holidays. Here's a roundup.

From CNN's Mostafa Salem

Travelers walk past a sign for unvaccinated passengers at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on December 14.
Travelers walk past a sign for unvaccinated passengers at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on December 14. (Nathan Laine/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

As Covid-19 cases continue to rise across Europe, many countries have reinstated certain restrictions over the holidays.

Here are the key things to know:

France

France imposed restrictions on travelers entering the country from the United Kingdom, to slow the arrival of the Omicron coronavirus variant. Only essential travel from the UK to France is allowed, regardless of vaccination status. The travel restrictions were enforced starting Dec. 18.

France’s Prime Minister Jean Castex announced on Dec. 17 that big outdoor events and gatherings will be banned on New Year’s Eve. This includes the consumption of alcohol in public spaces and the cancellation of fireworks and concerts.

France reported 91,608 new Covid infections on Thursday, an all-time high since the beginning of the pandemic.

Spain

Spain has reinstated its nationwide mandate for wearing masks outdoors — with exceptions for sports and large areas — from Christmas Eve, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced Wednesday.

Meanwhile regionally, some governments are tightening restrictions even more, with Murcia banning non-essential activity from Dec. 24 until Jan. 14, according to the regional government’s news release.

In Catalonia, leaders are imposing a curfew from 1 a.m. until 6 a.m., closing night time venues and limiting social gatherings to 10 people, according to the release.

The measures will affect municipalities of over 10,000 residents with an incidence rate of 250 per 100,000 since Dec. 17. They are set to last for 15 days, from Christmas Eve. 

Italy

Nightclubs will be closed and people will be banned from eating in public squares from Dec. 30 to Jan. 31, according to a government news release. On Friday, the outdoor mask mandate returned and the use of the Covid pass will be expanded from Feb. 1.

Netherlands

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced a strict lockdown starting Dec. 19. Indoor gatherings are limited to a maximum of two guests until Jan. 14, except on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when that limit is extended to four guests. All schools and extracurricular activities will also close until at least Jan. 9. 

Belgium

Belgium will cancel indoor events and activities, including indoor Christmas markets and villages, cinema screenings and shows, starting Dec. 26, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said in a news conference. Those measures extend to indoor spaces of amusement parks and zoos. However, some activities such as weddings and funerals will still be allowed. Museums and gyms will be kept open.

Germany

Germany will impose strict contact restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19 starting on Dec. 28 and prohibit New Year's Eve gatherings. A maximum of 10 people will be allowed to meet in groups, regardless of whether they are vaccinated or recovered. Private meetings for unvaccinated people are limited to two additional people per household for both indoor and outdoor activities, the government announced.

Unvaccinated people may use public transport only with a daily negative Covid-19 test.

Nightclubs in Germany will remain closed.

Football matches will once again be played without spectators. Germany's health minister said he will not rule out a hard lockdown if the number of cases keeps rising.

Switzerland

Only those with vaccine passports or proof of recovery are permitted inside restaurants and indoor event spaces starting Dec. 20, and masks must be worn at all times unless consuming food or drink.

Private gatherings are limited to 10 people if they include anyone age 16 and older who is unvaccinated or has not recovered from Covid-19. In settings where it is not possible to wear a mask or apply a seating requirement, admission will be limited to vaccinated or recovered persons, who must also present a negative test result. This rule applies to bars and clubs, but also to amateur sporting and cultural activities. Only people who have been fully vaccinated, received a booster or recovered from Covid-19 within the last four months do not have to take a further test.

Austria

The 10 p.m. closing time will be imposed on the hospitality sector as of Dec. 27 and will remain in place on New Year's Eve. Christmas markets admission will only be for vaccinated and/or recovered people.

FFP2 (filtering face piece) masks are mandatory in many areas. Proof of vaccination or recovery is required to enter hotels, restaurants, leisure centers, gyms, cultural institutions, Christmas markets, ski lifts/cable cars and body-related services, such as salons.

Restaurants, cafés and bars have a curfew at 11 p.m., with the exception of New Year's Eve. Bars and clubs remain closed for the time being. Après-ski is not possible.

Denmark

Denmark announced the closure of cinemas, theaters and museums, while also prohibiting the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. and asking hospitality venues to shut earlier. Those restrictions are now in effect.

Portugal

Schools, bars, and clubs will all close in Portugal from Dec. 26 until Jan. 10, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa announced Tuesday. People have also been told to work from home, and negative tests will be required for ceremonies such as weddings as well as all cultural and sporting events.

9:59 a.m. ET, December 24, 2021

As Omicron puts holiday plans in flux, an expert weighs in on how to gather and celebrate safely

(CNN)
(CNN)

As the Omicron coronavirus variant situation changes hour-by-hour, it may be difficult to determine whether holiday plans should be canceled or altered. Biology professor Erin Bromage, who teaches and researches infectious diseases and immunology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, answers questions and concerns about traveling and gathering with family.

When should you test for Covid-19 before getting together with family or loved ones?

Bromage says to perform rapid tests immediately before gathering.

"The day before doesn't really work with the rate at which this virus goes from non-detectable to detectable and infectious. So testing immediately before if you can get your hands on rapid tests; the day before, if you can only do PCR and then turning them around in 24 hours," he told CNN.

What if you are gathering with adults who are not vaccinated or children under age 5 who are not able to be vaccinated?

Bromage said that everyone has already had the choice to get vaccinated or not.

"Those people who have gone out and gotten vaccinated and boosted have tilted the odds way in their favor that they may end up getting infected from this, but one of the key things is not sickness. So keeping out of hospital, keeping out of having days and days off work," he said.

With very young children, Bromage said that others being vaccinated and tested helps prevent the spread of the virus.

"If you put a buffer around those people that are actually vulnerable, you can actually protect them through you being that firewall coming in," Bromage said.  

What should you do before and during travel?

"You do owe a responsibility to society" and every move you make affects others, Bromage said.  

He suggests testing before hopping on a flight and keeping your mask on.

"The most risk is the person sitting beside you. If you have a chatty person or a person eating that can't stop talking, keep your mask up a little bit longer," he said.

Watch:

9:00 a.m. ET, December 24, 2021

Biden administration official explains decision to lift travel restrictions on 8 African countries

From CNN's Jeremy Diamond

The Biden administration is lifting travel restrictions starting on Dec. 31 on eight southern African countries due to the Omicron coronavirus variant.

A senior administration official described what was considered in the decision:

“Based on the advice of his medical team, the President temporarily restricted travel from 8 countries in Southern Africa out of an abundance of caution to help slow the spread of Omicron and to give time for US health officials learn more about the new variant," according to the official. "At the time, these restrictions were put in place, it was clear that there was widespread community transmission in South Africa, as well as a great deal of cross-border travel in the region and little surveillance in many of the countries near South Africa." 

The variant was first discovered by scientists in South Africa.

"The decision was recommended by CDC for two key reasons: First, our nation’s health officials have made progress in understanding Omicron; importantly, our existing vaccines are effective against severe disease with Omicron, especially if you’re boosted. Second, with Omicron now present across the US and globally, international travelers from these countries will not have a significant impact on US cases," the official said.

The official said that according to health and medical experts, "the value of country-based international travel restrictions is greatest early in an outbreak."

"During the travel pause, President Biden reduced the time for pre-departure testing to one day opposed to three days, adding to the consistent, stringent travel protocols already in place that ensure that all foreign travelers must be fully vaccinated to travel to the United States. Travelers from these eight countries will be subject to these same strict protocols," the official added.

9:02 a.m. ET, December 24, 2021

English Premier League postponed three Boxing Day matches this week due to Covid-19 issues

From CNN's Homero De la Fuente

Empty seats in Anfield stadium in Liverpool, England, are seen in December 2020.
Empty seats in Anfield stadium in Liverpool, England, are seen in December 2020. (Photo by Richard Sellers/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Three more Boxing Day matches have been postponed this week as clubs across the English Premier League continue to deal with Covid-19 outbreaks.

The matches postponed were between Burley and Everton, Watford and Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Leeds United and Liverpool.

Everton’s request to have the match postponed due to Covid-19 cases and injuries within the Merseyside club was approved on Friday, after a review by the Premier League Board. 

In a news release on Thursday, the EPL cited Leeds United and Watford FC not having enough available players to field a team as the reason for the postponements. 

“The League is aware that the decision to postpone these two matches will disappoint supporters and understands their frustrations at a special time of year when fans look forward to attending and watching football games,” the Premier League said in a statement. “The League aims to provide as much clarity as possible, but unfortunately postponements sometimes have to be made at short notice, as safety is the priority. The League will endeavour to keep supporters updated if games become at risk on a match day.” 

Leeds United announced that the training ground at Thorp Arch will be closed for the next two days following five new positive Covid-19 cases within the first-team squad and staff, on the advice of Public Health England. 

Last weekend, the Premier League postponed 10 matches as Covid-19 cases continue to rise in the country. In total, 13 matches have now been postponed due to Covid-19.  

“While recognising a number of clubs are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks, it is the clubs’ and the League’s collective intention to continue the current fixture schedule where safely possible. The health and wellbeing of all concerned remains our priority and the League will continue to monitor and reflect public health guidance, always proceeding with caution,” the statement concluded.

8:46 a.m. ET, December 24, 2021

US airlines cancel more than 400 Christmas Eve flights so far

From CNN's Pete Muntean

US airlines have canceled more than 400 Christmas Eve flights so far, with major carriers such as United and Delta citing staffing shortages caused by the Omicron coronavirus variant.

United Airlines has canceled 169 flights as of 8 a.m. ET Friday, according to flight tracking site FlightAware. Delta Air Lines has canceled 127 flights. 

Operational snags at airlines are coming as millions are still flying in spite of rising coronavirus cases. The Transportation Security Administration says it screened 2.19 million people at airports across the country on Thursday, the highest figure since the uptick in holiday travel started a week ago.

In a company statement, United Airlines apologized to customers and underscored that the airline is trying to rebook customers before they arrive at airports. 

8:48 a.m. ET, December 24, 2021

US will lift travel restrictions on southern African countries starting Dec. 31

From CNN's Jeremy Diamond 

A traveller checks arrivals and departures information at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston on December 3.
A traveller checks arrivals and departures information at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston on December 3. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The Biden administration is lifting restrictions on eight southern African countries that were put in place last month after the Omicron variant was first identified by scientists in South Africa, a White House official tells CNN. 

The restrictions will lift on Dec. 31 at 12:01 a.m. ET. 

In late November, Biden — on the advice of his health team — restricted travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. The measures barred nearly all foreign nationals who had been "physically present" in the countries during the "14-day period preceding their entry, or attempted entry into the United States." US citizens, lawful permanent residents and non-citizens who are the spouses of citizens or permanent residents were exempt. 

The restrictions had come under increased scrutiny as the Omicron variant became the predominant one in new cases in the US. 

Biden said Tuesday that he was "considering" whether to lift the restrictions. 

"I'm considering reversing [the travel ban], I'm going to talk to my team in the next couple days," Biden told reporters after a speech on Covid-19 at the White House.

7:45 a.m. ET, December 24, 2021

Merck's FDA-authorized antiviral pill to treat Covid-19 is "not a substitute for vaccines," official says

Merck & Co,Inc./AFP/Getty Images
Merck & Co,Inc./AFP/Getty Images

The US Food and Drug Administration on Thursday authorized Merck's antiviral pill, molnupiravir, to treat Covid-19 in adults with high risk of severe disease, but it "is not a substitute for vaccines," said Dr. Eliav Barr, SVP of global medical and scientific affairs at Merck.

"I think it's important for people to be both vaccinated and to have access to these medicines ... Vaccination prevents you from getting serious disease from the get-go. So you don't have to actually get sick before you become eligible for the drug. Who wants to get sick? You should get vaccinated and prevent that from happening," he said Friday.

This is the second Covid-19 antiviral pill authorized for ill people to take at home, before they get sick enough to be hospitalized. Merck has an agreement with the US government for the company to supply 3.1 million courses of molnupiravir upon this authorization.

People should take this pill within five days of seeing symptoms if they test positive for the virus and are at high risk, Barr explained, adding that they will need a doctor's prescription.

While there will be "hundreds of thousands of courses" available in the "next couple of days," a million courses will be made available within the next few weeks, Barr told CNN.

Watch:

5:50 a.m. ET, December 24, 2021

BTS' Suga tested positive for Covid-19

From CNN's Gawon Bae in Seoul, South Korea

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MAY 21: Suga of BTS attends a press conference for BTS's new digital single 'Butter' at Olympic Hall on May 21, 2021 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by The Chosunilbo JNS/Imazins via Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MAY 21: Suga of BTS attends a press conference for BTS's new digital single 'Butter' at Olympic Hall on May 21, 2021 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by The Chosunilbo JNS/Imazins via Getty Images) (The Chosunilbo JNS/Imazins via Getty Images)

Suga, a member of BTS, has tested positive for Covid-19, the K-pop supergroup's label said.

He has no symptoms as of Friday, and is currently doing the “at-home treatment” in accordance with the country’s health guidelines, the label, BIGHIT Music, said in a statement published on a global fan community platform called Weverse.

Suga took a PCR test Thursday after returning from the US and went into quarantine before the results were returned, per South Korean entry policies. Since getting tested, Suga has not been in contact with other members of the band, the statement said. South Korea mandates all international travelers, including Korean nationals, quarantine for ten days regardless of their vaccination status.

Suga's result returned positive on Friday morning. Suga is fully vaccinated, having received two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. He had tested negative before departing from the US. BIGHIT said it will provide full support for Suga’s speedy recovery while cooperating with the health authorities.

Grammy-nominated BTS is one world's most bands and boasts a loyal following of millions of fans from across the world. The group began touring in November after a two-year hiatus. Its members have been given a long vacation after finishing their scheduled events of "BTS Permission to Dance on Stage - LA" and the "2021 Jingle Ball Tour."