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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8:18 a.m. ET, December 24, 2021

Travel misery for Australians as dozens of flights canceled on Christmas Eve over Covid

From CNN's Lizzy Yee

Christmas travel plans for many Australians were thrown into chaos on Friday after dozens of domestic flights to and from Sydney were canceled.

At least 80 flights were affected, Sydney airport’s head of communications, Josh Clements, told CNN. 

The domestic airlines that fly to and from Sydney are Qantas, Jetstar, Virgin, and Rex.

Rex said none of their domestic flights have been canceled Friday.

A Jetstar spokesperson attributed the late cancellations to “a large number of our frontline team members” being "required to test and isolate as close contacts." Jeststar did not comment on the number of flights canceled. 

The airline apologized for impacting customers' travel plans and said they have rescheduled the majority of passengers onto later flights. 

A spokesperson for Virgin Airlines said one Virgin Australia flight was canceled on Friday, with other schedule changes made earlier in the week.

The airline apologized for the late schedule changes but assured "all guests" will arrive at their "final destination" by the end of Friday. 

A Qantas spokesperson said the airline rescheduled some of their domestic flights over the past two weeks in accordance with demand.

2:30 a.m. ET, December 24, 2021

South Korea reports record Covid-19 patients in ICU for third straight day

From CNN’s Gawon Bae in Seoul, South Korea

A health worker attends to a Covid-19 patient at an intensive care unit at Pyeongtaek Bagae Hospital in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea, on December 16.
A health worker attends to a Covid-19 patient at an intensive care unit at Pyeongtaek Bagae Hospital in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea, on December 16. (SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

South Korea reported a record number of critically ill Covid-19 patients for the third day in a row, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).

Some 1,084 patients were in the ICU as of Thursday, the KDCA said.  

Here's a rundown of South Korea's Covid outbreak:  

  • As of Thursday evening, the ICU bed occupancy rate in South Korea was 78.8%.
  • That leaves 285 beds available, according to Health Ministry data.
  • South Korea reported 6,233 new Covid-19 cases from Thursday, with a total of 596,209.
  • There are 262 cases of the Omicron variant recorded as of 12 a.m. local time Friday
  • Among them, 166 are locally transmitted, 96 imported. 
  • South Korea also reported 56 new Covid fatalities, bringing the national death toll to 5,071.
  • As of 12 a.m. local time Friday, 85.5% of the population have received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine and 82.3% of the population have had a second dose.
3:16 a.m. ET, December 24, 2021

Australia's Queensland reports record daily Covid-19 cases

From CNN's Lizzy Yee

Queensland's Chief Health Officer Dr John Gerrard speaks during a press conference on December 13, 2021 in Brisbane, Australia.
Queensland's Chief Health Officer Dr John Gerrard speaks during a press conference on December 13, 2021 in Brisbane, Australia. (Dan Peled/Getty Images)

Australia's Queensland state reported 589 new Covid-19 cases on Friday, its highest number of daily infections since the start of the pandemic. 

Cases have risen quickly in the state over the past week -- Queensland recorded just 86 infections on Tuesday.

Queensland’s Chief Health Officer John Gerrard said he was expecting Covid numbers “to grow very substantially” over the course of the next few weeks.
A “very small proportion of people” are getting sick, he said, but warned because of the contagious nature of Omicron, “there will be some strains on the hospitals."

Queensland reopened its borders on December 13 leading up to the holiday season.

According to Health Minister Yvette D’Ath, over 90% of Queenslanders have received their first dose of the Covid vaccine.

Meanwhile, the state of New South Wales reported 5,612 new daily cases on Friday, a slight dip from yesterday’s high of 5,715.

8:58 p.m. ET, December 23, 2021

The US FDA has authorized 2 antiviral pills to treat Covid-19. Here's what we know about them

From CNN's Jamie Gumbrecht, Amanda Sealy and Jacqueline Howard

The US Food and Drug Administration on Thursday authorized Merck's antiviral pill, molnupiravir, to treat Covid-19.

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.

An FDA news release said the pill is authorized "for the treatment of mild-to-moderate coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in adults with positive results of direct SARS-CoV-2 viral testing, and who are at high risk for progression to severe COVID-19, including hospitalization or death, and for whom alternative COVID-19 treatment options authorized by the FDA are not accessible or clinically appropriate."

Molnupiravir was narrowly recommended by the FDA's advisers in a 13-10 vote at the end of November after data showed it cut the risk of hospitalization or death by 30% among high-risk adults. This was lower than an earlier analysis suggesting that number could be about 50%.

Dr. Eliav Barr, senior vice president of global medical affairs at Merck, told CNN this month that he was optimistic this treatment would work against the Omicron variant.

"The Omicron variant is primarily different from the other types of Covid at the spike protein. Our drug works in completely different part of the virus. So we're very optimistic that the drug will continue to be effective against Omicron, and we're studying that right now."

Pfizer pill: On Wednesday, the FDA authorized Pfizer's antiviral pill, Paxlovid, to treat Covid-19, the first antiviral Covid-19 pill authorized in the US for ill people to take at home, before they get sick enough to be hospitalized. High-risk individuals age 12 and older who weigh at least 88 pounds and have a positive SARS-CoV-2 test are eligible for this treatment and will need to have it prescribed by a doctor.

The pill "should be initiated as soon as possible after diagnosis of Covid-19 and within five days of symptom onset," according to an FDA statement.

Read more about the treatments:

8:07 p.m. ET, December 23, 2021

A CNN medical analyst answers questions about Omicron and Covid-19 ahead of the holiday weekend

From CNN's Katia Hetter

As Omicron spreads rapidly throughout the United States, the new coronavirus variant has taken over from Delta as the dominant strain.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, warned on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that Americans should brace for a difficult few weeks ahead.

The Omicron variant is now the dominant strain of coronavirus in the US, accounting for over 73% of new cases last week, according to data posted Monday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With Christmas, New Year's, Kwanzaa and other winter holidays just around the corner, many people are wondering what they should do. Is it time to cancel holiday gatherings? How safe is it to travel? What additional precautions should be taken if you decide to go?

For guidance, I spoke with CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, who is an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She is also author of a new book, "Lifelines: A Doctor's Journey in the Fight for Public Health."

Read the full story:

8:19 a.m. ET, December 24, 2021

United and Delta cancel flights just before Christmas Eve

From CNN's Pete Muntean

At least two major airlines in the United States have canceled flights just before Christmas Eve.

On Thursday, United Airlines (UAL) said it had to "cancel some flights" because of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

"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 Friday flights, according to flight tracking site FlightAware.

United said 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."

Later Thursday night, Delta Air Lines (DAL) also canceled flights. The airline canceled 93 Christmas Eve flights, according to FlightAware. That's 4% of its total schedule.