December 29 coronavirus pandemic and Omicron variant news

By Rhea Mogul, Adam Renton, Tara John and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 1:01 AM ET, Thu December 30, 2021
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2:37 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

More than 20,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases reported in New Jersey

From CNN's Taylor Romine

Cars line up at a drive-through Covid-19 testing center in North Bergen, New Jersey, on December 22.
Cars line up at a drive-through Covid-19 testing center in North Bergen, New Jersey, on December 22. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

New Jersey has reported more than 20,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases on Tuesday, which is almost double the over 11,000 cases reported on Monday and a new record.

Tuesday's confirmed case count of 20,483 is the highest of the pandemic, beating out the previous high of 16,626 confirmed cases on Dec. 25, according to state data. The state's rate of transmission currently sits at 1.76. 

In addition to Tuesday's confirmed cases, the state also reported 6,590 probable cases through antigen testing. 

A little under 3,300 people were reported hospitalized Tuesday, which is about 10% higher than Monday.

2:00 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

Omicron is highly transmissible but may cause milder disease than Delta, Fauci says

From CNN's Maggie Fox

Indications are building that while the Omicron variant of coronavirus is very contagious, it may cause a milder course of disease than Delta does, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday. 

“We know now, incontrovertibly, that this is a highly, highly transmissible virus. We know that from the numbers we're seeing,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a White House Covid-19 briefing.

“And clearly, there is a degree of immune evasion, particularly against infection and, to some degree, against hospitalization,” he added.

Omicron can infect vaccinated people, though not as easily as it infects unvaccinated people, and certain monoclonal antibody treatments do not help against it.

“However, importantly, and the bottom line message here, is that boosters bring back up that degree of protection to a level that is approximately what it was before. So boosters are critical in getting our approach to Omicron to be optimal,” Fauci said.

Several studies from South Africa and the UK, as well as lab studies in animals, indicate that the Omicron variant may cause less severe disease, Fauci said. In Britain, the risk of hospitalization admission for Omicron was 40% that of the risk seen with Delta.

“In the United States, we are getting an accumulation of data,” Fauci added. “The spike in cases is out of proportion to the increase in hospitalization.”

He said that over 14 days in December, the US racked up a 126% increase in the number of cases but just an 11% increase in hospitalizations.

“Now, we must remember that hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators,” Fauci noted. “However, the pattern and disparity between cases and hospitalizations strongly suggest that there will be a lower hospitalization-to-case ratio when the situation becomes more clear. 

“So in conclusion, the data are encouraging but still in many respects preliminary,” Fauci noted. “But having said this, all indications point to a lesser severity of Omicron versus Delta. It is difficult to determine what degree of lessened severity is due to pre-existing immunity or the intrinsically lower virulence of Omicron — as suggested by the animal studies — or a combination of both.”

And the sheer numbers could still mean that, even with lower hospitalization rates for Omicron, the number of people infected could add up to more people in the hospital and a strain on the nation’s health care system, Fauci noted.

2:01 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

DC students and staff must show proof of negative Covid-19 test before return to school on Jan. 5

From CNN's Sarah Fortinsky

Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Wednesday that all public school students and staff will be required to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test result before returning from winter break Jan. 5.

Previously, Bowser had recommended tests for those returning to the classroom. 

Bowser said the city will likely need to transition to "situational learning throughout the semester, especially in the coming weeks," but added that "decisions about specific classrooms and grade levels within a school will be made on a case-by-case basis," based on staff availability and the percentage of students and staff in quarantine. 

1:50 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

UK Covid-19 infections hit new daily record with 183,037 additional cases

From CNN’s Mia Alberti

Shoppers on Oxford Street in London, on Monday, Dec. 27.
Shoppers on Oxford Street in London, on Monday, Dec. 27. (David Cliff/AP)

On Wednesday, the United Kingdom registered 183,037 new cases of Covid-19, a new record of daily infections, according to government data.

In the last seven days, the UK registered more than 900,000 new cases — a more than 41% increase compared to the previous week. 

The death rate remained low, compared to previous waves in the UK, at 0.9 fatalities per 100,000 people. 

There were 57 additional deaths reported Wednesday that were related to Covid-19.

1:26 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

Chicago vaccine requirement for restaurants and gyms will go into effect Monday

From CNN’s Carma Hassan

The city of Chicago will implement a vaccine requirement starting Monday, Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Acting Commissioner Ken Meyer announced Wednesday.

“As we've seen over the course of this holiday season, Covid-19 cases continued to rise. So in response, on Monday, January 3, the Chicago vaccine requirement will go into effect to slow the spread of Covid-19 and to help us continue our path to recovery,” Meyer said.

Anyone age five and up will be required to show proof of vaccination in order to dine indoors, visit gyms, or go to entertainment venues where food or drinks are being served.

Additionally, anyone over the age of 16 will need to show identification to compare with their vaccination card, Meyer said.

“The vaccine requirement is a collaborative effort that prioritizes the health of Chicagoans. This is a necessary and intentional policy, which in fact has already been placed voluntarily by many establishments in the hospitality and performing arts industry thus far,” Meyer said. “The new order will standardize health protocols across businesses and industries.”

12:58 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

CDC director outlines what the new quarantine and isolation recommendations mean for you

From CNN's Maggie Fox

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tried Wednesday to lay out what her agency’s new quarantine and isolation guidelines mean for individual Americans.

The CDC released new guidelines cutting in half the recommendations for how long people should isolate after being infected with Covid-19 and how long they should quarantine if exposed. Walensky tried to clarify these at a White House coronavirus update Wednesday and added simplified definitions.

“Let me walk you through exactly what these new recommendations mean for you. First, isolation refers to what you do when you have Covid-19, most likely diagnosed by a positive test. Isolation prevents those who are known to be infected from transmitting the virus to others,” she said.

“Quarantine, on the other hand, is different. This is what you do when you have been exposed to someone who has disease and are unsure if you yourself were infected. Quarantine prevents further spread of the virus in the time before someone may develop symptoms or from those who are asymptomatic from their infection,” she added.

“If you're infected with SARS-CoV-2, regardless of your vaccination status, you should isolate for five days. During periods of isolation, it's best for you to wear a mask around those in your household to avoid spreading the virus at home,” she said. “After five days, if you're asymptomatic or if your symptoms have largely resolved, you may leave isolation as long as you continue to wear a mask around others, even in the home, for an additional five days.”

Quarantine for people exposed to the virus depends on whether people are fully vaccinated or boosted.

“If you are boosted or have been vaccinated with your Pfizer or Moderna series in the past six months or your J&J shot in the past two months, no quarantine is needed. However, a mask must be worn for 10 days following your known exposure. And we also recommend getting a test on day five after your exposure,” Walensky said.

“If you're not vaccinated or you were vaccinated with your Pfizer or Moderna series over six months ago or with J&J over two months ago and have not yet received your booster, you should quarantine for five days following your last exposure. After five days, you should continue masking around others for an additional five days, and you should also get a test at day five,” she said.

“If it's not possible for you to quarantine, it is really important that you do the right thing and wear a mask at all times around others for 10 days after your exposure. Here, we also emphasize that you should get a test at day five. And if at any point you develop symptoms of Covid-19 during your quarantine period for your 10 days after exposure — like fevers, runny nose, a cough, headaches or body aches — you should get a test and isolate until your test results return. And of course, then isolate if your test returns positive.”

The CDC did not include many recommendations for using quick at-home tests because it’s not clear that they tell whether a person is likely to transmit the virus to others, Walensky said.

“On the other hand, we know that after five days, people are much less likely to transmit the virus and that masking further reduces that risk. And this is why people need to mask for five days after their five days of isolation. This science, as well as what we know about the protection provided by masking, vaccination and booster doses and about our testing programs, are all part of what informed our updated recommendations.”

12:57 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

UK health agency: Omicron variant now accounts for over 90% of all community Covid-19 cases in England

From CNN's Niamh Kennedy

The data shows the Omicron variant now accounts for more than 90% of community Covid-19 cases recorded in England, the UK's public health agency said in a tweet.

An additional 39,923 cases of the variant were recorded in the UK on Wednesday by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA). 

The London region has so far recorded the highest number of Omicron cases in England with a total of 45,245 cases. 

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson played down concerns regarding the threat of the variant during a visit to a vaccination center Wednesday, saying that Omicron is "obviously milder than Delta." 

Johnson attributed England's ability to "go ahead with New Year in the cautious way that we are,” to the high uptake of the booster vaccine. 

12:44 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

Italy sets a new daily record of Covid-19 infections, government data shows

From CNN’s Nicola Ruotolo

A medical staffer takes a nasal swab for a COVID-19 rapid test at a pharmacy in Rome, Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. 
A medical staffer takes a nasal swab for a COVID-19 rapid test at a pharmacy in Rome, Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.  (Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse/AP)

Italy announced Wednesday that there were at least 98,030 new Covid-19 infections over the past 24 hours, a new daily record for the country.

The number of dead from the virus grew by 136, according to data released by the health ministry.

12:41 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

Fauci to Americans: Cancel your large-scale New Year's Eve party "hugging and kissing"

From CNN's Betsy Klein

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 Monday, Dec. 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 Monday, Dec. 20. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Dr. Anthony Fauci warned Americans against attending large-scale New Year’s Eve celebrations this year, suggesting that people opt for smaller gatherings with vaccinated and boosted family and friends as the Omicron variant spreads across the country.

“If you were in a situation with a family setting, in your home, with family — parents, children, grandparents — and everyone is vaccinated and boosted, although the risk is never zero in anything, the risk is low enough that we feel you should continue to go through with those plans of having a home-related, vaccinated, boosted gathering with family and close friends who are also vaccinated and boosted,” the President’s top medical adviser told reporters during the White House’s Covid-19 response team briefing Wednesday.

But, Fauci added, “If your plans are to go to a 40-to-50 person New Year's Eve party with all the bells and whistles and everybody hugging and kissing and wishing each other a Happy New Year? I would strongly recommend that, this year, we do not do that.”