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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12:27 p.m. ET, December 29, 2021

White House outlines federal support to ramp up Covid-19 testing and treatment across the US

From CNN's Betsy Klein

People wait in line at a testing site to receive a free COVID-19 PCR test in Farragut Square on December 28, 2021 in Washington, DC.
People wait in line at a testing site to receive a free COVID-19 PCR test in Farragut Square on December 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients offered some new details on federal support for Covid-19 testing and treatment across the country during a briefing Wednesday. 

The Biden administration’s Covid-19 response team, Zients said, has been working “hand-in-hand with governors and local health officials across the country to assess and address needs on the ground,” something President Biden reiterated to the nation’s governors earlier this week.

“Our message for governors around the country is simple: if you need something, say something and we will mobilize quickly to get you the resources you need,” Zients added.

In New York, he said, 60 FEMA medical personnel and 30 ambulances arrived last week to help transport patients to hospitals around the states. FEMA has also established nine federally-run testing sites in New York City, with three more opening Sunday.

In Arizona, 20 FEMA paramedics began providing clinical support starting Dec. 24, with 40 more personnel arriving next week to assist with treatment in Maricopa and Pima counties and tribal communities. 

In Indiana, Zients said, 23 military medical personnel started their mission on Christmas Day at University Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.

In New Mexico, 15 medical personnel from the US Public Health Services Commissioned Corps arrived Monday to provide surge support in Indian country, with 15 ventilators being sent to the state Wednesday and 12 federal personnel arriving next week to assist with vaccinations.

A 23-person military medical team starts supporting Belen Hospital in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Friday.

A federally-run free testing site will open in New Jersey on New Year’s Day, with additional testing sites opening in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, in the “next several days.”

Additionally, he added, 1 million gloves, 342,000 masks, respirators, and face shields, and 40,000 gowns have been shipped to states “in the past couple of weeks alone.”

“We’ve been working around the clock to surge reinforcements to communities as they battle Omicron, helping to staff hospitals, administer monoclonal antibody treatments, transport patients, add testing capacity, and get more PPE to where it is needed, and you’ll see us continue to act aggressively to address the communities’ needs in the days and weeks ahead,” Zients said.

11:30 a.m. ET, December 29, 2021

Spain reduces quarantine for those who test positive for Covid-19 to 7 days

From CNN's Al Goodman in Madrid

The President of the Government, Pedro Sanchez, presents the accountability report of the Government of Spain for 2021, 'Cumpliendo', at La Moncloa, on 29 December, 2021 Madrid, Spain.
The President of the Government, Pedro Sanchez, presents the accountability report of the Government of Spain for 2021, 'Cumpliendo', at La Moncloa, on 29 December, 2021 Madrid, Spain. (Eduardo Parra/Europa Press/Getty Images)

The Spanish government has reduced the quarantine time for people who tested positive for Covid-19 from 10 to seven days, the country’s health ministry said Wednesday. 

The duration of quarantine for unvaccinated people who were in close contact with positive cases is also reduced to seven days, the ministry said in a statement.  

The government has not clarified when the new isolation requirements will be in place. 

Ahead of the announcement, during his traditional end-of-year speech in Madrid, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said this decision would be “very important to many citizens.”

Spain's Health Minister met with the health department chiefs from the regional governments Wednesday afternoon to discuss details.

11:16 a.m. ET, December 29, 2021

German health minister warns of danger of real incidence rate due to holiday under-reporting of cases

From CNN's Chris Stern in Berlin

Karl Lauterbach (SPD), Federal Minister of Health, speaks during a press conference on the current Corona situation on 22 December 2021 in Berlin, Germany
Karl Lauterbach (SPD), Federal Minister of Health, speaks during a press conference on the current Corona situation on 22 December 2021 in Berlin, Germany (Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance/Getty Images)

The true seven-day incidence rate of Covid-19 infections in Germany is two to three times higher than reported in current statistics, according to Health Minister Karl Lauterbach. 

Because of the holidays, there is currently a "significant under-reporting" of Covid-19 infections, Lauterbach said.

"The incidence currently reported underestimates the danger we are in," the minister warned, adding that he expects a significant increase in the Omicron variant cases within a few weeks.

11:20 a.m. ET, December 29, 2021

Former Finnish president tests positive for coronavirus

From CNN's Stephanie Halasz

In this file photo dated Feb. 16, 2016, former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari at luncheon for political journalists in Helsinki, Finland. Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president, UN diplomat and recipient of the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize, has tested positive with the coronavirus.
In this file photo dated Feb. 16, 2016, former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari at luncheon for political journalists in Helsinki, Finland. Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president, UN diplomat and recipient of the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize, has tested positive with the coronavirus. ((Roni Rekomaa/Lehtikuvaa/AP)

Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari has tested positive for coronavirus, his office said in a statement, adding that he is staying in a hospital. 

“President Ahtisaari is doing well under the circumstances, but stays at the hospital for the time being. He tested positive for coronavirus also in March 2020,” his office said.

Ahtisaari, 84, was Finland's president from 1994 to 2000 and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008.

10:55 a.m. ET, December 29, 2021

CDC director outlines "areas of science" agency considered to shorten recommended Covid-19 isolation

From CNN's Naomi Thomas

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on CNN’s New Day Wednesday the decision to shorten the isolation period for those with asymptomatic Covid-19 infection was driven by evidence around transmission and what isolation protocol people “would be able to tolerate.”

“We looked at several areas of science here,” Walensky said when asked how the CDC settled on five days of isolation for everyone. “First, the science of how much transmission happens in the period of time after you’re infected. We know that the most amount of transmission occurs in those one to two days before you develop symptoms, those two to three days after you develop symptoms. And if you map that out, those five days account for somewhere between 85 to 90% of all transmission that occurs.”

CDC “really wanted to make sure” that the first five days were spent in isolation, Walensky said, adding that they were asking people to mask in the last five days. 

They also looked at epidemiology, she said, and they are seeing and expecting even more cases of Omicron, many of which were mildly or asymptomatic. 

Finally, they looked at behavioral science, “what will people actually do when people need to get back to work? What is it that they will actually do? And if we can get them to isolate, we do want to make sure that they’re isolating in those first five days when they’re maximally infectious.” 

Asked if the decision had as much to do with business as with science, Walensky said “it really had a lot to do with what we thought people would be able to tolerate.” 

There have been relatively low rates of isolation throughout the pandemic, she said, adding “some science has demonstrated less than a third of people are isolating when they need to.” 

“We really want to make sure that we had guidance in this moment where we were going to have a lot of disease that could be adhered to, that people were willing to adhere to. And that spoke specifically to when people were maximally infectious. So it really spoke to both behaviors as well as what people were able to do,” she said.

Walensky also said that the old 10 day guidance was “conservative,” when asked why they didn’t make the change sooner. 

“But, in the context of the fact that we were going to have so many more cases, many of those would be asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, people would feel well enough to be at work, they would not necessarily tolerate being home and that they may not comply with being home,” she said. “This was the moment that we needed to make that decision and those changes.”

 

10:03 a.m. ET, December 29, 2021

CDC director: If you have Covid-19 symptoms and a negative rapid test, get a PCR test

From CNN’s Naomi Thomas

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, appears on ABC’s Good Morning America Wednesday 29 December 2021
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, appears on ABC’s Good Morning America Wednesday 29 December 2021 (ABC)

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, advised people who may have coronavirus symptoms to get a PCR test if they get a negative antigen test.

“We do know that the most sensitive test that you can do is a PCR test, so if you have symptoms and you have a negative antigen test, then we do ask you to go and get a PCR to make sure that those symptoms are not attributable to Covid," she said on ABC’s Good Morning America Wednesday.

"Antigen tests still work quite well, and they work well especially in places that we're using them, like in higher education, in test to stay in schools where we’re doing several tests, one every other day, every third day, and that’s really when they work well as well. So, we still are encouraging their use, they may not work as well as they had for the Delta variant,” Walensky continued.

On Monday, the CDC shortened the recommended times that people should isolate when they've tested positive for Covid-19 from 10 days to five days if they don't have symptoms – and if they wear a mask around others for at least five more days.

The CDC also shortened the recommended time for people to quarantine if they are exposed to the virus to a similar five days if they are vaccinated. People who are fully vaccinated and boosted may not need to quarantine at all, the CDC said.

Walensky reiterated the agency's stance that kids "can safely return to school" as long as they are testing for Covid-19 regularly.

“Our recommendations are true for both adults and for children. We do have really clear science now on a test to stay strategy, that if children are exposed, they can safely return to school, as long as they're getting a test every day, every other day, every third day. And we've demonstrated over the last month, new science that demonstrates that’s a very safe way to keep our children in school and that's really our goal. Of course, the most important thing we can do to keep our children safe is to get them vaccinated,” Walensky said.
9:52 a.m. ET, December 29, 2021

Greece brings new Covid-19 restrictions forward, bans music at entertainment venues

From CNN’s Chris Liakos

People wearing face masks as a protection against coronavirus (Covid-19) walk at Monastiraki square in the center of Athens, on December 29, 2021
People wearing face masks as a protection against coronavirus (Covid-19) walk at Monastiraki square in the center of Athens, on December 29, 2021 (Photo by Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Greece is bringing forward restrictions that were due to take effect on Jan. 3 in an effort to curb the spread of the Omicron variant which has become dominant across the country.

Greece registered 21,657 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday – its highest daily record since the start of the pandemic.

Health Minister Thanos Plevris announced in a news conference that the new restrictions will instead take effect tomorrow at 6 a.m. local.

The measures include the closure of hospitality and entertainment venues at midnight, a ban on standing customers and a maximum limit of six people per table, reduced sports venue capacity and the reintroduction of 50% remote working for public and private sectors.

Plevris added that music will also be banned in entertainment venues. 

9:44 a.m. ET, December 29, 2021

Omicron cases are doubling every 2 to 3 days, French health minister says

From CNN's Joseph Ataman in Paris

France's Prime Minister Jean Castex (C) and France's Health Minister Olivier Veran (L) speak with health workers as they visit the resuscitation unit of the Intercommunal hospital of Creteil, outside Paris, on December 28, 2021. - France reported on December 25 over 100,000 daily Covid cases, a record since the pandemic erupted nearly two years ago, with many experts warning the number would rapidly increase over the coming weeks.
France's Prime Minister Jean Castex (C) and France's Health Minister Olivier Veran (L) speak with health workers as they visit the resuscitation unit of the Intercommunal hospital of Creteil, outside Paris, on December 28, 2021. - France reported on December 25 over 100,000 daily Covid cases, a record since the pandemic erupted nearly two years ago, with many experts warning the number would rapidly increase over the coming weeks. (Stephane Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images)

Omicron variant cases are doubling every two to three days, French Health Minister Olivier Veran told a parliamentary health commission in Paris Wednesday.

Veran also told French lawmakers that his European colleagues are also seeing a similar trend.

To curb the spread of Omicron, the French government will require a vaccine pass that will to come into force from Jan. 15 in restaurants as well as in some of the country’s public transportation and proof of vaccination will be required.

Hospitals and elderly care homes will just be governed by the current health pass.

Earlier, the French health minister said France has seen 208,000 cases in the last 24 hours. Every second more than two French people test positive, he noted.

“We are seeing numbers that give you vertigo," Veran said.

“Delta has not had its final word,” he said.

The official said about the unvaccinated, there was “very little chance this time you’ll be able to slip through the net,” when it comes to getting infected.

He said at least one million people were infected at this point.

9:26 a.m. ET, December 29, 2021

You can still get infected with the Omicron variant if you've previously had Covid-19

From CNN's Holly Yan

CNN readers from around the world have asked more than 150,000 questions (and counting) about coronavirus. One of those questions was if people who have previously had Covid-19 can still get infected with the Omicron variant. The answer is yes.

In fact, the first confirmed Omicron-related death in the US was a man who previously had Covid-19.

The Texas man, in his 50s, had not been vaccinated, Harris County health officials said.

For months, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said vaccines give stronger protection against Covid-19 than previous infection alone.

“If you have had Covid-19 before, please still get vaccinated,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in August, citing research published during a Delta variant surge. “This study shows you are twice as likely to get infected again if you are unvaccinated.”

With the new Omicron variant, the risk of getting reinfected is 5.4 times higher with Omicron than it was with Delta, according to a team of disease modelers at Imperial College London.

“This suggests relatively low remaining levels of immunity from prior infection,” the team wrote in a December report.

Health experts say the best way to help protect against the Omicron variant is to get vaccinated and boosted.