The latest on coronavirus pandemic and Omicron variant

By Rhea Mogul, Adam Renton, Eliza Mackintosh, Melissa Macaya and Adrienne Vogt, CNN

Updated 6:58 p.m. ET, December 31, 2021
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5:04 p.m. ET, December 31, 2021

More than 30 colleges and universities changing the start of spring semester due to Covid-19

From CNN's Elizabeth Stuart

A general view of the Duke University Chapel on the campus of Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, in 2018.
A general view of the Duke University Chapel on the campus of Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, in 2018. (Lance King/Getty Images)

A growing number of colleges and universities are making changes to the beginning of the 2022 spring semester as a result of the surge in cases of Covid-19.

Duke University is extending its plan for remote classes by another week due to an "incredibly high" positive case count among faculty and students who are already in the area, the school announced on Friday.

The school previously announced that classes would be remote until Jan. 10. The policy applies to undergraduate, graduate and professional school classes, the school said.

Michigan State University said classes will start remotely on Jan. 10 and stay remote for three weeks, according to an announcement on Friday. Residence halls will still be open for students who wish to move back to campus.

"I realize that students prefer to be in person, and so do I," said university president Samuel Stanley, Jr. in his letter to students. "But it is important that we do so in a safe manner. Starting the semester remotely and de-densifying campus in the coming weeks can be a solution to slowing the spread of the virus."

Michigan State also said a decision will be made in the coming days as to whether booster shots will be required. Vaccination against Covid-19 is already required.

There are now more than 30 colleges and universities either moving classes online or pushing back the start of the semester entirely, including Columbia University, Princeton University, Harvard University, and Yale University.

CNN's Taylor Romine contributed to this report.

5:04 p.m. ET, December 31, 2021

Italy, Greece and France all end year with record Covid-19 cases

From CNN’s Mia Alberti

Police officers check compliance with the mandatory wearing of face masks, along the Champs-Elysees Avenue in Paris on New Year's Eve.
Police officers check compliance with the mandatory wearing of face masks, along the Champs-Elysees Avenue in Paris on New Year's Eve. (Julien De Rosa/AFP/Getty Images)

Italy, Greece and France have registered record-high numbers of new confirmed cases of Covid-19 on Friday.

France registered at least 232,200 new cases, the highest daily number registered across Europe since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data from the country's health ministry.

In Italy, at least 144,243 people tested positive for coronavirus, its highest number yet, bringing the total tally to more than six million cases. 

Greece recorded at least 40,560 new confirmed cases of Covid-19.

The death toll and hospitalizations remain relatively low in all countries compared to numbers from previous waves.


2:01 p.m. ET, December 31, 2021

Immunity wanes against Omicron variant with both Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, study finds

From CNN's Katherine Dillinger

A Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine is prepared for administration at a vaccination clinic on September 22, in Los Angeles.
A Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine is prepared for administration at a vaccination clinic on September 22, in Los Angeles. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Immunity wanes against the Omicron variant of the coronavirus with both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines – but not as much as it wanes after a natural infection, researchers reported Friday.

And they say their findings show the need for vaccines that specifically protect against Omicron.

Dr. Emilia Sordillo at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and colleagues tested the blood of people who had been vaccinated, or vaccinated and boosted with Moderna’s or Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccines, as well as the blood of people who had recovered from Covid-19.

Although the tests were done in lab dishes, the researchers said the experiment replicates real life conditions because they used live virus. They looked for what are known as neutralizing antibodies: immune system structures that can stick to the virus and stop it from infecting cells. “Across all 85 samples, the reduction in neutralization for Omicron was greater than 14.5 fold,” compared with the Beta variant and the original strain, they wrote. “In comparison, there was only a four-fold reduction against Beta in the same sample.

“In fact, 16.5% of samples lost all neutralizing activity against Omicron.” That included nearly three-quarters of blood samples from people who had recovered from infections.

“Our findings support recent reports describing significantly reduced protection from reinfection and almost non-existent vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic disease after two BNT162b2 (Pfizer) vaccinations,” they wrote. But people who got Pfizer boosters had protection “in the range of 75%,” they wrote.

They found no evidence that the Moderna vaccine provides stronger protection than Pfizer’s. The blood of people who got two doses of Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine produced antibody neutralization levels that were 23-fold lower against Omicron than against the original strain of the virus, and antibody levels from people who got Moderna’s vaccine were 42 times lower. For people who got booster doses, neutralization activity was 7.5 times lower for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and 16.7 times lower for Moderna’s.

In general, antibody protection correlates with real-life protection, but it doesn’t measure the long-term protection from severe disease and death provided by a slower-growing and longer-lasting type of protection: immune cells called T cells.

“We should remember that the relationship between measurable neutralizing antibodies and clinical course of infection is not a simple one. In general, antibodies are required to prevent initial infection; but cellular immunity – which may be maintained – is required to prevent serious illness,” Dr. Peter English, an expert in communicable disease control in the UK, said in a statement.

“Importantly, the study supports the view that a third dose of vaccine considerably improves the antibody response against Omicron infection,” added English, who was not involved in the study.

Dr. Julian Tang of the University of Leicester, who also was not involved in the study, also said T-cell responses are important for long-term protection against severe disease. 

“The bottom line is that boosting existing immunity (whether vaccine or naturally acquired) does help to protect against infection/reinfection to some degree – as well as boosting existing T-cell responses – all of which will help to protect us against Omicron. So getting these booster doses is important – especially if you are in one of the more vulnerable groups,” Tang said. 

1:01 p.m. ET, December 31, 2021

The US government is deploying medical and ambulance teams to NY to combat Omicron

Fom CNN's Kristina Sgueglia and Taylor Romine

The federal government is sending significant resources to New York to assist in combating the surge of the Omicron coronavirus variant, according to Jackie Bray, acting commissioner of the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Service.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will be deploying a 35-member disaster medical assistance team to State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, which will be on the ground next week, Bray said. 

There will also be a deployment of a 23-member Department of Defense medical response team to Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo shortly, Bray said. 

While 30 federal ambulance teams have been working in the upstate and central New York regions, Bray said the government would be sending 50 additional ambulance teams to New York City beginning in early January. The original teams will then travel further into the northern part of the state, she said. 

Bray also said the state is opening its stockpiles and sending medical equipment — including oxygen concentrators, tanks and BiPAP machines — to hospitals across the state. 

New York is also deploying 50 additional National Guard members to New York City to give support in "critical non-clinical functions," New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said Friday. 

There are already 50 National Guard members in New York City who are focusing on medical support, she said. 

The state is also preparing two classes of 40-guard members each to begin EMT training on Jan. 5 to eventually provide further help, she said.

1:31 p.m. ET, December 31, 2021

Texas asks federal government for more Covid-related resources

From CNN’s Gregory Lemos

Healthcare workers operate a Covid-19 drive-through testing site in Houston on December 30.
Healthcare workers operate a Covid-19 drive-through testing site in Houston on December 30. (Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday the state has formally requested more Covid-related resources from the federal government. 

"Detecting Covid-19 and preventing Covid-related hospitalizations are critical to our fight against this virus," the governor said in a news release. 

The state, through the Texas Division of Emergency Management and the Texas Department of State Health Services, has requested more federally supported testing sites, medical personnel and additional allocations of monoclonal antibody treatments.

12:46 p.m. ET, December 31, 2021

New York's mask or vaccine requirement for businesses extended until February

From CNN's Kristina Sgueglia

Shoppers browse the stores at the Brookfield Place indoor mall on December 27, in New York City.
Shoppers browse the stores at the Brookfield Place indoor mall on December 27, in New York City. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)

In reviewing her Covid-19 winter surge plan, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul extended the mandate for businesses in the state to have a masking or vaccine requirement until Feb. 1, she said Friday.

The previously planned end date was Jan. 15.

“We have seen the landscape change so dramatically,” Hochul said, adding that when the mandate was first instituted, the trajectory of the pandemic was “not what we’re seeing now.”

The governor said she is willing to reassess and hopes that the picture is more positive in February.

She said generally she has seen and heard about compliance across the state.

CNN's Taylor Romine contributed to this post.

11:39 a.m. ET, December 31, 2021

FAA warns it may be forced to delay flights because of Covid-19

From CNN's Greg Wallace

The US Federal Aviation Administration is warning more air travel headaches may be in store, even as airlines cancel thousands of flights because of coronavirus crew shortages and other issues.

The FAA said Friday an “increased number” of its own employees are testing positive for the virus. That could force it to implement health and cleaning procedures that reduce the number of flights the system can handle. 

“To maintain safety, traffic volume at some facilities could be reduced, which might result in delays during busy periods,” the FAA said.  

Airlines canceled more than 11,000 flights since Christmas Eve, including more than 1,000 already scrapped from Saturday and Sunday schedules. But none of those were the result of FAA issues, the agency said.  

The Transportation Security Administration told CNN on Thursday that it has "adequate staff to cover flight schedules and passenger volumes."

11:34 a.m. ET, December 31, 2021

New Year's Eve revelers go through vaccine and security checkpoints at Times Square

From CNN's David Williams

New Year Eve's revelers went through vaccine and security checkpoints at Times Square Friday morning – hours before the ball will drop to ring in the new year.

Ben Von Klemperer took these videos of the checkpoints. He said staff were checking people’s vaccine cards and identification cards before they were allowed to proceed to security.

11:34 a.m. ET, December 31, 2021

Risk of hospitalization from Omicron around one-third of Delta, UK analysis suggests

From CNN's Amy Cassidy

The risk of being hospitalized with the Omicron variant of coronavirus is around one-third of that of the Delta variant, a new analysis from the UK Health Security Agency suggests.

The technical briefing update published Friday includes data analyzed from Dec. 23-29, when more than 198,000 people in England had confirmed infections with the Omicron variant. 

According to the update, three doses of a Covid-19 vaccine reduced the risk of hospitalization with Omicron by 81% compared to unvaccinated cases. For those vaccinated with two doses, the risk is reduced by 65%. The report says 815 people with lab-confirmed Omicron infection had been admitted to hospitals in England.

However, the analysis also suggests: “Vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic disease with the Omicron variant is significantly lower than compared to the Delta variant and wanes rapidly.”

“Nevertheless, protection against hospitalisation is much greater than that against symptomatic disease, in particular after a booster dose, where vaccine effectiveness against hospitalisation is close to 90%," according to the analysis. 

“Further data is needed to estimate the duration of protection against hospitalisation. Experience with previous variants suggests that this will be sustained longer than protection against symptomatic disease,” it added.