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Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, said Tuesday that the omicron variant appears to cause less severe illness — although he cautioned that the available data remains preliminary and anecdotal.
But emerging evidence suggests it is more transmissible than previous variants, Fauci said. Meanwhile, a new laboratory study in South Africa shows the omicron variant has significant but not total ability to evade virus-fighting antibodies generated by the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
The omicron variant has now been detected in patients in 21 U.S. states, as total reported coronavirus cases in the United States marches toward 50 million. The country has tallied more than 787,000 covid-19 deaths.
Here’s what to know
Pfizer could have a new vaccine targeted at the omicron variant of the coronavirus in March if needed, the company’s CEO said Tuesday.
For much of her tenure as White House press secretary, Jen Psaki has gained fans in Democratic circles for her combative responses to questions they see as slanted (and oftenare), with her jousting partner often being Fox News.
But Psaki on Monday deployed some exasperated sarcasm at an odd — and perhaps revealing — time.
The pandemic has done a number on people’s everyday lives: Shutdowns meant many Americans stayed home for work; shattered routines kept people from school, or the gym or the doctor’s office; grief and loss exacerbated ongoing stress. That all may have contributed to a spike in blood pressure.
American adults’ blood pressure rose markedly in 2020 compared with the year before, according to a study published Monday in the journal Circulation. It was an increase observed across genders and age groups — though researchers found larger increases in women.
The study examined nearly 500,000 adults and their spouses or partners in the 50 states and D.C. who participated in an “employer-sponsored wellness program.” Starting around April 2020, when the spread of the coronavirus in the United States had prompted stay-at-home orders, there was a “significant increase in blood pressure amongst the population studied,” said lead author Luke Laffin, who is the co-director of the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders at the Cleveland Clinic.
Pfizer could have a new vaccine targeted at the omicron variant of the coronavirus in March, the company’s CEO said Tuesday, adding that it is not yet clear that it will be necessary.
Speaking at a Wall Street Journal conference of business leaders, CEO Albert Bourla emphasized that scientists are still gathering information on the variant, which experts worry could be more transmissible and more resistant to vaccines. The coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and German biotechnology company BioNTech was the first to get full authorization in the United States.
A new laboratory study in South Africa shows that the omicron variant has significant, but not total, ability to evade virus-fighting antibodies generated by the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The findings have not been peer reviewed. With omicron, researchers found a 41-fold drop in antibodies’ ability to block the virus compared to an early strain.
Early reports also suggest the omicron variant might lead to less severe disease, public health officials say, but they also underscore that more data will clarify the picture.
“I think that if there is a need for the vaccine, we will have a vaccine in March,” Bourla said. “I don’t know if there will be a need for a vaccine. We will know that in a few weeks.”
Sticking with the current vaccine would be “preferable, of course,” he said.
Carolyn Y. Johnson and Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.
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New York City expands vaccine mandate to all private-sector employers
New York City took a bold step Monday and announced a coronavirus vaccine mandate for all private employers as the city aims to fight the spread of the omicron variant, and after several cases among residents have been confirmed.
Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said Monday morning that he had decided to launch a “preemptive strike” and impose the aggressive measure, which he described as the first of its kind in the nation, to help reduce further spread of the virus “and the dangers it’s causing to all of us,” and prevent the city from being hit with another wave of infections ahead of the winter holidays.
“Omicron is here, and it looks like it’s very transmissible,” he said in an interview with MSNBC. “The timing is horrible with the winter months.”
The city will also extend vaccine requirements for indoor dining, fitness and entertainment to include children ages 5 to 11 and bumped up the vaccine requirement for adults from one to two doses starting Dec. 27.
The measures come as cases in the city continue to rise. Since Nov. 1, the seven-day average number of coronavirus cases has increased almost 60 percent, according to city data.
De Blasio implemented a vaccine mandate for all city workers in October.
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Judge blocks another Biden administration vaccine mandate
A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked a requirement that federal contractors get vaccinated against the coronavirus, dealing another legal setback to the Biden administration’s pandemic response.
Officials in seven states and a trade group had sought the injunction. Judge R. Stan Baker, a Donald Trump appointee, said the plaintiffs “will likely succeed” in their argument that President Biden exceeded his authority.
Baker acknowledged the pandemic’s “tragic toll” but wrote that “even in times of crisis this Court must preserve the rule of law and ensure that all branches of government act within the bounds of their constitutionally granted authorities.”
Biden’s executive order, signed in September, had argued that the vaccine mandate would “decrease worker absence, reduce labor costs, and improve the efficiency of contractors and subcontractors at sites where they are performing work for the Federal Government.” Many workplaces, especially hospitals, have adopted vaccine mandates of their own.
Judges have blocked several of the administration’s vaccination requirements nationwide.
Last week, a Trump appointee in Louisiana temporarily blocked a vaccine requirement for health-care workers at facilities with Medicare or Medicaid funding, saying an injunction would protect the “liberty interests of the unvaccinated.” A Trump appointee in Missouri previously halted the rule in 10 states.
Judges have also halted the administration’s mandate that companies with more than 100 employees require staff to either get vaccinated or get tested regularly for the coronavirus and wear masks.
“Rather than a delicately handled scalpel, the Mandate is a one-size fits-all sledgehammer that makes hardly any attempt to account for differences in workplaces (and workers) that have more than a little bearing on workers’ varying degrees of susceptibility to the supposedly ‘grave danger’ the Mandate purports to address,” members of a conservative federal appeals court in New Orleans said.
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Omicron may cause less severe illness, Fauci says, but more research is needed
The nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci, said Tuesday that the omicron variant appears to cause less severe illness — though he cautioned that the available data remains preliminary and anecdotal.
“Hopefully in the next few weeks, we’ll get a much clearer picture,” he said during a White House coronavirus task force briefing. “But it appears that with the cases that are seen, we are not seeing a very severe profile of disease. In fact, it might be — and I underscore might be — less severe as shown by the ratio of hospitalizations per number of new cases.”
The caveat, according to Fauci, is that the hospitalization ratios could be influenced by the fact that many of those in the hospital are young and stay for a shorter duration.
Severity is one of several key unanswered questions about the omicron variant, he said. Health officials are also studying its transmissibility and immune evasion. The evidence suggests it is more transmissible than previous variants, Fauci said.
As for immune evasion, a study out of South Africa found an increased propensity for reinfection among people infected with previous variants, he said. That suggests an evasion of immunity from other variants, though more evidence is needed.
Fauci said research is underway, with more information expected in the coming weeks.
Here’s what to know from news service reports about the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
European Union health ministers discussed measures to try to halt the spread of the omicron variant on Tuesday, with the Netherlands calling for negative tests for incoming travelers from outside the bloc and France urging tests even for those arriving from E.U. states, according to Reuters. In line with the United States and many other countries, E.U. members last month agreed to impose travel curbs on seven southern African nations after they reported several cases of the omicron variant, which is considered highly infectious. Despite widespread reports of the variant outside of those African countries, no minister at a regular meeting in Brussels suggested these restrictions should be lifted.
In Canada, coronavirus cases are on the rise across Ontario, the nation’s most populous province, because of the delta variant, but health officials are bracing for the omicron variant. “COVID will almost certainly rise through January, even before Omicron hits us in full force,” a provincial advisory body said. “We can’t predict Omicron precisely, but it will almost certainly hit us hard and fast.”
Swedenis reintroducing measures to curb rising coronavirus infections and is urging renewed social distancing and the use of masks in public transportation. Early in the battle with the virus, Sweden had some of the most lax regulations, but later issued more stringent measures.
In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told cabinet members that early indications suggest the omicron variant is more transmissible than the delta variant. “The prime minister said it was too early to draw conclusions on the characteristics of omicron but that early indications were that it was more transmissible than delta,” Johnson’s spokesman told reporters Tuesday.
In Germany, a prosecutor said a man killed his wife and three young children before taking his own life after authorities found that he faked a vaccination certificate. The man feared his children would be taken away from him when the forgery was discovered, the prosecutor said.
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U.S. launches new effort to expand access to vaccines worldwide
The United States is launching a new initiative to address global vaccine inequity, devoting an additional $400 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to try to help overcome access barriers around the world.
The effort, called the Initiative for Global Vaccine Access, or Global VAX, was announced Monday by the U.S. Agency for International Development. It will put $315 million toward vaccine delivery, including investing in the supply chain, supporting national vaccination campaigns and creating mobile clinics for rural and hard-to-reach populations.
Additionally, $75 million will be used to deliver lifesaving resources, such as oxygen, to covid hot spots, and $10 million will be used to support in-country vaccine manufacturing by offering training and planning assistance. Global VAX has a specific emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa, USAID said.
“Vaccinating the world is the best way to prevent future variants that could threaten the health of Americans and undermine our economic recovery,” the agency said in a news release. “As more vaccine supply flows to low and middle income countries, the United States and other donors must redouble efforts to help countries efficiently and effectively receive, distribute, and administer doses.”
While about 60 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, other countries lag far behind. African countries, for instance, have vaccinated just 6 percent of the continent’s population of 1.2 billion. The World Health Organization has repeatedly called on wealthy nations to support their smaller, poorer counterparts in vaccination efforts.
Global VAX joins previous U.S. efforts, including becoming the single largest donor to Covax, a World Health Organization-led global partnership to distribute vaccines to countries in need. The United States says it has shared more than 290 million vaccines with 110 countries — “amounting to more donations than all other countries combined,” according to the news release.
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Analysis: Republicans’ disregard for doctors on the coronavirus
Austria plans to lift its coronavirus lockdown this Sunday while keeping restrictions in place for the unvaccinated, Chancellor Karl Nehammer said Tuesday.
Austria shut down restaurants and closed hotels for tourists Nov. 22 in an effort to bring down rising coronavirus rates, as Europe became the center of a new wave of the virus.
Nehammer, who took office Monday after the sudden resignation of Sebastian Kurz, which prompted a government crisis, said at a news conference that “the lockdown for the unvaccinated is staying,” according to Reuters. Close to 68 percent of Austria’s population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to Our World in Data.
The country has had a tougher stance toward people who are not vaccinated. It is the first country in Europe to mandate coronavirus vaccination for all starting in February, and it had imposed a lockdown for the unvaccinated a week before the Nov. 22 containment measures.
CDC sees New York City anime convention as test case for omicron
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigators are taking an in-depth look at a New York City anime convention attended by a man who contracted one of the nation’s first confirmed cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Speaking Tuesday during a White House coronavirus task force briefing, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said the agency was working with health officials in New York City and Minnesota, the home state of the infected man. They have been in touch with health agencies in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and 27 other countries with residents who attended the convention.
Of the reported 53,000 attendees, they’ve made contact with about 35,000, encouraging them to get tested, Walensky said.
“Data from this investigation will provide some of the earliest looks in this country on the transmissibility of the variant,” she said.
The convention ran Nov. 18-22 at the Javits Center, with vaccination and masks required. Peter McGinn, the Minnesota man who was infected with omicron, told The Washington Post he had mild symptoms and some fatigue over about two days. Several friends who attended the convention with the 30-year-old health-care consultant also contracted the virus.
McGinn credited his Johnson & Johnson vaccine and Moderna booster shot with protecting him from more serious symptoms.
“I would recommend everyone, when they can, do get the booster,” he said.
Illinois lawmaker says unvaccinated should pay for covid-19 care
Unvaccinated hospital patients in Illinois would have to pay their own coronavirus medical bills out of pocket under proposed legislation. State Rep. Jonathan Carroll (D) filed his bill on Monday as the state struggles to contain covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
“A person who is eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and chooses not to be vaccinated shall pay for health care expenses out-of-pocket if the person becomes hospitalized because of COVID-19 symptoms,” the proposed bill says.
The proposal from Carroll, who represents Northbrook, Ill., a Chicago suburb, is almost certain to face political opposition and legal concerns, as federal laws prohibits insurers and employers from charging higher prices to patients with preexisting conditions. That also includes those diagnosed and treated for covid-19, according to healthcare.gov.
About 45 percent of Gen Z respondents said maintaining ties with friends was harder, and 40 percent said their romantic relationships had become more difficult. Fewer Americans in older age groups reported the same difficulties, and they were less likely to say the pandemic had disrupted their education or careers, according to the survey.
The total number of reported coronavirus cases in the United States marched toward 50 million Monday, a mark that looms as the virus approaches two years of being detected in the country.
By late Monday, the United States had tallied 49.3 million coronavirus cases since the first infection surfaced in January 2020, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. There have been more than 786,000 deaths, and new cases were increasing by more than 118,000 per day, according to a seven-day average of the numbers.
Few of the new cases are likely to be caused by the newly discovered omicron variant — about which scientists are racing to learn and collect data — but regardless of which strain is responsible, the overall trend here and abroad is alarming.