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Below: The FDA authorized booster shots for 12-to-15-year-olds, and coronavirus cases are spiking on Capitol Hill. But first:

Forecasters say omicron peak could come this month

The latest surge of coronavirus cases could peak as soon as this month while the highly contagious omicron variant speeds through the U.S. population.

That’s according to multiple infectious-disease experts, who create models forecasting the spread. The country has been hit hard and fast by the variant, though reports of omicron only emerged in November, and states are bracing for a rough few weeks as hospitals fill up and essential workers call out sick.  

  • “If it's not surging in your area, it likely will — and likely will soon. … It’s coming, and it’s coming fast,” said Justin Lessler, a University of North Carolina epidemiology professor who helps coordinate a separate coronavirus modeling hub.

The nation’s case count is already reaching record levels, as the omicron variant tears through the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic. 

Some southern states are experiencing the sharpest increases in cases and hospitalizations over the past week — places with lower immunization rates and fewer mask and vaccine mandates, our colleague Fenit Nirappil writes. As he notes, that’s created a different environment for the virus to spread, leaving health experts unsure whether outbreaks will wind up deadlier than in the North.

Forecasting the future

Everyone from beleaguered state officials to exhausted health-care workers wants to know when this new wave will subside. They hope the United States will mirror data out of South Africa, which showed a steep increase and then a quick descent in cases. 

One forecast from Columbia University researchers predicts cases could reach their highest levels the week of Jan. 9, and then decline from there. Another from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington School of Medicine estimates infections could top out in late January, though that will likely soon be updated to an even earlier date.

  • “It’s spreading much faster than we ever expected,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at IHME.

The caveat: Some health experts are quick to note the virus has proven itself to be unpredictable time and time again. 

As our colleague Joel Achenbach writes: “Forecasts of how the pandemic will play out have repeatedly been incorrect, to the point that some modelers have stopped trying to make caseload projections four weeks out, instead limiting their forecasts to one week ahead.” 

An important indicator

In conversations with health experts, they’ve repeatedly pointed to hospitalizations as the metric to track closely. It’s a sentiment echoed by both current and former health officials, like Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony S. Fauci, and Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner

  • “The real bottom line that you want to be concerned about is, are we getting protected by the vaccines from severe disease leading to hospitalization?” Fauci said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
  • Hospitalizations are a “much more useful indicator as we pivot to a virus that overall has been milder than previous strains that we've seen,” said David Rubin, who monitors coronavirus trends as the head of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Data on case counts and hospitalizations serve different purposes, some say. For state officials, infection rates are important to understand where the virus is spreading and the demographics of the populations most impacted. 

  • “I think from the epidemiological standpoint, case counts are important,” said Michael Fraser, CEO of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “But in terms of capacity and severity and acuity and ultimately number of deaths, I think hospitalizations is probably a better number.”

Coronavirus-related hospitalizations rose 27 percent in the last week, according to data tracked by The Post, though they often lag behind case counts. Early U.S. data and several international studies point to omicron being less severe — particularly for those vaccinated and boosted — but the sheer volume of new infections means covid-19 patients may still overwhelm hospitals. 

Some governors are already sounding the alarm, as they ready for what's likely to be a brutal next few weeks as the country enters Year 3 of its pandemic response. 

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D):

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R):

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D):

Coronavirus

The FDA authorized Pfizer-BioNTech boosters for 12-to-15-year-olds

The Food and Drug Administration on Jan. 3 authorized the use of a third dose of the Pfizer and BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds. (Reuters)

The FDA decision comes as many schools are reopening after the holidays amid a surge in cases driven by the omicron variant. Agency officials said the move to broaden access to boosters is the result of data showing that the shots significantly increase protection while posing minimal risk, The Post’s Laurie McGinley and Jacqueline Dupree report.

There's more: The FDA released new guidance allowing children ages 5 to 11 who have weakened immune systems to receive a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the only vaccine in the United States authorized for children or adolescents. The agency also shortened the timeline for getting a Pfizer booster shot to five months, instead of six months after completion of the two-dose regimen.

On tap Wednesday: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisers are expected to review the moves, with the agency director, Rochelle Walensky, expected to sign off as soon as that day.

Here's what else we're watching:

  • Facebook suspended Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) for one day for spreading misinformation about covid-19. The temporary suspension came one day after Twitter permanently suspended the lawmaker’s personal account, The Post’s Eugene Scott reports.
  • More than 3,000 flights were canceled yesterday as airlines grappled with winter weather and staffing shortages tied to surging coronavirus cases, per our colleague Lori Aratani.
  • The day ahead: Biden will meet with his coronavirus response team this afternoon to discuss the administration’s response to the omicron variant. He’ll get an update on resources and personnel being sent to states and communities to shore up hospital capacity. The president is set to deliver short remarks about these updates, according to a White House official.

On the Hill

Coronavirus cases skyrocket on Capitol Hill

Washington, D.C., is seeing record-high coronavirus cases, and the halls of Congress are no exception. The seven-day positivity rate at the Capitol’s testing center went from less than 1 percent to greater than 13 percent, according to a letter from the Office of the Attending Physician. 

The letter from Brian P. Monahan said most of the Hill cases are breakthrough infections, The Post’s Amy Wang reports. Testing on a limited number of samples found that the omicron variant accounted for 61 percent of positive cases, while delta accounted for 38 percent.

  • House and Senate offices should telework much as possible, Monahan wrote, and those on the Hill should upgrade their masks, using more protective KN95 or N95 masks instead of cloth or surgical masks.

GOP senators blast the Biden administration for the nation’s testing shortage

Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) are demanding answers from the Biden administration over the country’s testing crunch.

In a letter sent to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, the senators asked why the country continues to see long lines for PCR tests and a shortage of at-home rapid tests even after Congress appropriated tens of billions of dollars to help shore up the nation’s testing infrastructure.

  • “It does not appear to be because of lack of funding, but a more fundamental lack of strategy and a failure to anticipate future testing needs by the administration,” the lawmakers wrote. (Burr is the top Republican on the Senate HELP Committee, while Blunt is the ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee on health.)

The view from HHS: A spokesperson pushed back on the letter, telling The Health 202 the administration has obtained “a historic amount of funding” to bolster testing and increased testing access by bringing to market rapid, at-home tests and expanding testing sites for disadvantaged communities.

In the courts

Elizabeth Holmes found guilty on four counts in fraud case

A federal jury on Monday found Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes guilty of four of 11 charges in a landmark Silicon Valley fraud case. Holmes, the founder of the now-defunct blood-testing technology start-up Theranos, rocketed to fame nearly a decade ago as the head of a company that claimed it would revolutionize blood testing. 

But multiple media investigations and documentaries have found that the young entrepreneur misled investors into thinking that her technology worked better than it actually did. The jury’s verdict reinforces that finding, even as jurors acquitted Holmes on all counts involving patients, The Post’s Rachel Lerman, Nitasha Tiku and Faiz Siddiqui report. 

  • Holmes was found guilty on four counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud against investors. The jury was deadlocked on three other counts related to defrauding investors.

Cuomo won’t face charges in nursing home investigation

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has closed its probe into the Cuomo administration’s handling of nursing home data, a spokesperson for former New York governor Andrew Cuomo said Monday, NBC reports.

“I was told that after a thorough investigation — as we have said all along — there was no evidence to suggest that any laws were broken,” ​​Elkan Abramowitz, who served as outside counsel to Cuomo’s executive chamber, said in a statement.

Cuomo faced accusations that he downplayed the toll of the coronavirus on the state’s nursing homes by reportedly withholding data on nursing home residents who died of the virus while outside of the facilities, for instance in hospitals.

Sugar rush

Thanks for reading! See y'all tomorrow.