HEALTH

'No need for variant-specific booster' at this point, Dr. Anthony Fauci says; NFL contends with rising cases: Latest COVID-19 updates

The omicron variant compromises the effects of a two-dose vaccine, but boosters are a successful tool to quell the latest, fast-spreading COVID-19 threat, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday. 

"At this point there is no need for a variant-specific booster," Fauci said at a press briefing of the White House COVID Response Team.

Fauci's comments come as the nation struggles with a stubborn pandemic showing little sign of weakening. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, announced that hospitalizations averaged 7,800 per day, up 7.7% over the previous week, and that daily deaths averaged about 1,100 per day, an increase of about 5%.

Walensky said the omicron variant has now been reported in at least 36 states and 75 countries. Asked about recommendations for the holidays, she said Americans must be vigilant about masking in public and indoor settings in areas of high public transmission – now seen in about 90% of counties.

Fauci, Walensky and Jeff Zients, who heads the Biden administration effort, pressed their recurring theme of vaccination. Zients said the latest data shows unvaccinated Americans are eight times more likely to be hospitalized due to the coronavirus and 14 times more likely to die than vaccinated people.

Also in the news:

►A positive COVID-19 test among U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s traveling party has cut short his tour of Southeast Asia. A member of the press corps for what was to have been a trip to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand tested positive for the coronavirus on Wednesday in Malaysia.

►NFL teams are struggling as scores of players are placed on the league's COVID-19 reserve list. Among the most prominent ones: Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. He and five teammates were placed on the list Wednesday, bringing the team's total to 18 players.

►The United Kingdom reported 78,610 coronavirus cases Wednesday, its highest total of the pandemic by more than 10,000.

►Kroger will eliminate paid pandemic-related leave and charge $50 per month to employees who haven't gotten shots. The supermarket chain already offers a one-time $100 bonus to workers who get fully vaccinated.

►The U.S. has surpassed 800,000 coronavirus deaths. "There is no question that we will reach 1 million deaths sooner rather than later," said Robert Glatter, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

📈Today's numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 50.2 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 801,100 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 271.9 million cases and 5.3 million deaths. More than 202 million Americans — 61% of the population — are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC

📘What we're reading: Omicron is spreading "every place at once," experts say. What it could mean for holiday plans.

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A syringe is prepared with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday at the Keystone First Wellness Center in Chester, Pa.

Ruling blocking Biden vaccination mandate upheld by appeals court

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeal in New Orleans on Wednesday upheld a Louisiana federal judge's ruling that blocks President Joe Biden's COVID-19 vaccination mandate for health care workers in 14 states.

But the New Orleans court also ruled Louisiana Western District Judge Terry Doughty's nationwide injunction preventing the mandate applies only to the original 14 states that sued the government, noting other courts are considering similar cases in other states. An identical injunction has also been issued by Missouri U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp for 10 other states.

Doughty wrote the Biden administration doesn't have the authority to bypass Congress in issuing the vaccination requirement.

– Greg Hilburn, Lafayette Daily Advertiser 

Tips for minimizing virus risk at holiday gatherings

The emergence of the latest variant of the coronavirus, the fast-spreading omicron, has raised questions about the wisdom of holding or attending holiday gatherings, even among the vaccinated.

Though delta remains the dominant variant in the U.S. and is chiefly responsible for the current surge in cases and hospitalizations, omicron is making inroads and appears more capable of piercing vaccine-induced protection. 

Dr. Anne Rimoin, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, offers several tips for reducing virus risk at social events:

  • Take a multipronged approach based on vaccination, masks, testing and ventilation. "The most effective risk-reduction measure is to limit gatherings to individuals who are fully vaccinated and boosted,'' she said.
  • Keep the get-togethers small, and if possible hold them outdoors, where the virus is less likely to spread. If that's not feasible, open windows and doors to allow ventilation that may help dissipate the virus and reduce its infectiousness. If inside, keep households together and set tables a safe distance apart.
  • Any guests who are not feeling well should avoid attending a function. For extra  reassurance, guests and hosts could take rapid at-home tests, which are not as sensitive as PCR tests but provide quicker results and typically detect when someone is contagious.

Los Angeles schools delay COVID vaccine deadline for students

Faced with more than 30,0000 unvaccinated older students, the Los Angeles Unified School District pushed back the deadline for its COVID-19 vaccine mandate hours before California's universal indoor mask mandate in public settings went into effect Wednesday. 

The nation's second-largest school district had planned to shift unvaccinated students age 12 and older into its online school, City of Angels, on Jan. 10. But many worried about its ability to accommodate tens of thousands of new students at the start of the next semester, and the disruption it would cause for staff and children.

"Kids shouldn’t suffer because adults refuse to follow science," said Elmer Roldan, executive director of Communities in Schools of Los Angeles.

The school district's decision came hours before indoor masking became required for Californians in all public spaces Wednesday, regardless of vaccination status.

– Erin Richards, USA TODAY

Universities consider tighter restrictions with cases on the rise

Facing rising infections and a new COVID-19 variant, colleges across the U.S. are starting to require booster shots, extend mask mandates, limit social gatherings and even revert to online classes. Some schools that were hoping to relax safety measures this spring are telling students to prepare for another term of masking, testing and, if cases get bad, limits around social life. 

Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, reported 903 new student cases over the past week and moved final exams online. At Syracuse University, where officials had been “feeling pretty good” about the spring term, Chancellor Kent Syverud said omicron has changed that.

“It has made us go back and say, until we know more about this variant for sure, we’re going to have to reinstate some precautions," he said.

Some experts are 'reevaluating' holiday plans amid omicron outbreak

The omicron variant of COVID-19 is moving faster than surveillance systems can track it and has so unnerved some medical experts they're starting to put the brakes on preparations for their holiday gatherings

In some parts of the country there are hints omicron already accounts for about 15% of cases, said Jeremy Luban, a virus expert at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. 

Omicron has been moving “faster even than the most pessimistic among us thought that it was going to move," said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, an infectious disease expert at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"Personally, I'm reevaluating plans for the holidays," said Bronwyn MacInnis, director of pathogen genomic surveillance at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University. "It's the responsible thing to do and what feels right given the risk."

– Karen Weintraub and Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

Contributing: The Associated Press