For anyone on the fence about whether to get a COVID-19 vaccine or a booster shot, the emergence of the omicron variant should provide ample motivation to seek the nearest vaccination site – right away.
That’s the key message from the White House COVID-19 response team, which on Tuesday sought to reassure Americans that the Biden administration is prepared to fend off the challenge from the latest coronavirus variant but needs the public to do its part.
“We have far more tools to fight the variant today than we had at this time last year,’’ said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those tools include expanded testing, a tenfold increase in genomic sequencing from earlier in the year and enhanced detection of virus spread through travel, but none are as powerful as the free vaccines that are readily available throughout the country. Only 63% of the eligible U.S. population, including 71% of adults, is fully vaccinated.
Omicron was first identified in South Africa last week and much remains unknown about it, including its ability to elude vaccine protection.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said it would likely take 2-4 weeks to learn that as well as other critical information about the variant, such as its level of transmissibility and the extent of illness it causes.
But Fauci said that, based on experience with other variants, the vaccines will probably be at least partially protective against omicron, especially for those who have received booster shots.
“There’s every reason to believe, as we talk about boosters, when you get a level (of antibodies) high enough, that you’re going to get at least some degree of cross protection, particularly against severe disease,’’ he said.
Like dozens of other nations, the U.S. is restricting entry from countries where omicron has been detected. The CDC has also expanded surveillance at four international airports – JFK in New York, Newark in New Jersey, San Francisco and Atlanta – and is working with airlines to enhance contact tracing.
Fauci said that as of Tuesday morning, 226 omicron cases had been confirmed in 20 countries, but not the U.S. yet, although he has noted the variant’s arrival is inevitable.
That further underscores the importance of enhancing defenses while the variant is at bay. Jeff Zients, coordinator of the response team, said free booster shots, which the CDC now recommends for all adults, are available at 80,000 locations across the country.
“More than 100 million adults are now eligible for a booster shot but have not gotten one,’’ Zients said. “Our message is simple: If you were fully vaccinated before June, go get a booster shot today. Getting boosted will give you the highest level of protection from COVID and this new variant.’’
Also in the news:
►NBA superstar LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, who said before the season he’s vaccinated against the coronavirus, entered the league’s COVID-19 protocols Tuesday and could miss several games.
►Lee Price III of Houston was sentenced to more than nine years in prison stemming from accusations that he used $1.6 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding on a Lamborghini, a Rolex watch and trips to strip clubs. Price, 30, pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering in September.
►China plans to donate 600 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccines to Africa, Chinese President Xi Jinping said. Another 400 million doses will also be supplied through other means, including from Chinese companies operating in Africa.
►The omicron variant will “bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control” for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Tuesday. But he said he was confident the games will be held.
►Greece announced Tuesday that it would mandate vaccination for all people 60 and older. Unvaccinated people will face a monthly 100 euro fine.
📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 48.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 779,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 262.6 million cases and 5.2 million deaths. Nearly 197 million Americans – roughly 59.3% of the population – are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
📘What we’re reading: How serious is omicron? Is it more transmissible than delta? It will take weeks to understand COVID-19 variant.
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A divided expert panel recommended Tuesday that the Food and Drug Administration grant emergency use authorization to a new pill from Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics that would be the first antiviral treatment for COVID-19.
The drug, molnupiravir, is intended to be used in unvaccinated people at risk for severe COVID-19 within five days of the start of symptoms.
The expert panel voted 13-10 in favor of the authorization, and although the FDA usually follows its recommendation, it doesn’t have to. Committee members said the drug should not be given during pregnancy if any other alternative exists.
An FDA analysis released last week found the pill was effective against the virus but identified several potential risks, including possible toxicity and birth defects.
— Karen Weintraub
A federal judge in Louisiana on Tuesday issued a preliminary injunction that blocked nationwide President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers, a ruling that amplifies a similar decision by a federal judge in Missouri the previous day.
Louisiana Western District U.S. Judge Terry Doughty ruled on the lawsuit led by Republican Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and joined by 13 other states, but Doughty added a nationwide injunction in his ruling. U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp also ruled against the vaccination requirement Monday in Missouri, but his decision only covered 10 states.
Doughty wrote the Biden administration doesn’t have the authority to bypass Congress in issuing the mandate, which was scheduled to go into effect next week.
— Greg Hilburn, Lafayette Daily Advertiser
While South Africa first alerted global health authorities to the omicron variant last week, Dutch health officials said Tuesday that they have found two omicron cases from before the alarm was raised, indicating the new variant was already spreading in parts of Europe.
Samples dated from Nov. 19 and Nov. 23 in the Netherlands were omicron variants, the country’s health officials said. South Africa reported the variant to the World Health Organization on Nov. 24.
France, Japan and Brazil also reported their first cases of the variant Tuesday. The United States has not yet reported a case, but presidential adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci has said, ”inevitably it will be here.”
It remains unclear exactly how transmissible or severe an omicron infection is, but the WHO said preliminary evidence raises the possibility the variant has mutations that could help it both evade an immune-system response and make it more transmissible. Many of the reported infections, however, were in college-aged people who tended to have milder cases, WHO said.
The majority of U.S. employers already have or will require their employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, a national survey conducted in mid-November found.
The survey from Willis Towers Watson, a global advisory, brokering and solutions firm, also found that just 3% of employers said their vaccination mandates have resulted in a spike in resignations. Nearly half of the employers surveyed believe the mandates could help recruit and retain employees.
President Joe Biden in November issued vaccination-or-testing requirements for companies with at least 100 employees, but businesses and several Republican governors and attorneys general have sued the administration over the rules.
– Craig Harris, USA TODAY
Most federal workers who failed to meet the Nov. 22 deadline to get vaccinated against the coronavirus will not risk being suspended or losing their jobs until next year, the Biden administration said in enforcement guidance Monday.
Instead, managers will continue “with robust education and counseling efforts through this holiday season as the first step in an enforcement process,” according to the guidance.
Ninety-two percent of federal workers received at least one dose of the vaccine by the deadline, the administration announced last week. The rest have either not complied with the president’s mandate or asked to be exempted for religious or medical reasons.
While some agencies may need to accelerate enforcement if there are workplace safety issues or performance problems, agencies were encouraged not to take actions beyond education, counseling or, at most, a letter of reprimand until January.
The next step after a letter is suspension for 14 days or less. Workers without an exemption who remain unvaccinated can ultimately be dismissed.
– Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY
Contributing: The Associated Press