2,000 flights delayed or canceled; hospitalizations up for kids but omicron may not be more severe: COVID-19 updates – USA TODAY

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More kids are being hospitalized with the coronavirus, but some experts say the omicron variant does not appear to be more severe in kids than previous strands. Instead, they blame the explosion in all cases and the delay in vaccination for young people since vaccines for them were released well after adults began getting jabs.
The Policylab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia reported in a blog post last week that nationwide there were 1.1 overall hospitalizations per 100,000 children – low compared to a typical flu season that can reach three to five patients per 100,000 children. Only Ohio and Missouri had a pediatric census exceeding three patients per 100,000 children, the Policylab reported.
The blog post added that the numbers will need to be closely monitored given omicron’s surge and an uptick in hospitalization numbers in all regions except the West.  
“The important story to tell here is that severity is way down and the risk for significant severe disease seems to be lower,” Dr. David Rubin, a researcher at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told The New York Times.
Also in the news:
►Chicago will host its largest New Year’s fireworks display in city history after canceling last year’s celebrations because of the coronavirus pandemic. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the COVID-conscious effort will include opportunities to watch the show outside or at home.
►An Arkansas judge on Wednesday struck down a state law that prevents schools and other governmental entities from requiring face masks.
►It’s too early to say whether a second booster, or fourth shot, will be needed to combat the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday. The Biden administration’s chief medical adviser said at a White House briefing that there is not enough data yet on whether the effect of the third shot is diminishing over time.
►National hospitalizations are rising in about half the states – and some are rising with alarming speed. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and South Carolina all rose more than 20% week-over-week. Louisiana admissions are up 107.5% week over week.
►The world saw more than 10 cases reported every second over the seven-day period that ended Tuesday. That’s a new record.
►An Australian lab said it has sent hundreds of patients the wrong COVID test results over the last few days, citing a “major increase in volume of tests” combined with a “simple data processing error.” Almost 900 people were told they tested negative when they actually tested positive, Sydpath said in a statement.
📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 53.1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 820,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 282.8 million cases and 5.4 million deaths. More than 205 million Americans – 61.9% –  are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC
📘 What we’re reading: Omicron could force many workers who test positive to quarantine under federal mandate, intensifying labor shortages.
Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY’s free Coronavirus Watch newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.
More than 4,000 flights have been either canceled or delayed across the nation so far on Wednesday. There have been more than 900 cancellations and 3,100 delays within, into and out of the U.S. as of Wednesday afternoon, according to FlightAware, which tracks the status of flights. Thousands of flights have been delayed or canceled over the past several days as airlines grapple with wicked weather across parts of the West and staffing shortages because of the latest surge in coronavirus infections. On Tuesday alone, almost 1,300 flights were canceled and over 7,400 were delayed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is monitoring or investigating 92 ships for COVID. Monitoring doesn’t mean there is a widespread COVID outbreak on board – just one case of COVID-like symptoms could prompt monitoring. But even with stringent vaccination, testing and masking, among other protocols, it is fairly common for cases of COVID to emerge among passengers and crew on cruise vessels. Read more here.
David Daigle, a spokesperson for the CDC, told USA TODAY the health agency acknowledges it is “not possible” for cruising to be a zero-risk activity amid the pandemic. A person’s chance at contracting COVID-19 is higher on cruise ships because the virus spreads more easily between people spending time in such close quarters.
Morgan Hines and Eve Chen
Omicron makes people sick faster than earlier variants, according to a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that confirms what many have already observed. Although most cases of omicron appear to be relatively mild, people generally get COVID-19 symptoms three days after being exposed to the virus, rather than about four days with delta and five or longer with the original virus, the study concludes. People are probably contagious sooner after exposure – and maybe even before they test positive for infection. Thus, Jacob Lemieux, an infectious disease expert at Massachusetts General Hospital, recommended holding off on parties for now.
“Look for a time in the future when it’s safer to do these things,” he said. “In a few weeks, the situation may be substantially better.”
Karen Weintraub and Ken Alltucker
Transgender adults are having a more difficult time than the overall population in getting adequate nourishment during the pandemic, according to a new study. The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law report found that transgender adults were three times as likely as other adults to face food insufficiency – defined as not having enough to eat in the last seven days – between July and October. The gap was even more severe for transgender people of color, who were six times as likely to experience food insufficiency as cisgender white adults.
“The fact that one out of four transgender adults didn’t have enough food to eat in the week prior to filling out the survey is a very sad fact,” said lead author Kerith J. Conron, Blachford-Cooper Research Director at the Williams Institute.
– Bill Keveney
More than 13,000 National Guard members have been activated in 48 states to support the COVID response from vaccinations and testing to clinical care and other tasks, White House COVID response coordinator Jeff Zients said Wednesday. Zients said more than 2,100 federal personnel have been assigned to help with testing and vaccinations in more than 30 states.  Ambulances, ventilators, masks and other critical supplies have also been dispensed.
“Our message to governors around the country is simple,” Zients said at a White House briefing. “If you need something, say something and we will mobilize quickly get you the resources you need.”
Green Bay Packers superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers sounded off on the NFL’s COVID protocols on Tuesday, saying the league has created a “two-class system” of the vaccinated vs. the unvaccinated. Rodgers called science “propaganda” if it can’t be questioned. Rodgers, speaking on “The Pat McAfee Show,” is not vaccinated and tested positive earlier this month. He said he was symptomatic for about 48 hours. The NFL has tighter restrictions on unvaccinated players, but Rodgers will essentially be exempt for 90 days since he has recovered from the coronavirus and thus has natural antibodies.
“What I don’t understand, though, it makes no sense to me to continue to spread this narrative that non-vaccinated players are more dangerous or (are) these superspreaders, which hasn’t been proven to be true,” Rodgers said. “I don’t understand this two-class system that exists in our league.” 
– Christopher Kuhagen, Packers News
The U.S. easily shattered a COVID-19 case count record Tuesday and has begun averaging more than 3 cases every second for the first time, Johns Hopkins University data shows. The country reported about 1.86 million cases in the seven-day period ending Tuesday, significantly above the record of 1.76 million set the week ending Jan. 11. America reported more than half a million cases on Monday alone, followed by more than a third of a million cases on Tuesday. And those counts could be artificially low because of disruptions from Christmas.
Case counts are up 75% from just a week earlier. America hasn’t seen that kind of increase during a surge since April 2020. At this pace the United States reports about 265,000 cases per day. Johns Hopkins University data shows that number is worse than more than 100 countries have reported during the entire pandemic.
– Mike Stucka
A federal judge in Oklahoma City has rejected Oklahoma’s request to block the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for National Guard members. Judge Stephen Friot, however, urged the Biden administration to give Guard members time to comply before taking action that could end military careers, saying non-compliant members “did not have the benefit of well-informed leadership.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt has argued that he is the commander in chief of National Guard members when they are on state duty and that he can shield them from the federal vaccination mandate. Stitt was the first governor known to contract COVID-19 when he experienced mild symptoms last summer.  
“The court is required to decide this case on the basis of federal law, not common sense,” Friot said. “But, either way, the result would be the same. The claims asserted by the governor and his co-plaintiffs are without merit.”
– Chris Casteel and Nolan Clay, Oklahoman
The number of global COVID-19 rose 11% last week compared with the previous week, with the biggest increase in the Americas, the World Health Organization said. The agency said in its weekly epidemiological report that there were nearly 5 million newly reported cases around the world from Dec. 20-26. More than half the increase in cases were in Europe, but the continent saw only a 3% week-to-week increase. Europe had the highest infection rate of any region, with 304.6 new cases per 100,000 residents.
The U.S. saw more than 1.18 million cases, a 34% increase. New cases in the Americas were up 39% to nearly 1.48 million, and the region had the second-highest infection rate with 144.4 new cases per 100,000 residents. Reported new cases in Africa were up 7% to nearly 275,000.
“The overall risk related to the new variant … omicron remains very high,” the report said.
Preliminary study results of some antigen tests using patient samples containing live virus suggest that the tests can detect the omicron variant but may have reduced sensitivity, the Food and Drug Administration says. Antigen tests – so-called rapid tests – are a maintstay of the pandemic battle because results can be available within minutes. PCR tests are generally more reliable but results can take days to obtain.
“The FDA will continue to collaborate with the National Institutes of Health …  to further evaluate the performance of antigen tests,” the FDA said in a statement. The FDA said the tests remain a valuable tool.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum and the National Museum of Asian Art (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery) won’t open Wednesday but are scheduled to reopen Monday, the Washington, D.C.-based agency said. The Smithsonian said in a statement that it has seen an increase in positive COVID cases and quarantines among staff. The closures of these four museums will allow the Smithsonian to reallocate staff and keep all other museums open, the statement said.
The nation’s capital has seen the largest increase in COVID-19 cases within the last week – cases have surged by 597% compared to the previous week.
“The Smithsonian strives to keep as many of our museums open to the public as possible without sacrificing the health and safety of our visitors and staff,” the statement said.
Two pieces of good news about omicron to take into the new year: It may not be around for long, and people who are fully vaccinated don’t need to worry, as long as they have a healthy immune system. Because omicron is so incredibly contagious, medical experts say its peak isn’t likely to last long.
It’s already burned through South Africa since it was first identified the day before Thanksgiving and cases are falling there. In the week ending Dec. 26, the number of newly diagnosed had dropped nearly 36% from their peak a week earlier, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.
If the Northeast, which has been battered by COVID-19’s omicron variant over the past two weeks, follows the same pattern, it could see falling case rates as soon as mid-January, though since the U.S. is so large, it’s likely to take time to move across the country, experts say.
The news is even better for people with the vaccine. Although two shots are not as protective against omicron as they were against previous variants, vaccination and boosting seem to make a big difference in people with a healthy immune system.
Karen Weintraub
Contributing: Mike Stucka, USA TODAY; The Associated Press


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