FDA authorizes new antiviral treatment, a Pfizer pill; Omicron variant projected to bring 'enormous surge': Latest COVID updates – USA TODAY

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The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday authorized use of a new antiviral pill that can be taken at home to help prevent people sick with COVID-19 from becoming severely ill.
Paxlovid, made by Pfizer, reduced the risk of severe disease by nearly 90% in clinical trials and appeared to be safe. Taken as a pill soon after COVID-19 symptoms start, it is intended for people at high risk for severe disease, including those over 65, people with obesity or diabetes and anyone with a weakened immune system, as well as high-risk children ages 12 and up.
On Wednesday, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said the U.S. government has purchased 10 million treatment courses of Paxlovid, with 265,000 set to be available to Americans in January. The pills take 6-8 months to produce, according to Pfizer.
“The Pfizer team has very promising and now authorized treatment. A pill that dramatically reduces the risk of hospitalizations and death for those at risk,” Zients said.
The pill is easier to deliver than previous treatments, which had to be given by injection or infusion, but requires a prescription and swallowing dozens of pills over 5 days. The drug works best when given within 5 days of symptom onset and not well at all after 7 days, studies show. Some hospitals and pharmacies are working to reduce the time between a positive test, receipt of a prescription and access to the pills.
The antiviral became more important in recent days as the omicron variant took over from delta. The two most used monoclonal antibodies, which also help prevent people from becoming severely ill, are not expected to be effective against omicron, though a third, sotrovimab from GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology, continues to be useful.
– Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY
Also in the news:
► Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, announced on Twitter that he has tested positive for a “breakthrough case” of COVID-19. The 81-year-old South Carolina congressman is fully vaccinated and received his booster shot in September.
► The Supreme Court announced Wednesday it will hear oral arguments in a number of challenges to President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine-or-testing requirements for large employers and health care facilities. 
► The United States is once again reporting more than 1 million cases per week, Johns Hopkins University data shows. The country hadn’t been above that mark in three months, while the delta variant was ravaging some states.
► New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico all set records Tuesday for their surging COVID-19 case counts. In the week ending Tuesday, cases in Washington were 9.3 times what the CDC says is a high level of community transmission. In New York they were 7.1, New Jersey, 5.7, and Puerto Rico, 2.5, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data show.
Washington, D.C. will require proof of vaccination at restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters and sports venues starting Jan. 15, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Wednesday.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday extended the freeze on federal student loan payments until May 1, citing the continuing impact of the pandemic.
►Dr. Anthony Fauci on Wednesday cautioned vaccinated Americans against attending large holiday parties and events with people whose vaccination status is unknown. Smaller gatherings with vaccinated individuals are a safer alternative, he said.
In Wales, groups gathering in pubs, restaurants and movie theaters will be limited to six people beginning Dec. 26, the BBC reported.
► China on Wednesday ordered the lockdown of as many as 13 million people in neighborhoods and workplaces in the northern city of Xi’an following a spike in cases.
► California will require health care workers to receive a COVID-19 booster shot, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday, pledging to make sure hospitals are prepared as a new version of the disease begins to spread throughout the state.
📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 51.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 812,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 277 million cases and 5.3 million deaths. More than 204.5 million Americans – 61.6% –  are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC
📘 What we’re reading: Alicia Carrasco, a Latina doctor, wanted to spark trust in the COVID vaccines. So, she enrolled her babies in a clinical trial.
Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY’s Coronavirus Watch free newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.
Researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine recently revised its COVID-19 modeling to include updated information about the omicron variant.
They found the U.S. may see a total of about 140 million new infections from Jan. 1 to March 1, 2022, peaking in late-January at about 2.8 million new daily infections. The country has only reported about 51 million confirmed cases since the pandemic began, according to Johns Hopkins data.
“We are expecting an enormous surge in infections … so, an enormous spread of omicron,” IHME director Dr. Chris Murray said Wednesday. “Total infections in the U.S. we forecast are going from about 40% of the U.S. having been infected so far, to having in the next 2 to 3 months, 60% of the U.S. getting infected with omicron.”
While meta-analyses have suggested previous variants cause about 40% of cases to be asymptomatic, Murray said more than 90% of people infected with omicron may never show symptoms.
Outside the U.S., models show the world may see approximately 3 billion new infections in the next two months with peak transmission occurring in mid-January at more than 35 million new cases per day.
– Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said she expects an update “soon” on the agency’s guidelines for isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.
Walensky was asked about the current 10-day isolation guideline, which includes vaccinated and boosted people who test positive, while appearing on “CBS Mornings” on Wednesday.
“We’re actively examining those data now and doing some modeling analyses to assess that and we anticipate that we’ll have some updates soon,” she said.
Speaking Wednesday, Walensky said she still advises people to take an at-home COVID-19 test before gathering with family and friends for upcoming holidays.
In the United Kingdom, isolation guidelines were cut from 10 to seven days if a person tests negative twice after their initial positive test.
With COVID cases surging and games being postponed, the NHL and its players association said Wednesday that they were pulling out of the Beijing Olympics.
When the NHL reached the agreement on the 2022 Winter Games to send its players, it said it would depend on whether the COVID-19 situation would create so many postponements that the league would need to use the Feb. 6-22 Olympic break in order to reschedule games.
That happened in recent weeks as COVID-19 cases soared. On Sunday, the league postponed all cross-border games through the Christmas break (Dec. 24-26). On Monday, it decided to start its Christmas break two days early. 
– Mike Brehm, USA TODAY
South Africa’s noticeable drop in new COVID-19 cases in recent days may signal that the country’s dramatic omicron-driven surge has passed its peak, medical experts say.
Daily virus case counts are notoriously unreliable, as they can be affected by uneven testing, reporting delays and other fluctuations. But they are offering one tantalizing hint – far from conclusive yet – that omicron infections may recede quickly after a ferocious spike.
After hitting a high of nearly 27,000 new cases nationwide on Thursday, the numbers dropped to about 15,424 on Tuesday. In Gauteng province – South Africa’s most populous with 16 million people, including the largest city, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria – the decrease started earlier and has continued.
“The drop in new cases nationally combined with the sustained drop in new cases seen here in Gauteng province, which for weeks has been the center of this wave, indicates that we are past the peak,” said Marta Nunes, senior researcher at the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics department of the University of Witwatersrand.
As millions of people seek coronavirus tests before holiday trips to see family and friends, they are encountering familiar challenges of the pandemic – long testing lines and stores often sold out of home tests.
Experts who track testing say the nation’s supply remains uneven 20 months into the pandemic, and the testing shortage comes as the fast-spreading omicron variant accounts for about 3 out of every 4 new COVID-19 cases.
“Testing, in particular, is perhaps the most critical public health tool to support our vaccine efforts to limit transmission,” said Dr. Michael Mina, an infectious disease expert and former Harvard professor. “Testing is our eyes on this virus and if we can’t see it, then we’re flying blind.”
Need to get a test before traveling? While rapid antigen tests are less sensitive – meaning they are slightly less likely to detect the virus when compared to PCR tests – advocates say they are accurate enough to detect the virus when a person is infectious and likely to pass it to others. Read more here.
– Ken Alltucker, USA TODAY
Nearly 1 million more Americans have died in 2020 and 2021 than in normal, pre-pandemic years, but about 800,000 deaths have been officially attributed to COVID-19, according to the CDC data. A majority of those additional 195,000 deaths are unidentified COVID-19 cases, public health experts have long suggested, pointing to the unusual increase in deaths from natural causes. 
An investigation by Documenting COVID-19, the USA TODAY Network and experts reveals why so many deaths have gone uncounted: After overwhelming the nation’s health care system, the coronavirus evaded its antiquated, decentralized system of investigating and recording deaths.
Short-staffed, undertrained and overworked coroners and medical examiners took families at their word when they called to report the death of a relative at home. Coroners and medical examiners didn’t review medical histories or order tests to look for COVID-19. They and even some physicians attributed deaths to inaccurate and nonspecific causes that are meaningless to pathologists. In some cases, stringent rules for attributing a death to COVID-19 created obstacles for relatives of the deceased and contradicted CDC guidance.
“Our death investigation system urgently needs both oversight and standardization of training and procedures,” said Andrew Stokes, a professor in the Department of Global Health at the Boston University School of Public Health. “It’s hampered our ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and leaves us unprepared for future public health emergencies.” Read more here.
– The Documenting COVID-19 project and USA TODAY Network
Contributing: Mike Stucka, USA TODAY; The Associated Press


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