Omicron causes more reinfections, study finds; NYC to impose vaccine mandate on private sector employers: COVID-19 updates – USA TODAY

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A vaccine mandate for private-sector workers across New York City will take effect this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday.
The expansion of de Blasio’s “Key to NYC” vaccination program, effective Dec. 27, will cover 184,000 businesses, he said. Vaccinations are already required for hospital and nursing home workers – and city employees including teachers, police officers and firefighters. A vaccination mandate for employees of private and religious schools was announced last week.
The mayor announced a series of other new requirements, including an order that 5-to 11-year-old children get vaccinated to participate in extracurricular activities such as sports, band, orchestra and dance. The requirement for the initial vaccine dose will take effect on Dec. 14.
“Vaccination is the way out of this pandemic, and these are bold, first-in-the-nation measures to encourage New Yorkers to keep themselves and their communities safe,” de Blasio said in a statement. “No place in the nation has done more to end the COVID era. And, if you have not taken this step yet, there’s no better day than today to stand up for your city.”
Almost 6.5 million New Yorkers – including 89% of adults – have received at least one vaccine dose, the city says.
Also in the news:
France and Portugal, two European destinations popular with American tourists, have been placed on the CDC’s list of countries to which travel is not advised because of “very high level of COVID-19.”
►The omicron variant has spread through several regions of England and cases have been detected “with no links to international travel,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid said.
►Seven additional COVID-19 cases have been identified on a Norwegian Cruise Lines ship that disembarked in New Orleans on Sunday. Ten people aboard Breakaway had tested positive before the ship arrived.
►Japan confirmed on Monday its third case of the new omicron variant, a traveler entering from Italy. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida vowed to take strict measures based on a worst-case scenario of a possible resurgence of infections.
►Delaware saw the highest number of new daily COVID-19 cases since January last week. Recently, state officials warned residents to be cautious again as the state sees an uptick in cases and the country reels from the emergence of the omicron variant. 
📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 49 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 789,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 266.2 million cases and 5.2 million deaths. More than 199 million Americans – 60% of the population – are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
📘 What we’re reading: For most of the past two years, humanity has been adrift in a sea of COVID-19. Now nations are waiting to see if the omicron variant of the coronavirus is just another swell in that sea or a monster wave that will crash down with devastating effect. Coming to terms with this ongoing turbulence will require nimble reactions. 
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.
At first there was anecdotal evidence that omicron is more likely to evade protection from previous infection than other strains of the coronavirus. Now there’s a large study to support that suspicion.
The study, published as a preprint, was conducted in South Africa, where the new variant was first identified. The country was hit hard by two previous waves of the virus, fueled by the beta and delta variants, but in neither of those instances were there large numbers of reinfections.
That has changed with omicron, as confirmed by an analysis of 35,670 reinfections from a group of almost 2.8 million positive tests, indicating the new variant can pierce at least some of the natural protection afforded by prior infection. It is estimated that protection level dwindles by about half.
The study did not reveal whether omicron causes more severe disease or whether it can make the vaccines less effective, but virologist Florian Krammer at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai told the Science journal: “This does not bode well for vaccine-induced immunity.”
Dr. Jacob Lemieux, who monitors variants for a research collaboration led by Harvard Medical School, said there are signs indicating omicron might become the dominant strain in much of the world over delta, currently the source of 99% of coronavirus infections in the U.S.
“It’s still early days, but increasingly data is starting to trickle in suggesting that omicron is likely to outcompete delta in many, if not all, places,” Lemieux said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious-disease expert and a frequent target of Republican attacks, said he was baffled by comments made last week by Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
Johnson, who has a history of factually dubious remarks, told Fox News on Wednesday that Fauci was “using the exact same playbook” for the pandemic as he did during the AIDS epidemic, “ignoring therapy, pushing a vaccine.”
“He overhyped it,” Johnson said of the AIDS crisis. “He created all kinds of fear, saying it could affect the entire population when it couldn’t.” 
Fauci appeared Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” with Jake Tapper, who pointed out the longtime scientist was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush for his work on the AIDS crisis, and asked for his response to Johnson’s claim.
“How do you respond to something as preposterous as that?” Fauci said. “Overhyping AIDS? It’s killed over 750,000 Americans and 36 million people worldwide. How do you overhype that? Overhyping COVID? It’s already killed 780,000 Americans and over 5 million people worldwide. I don’t have any clue of what he’s talking about.”
— Rick Rouan
Planning to fly into the U.S. soon? Be prepared for more stringent testing requirements. 
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shortened the window all international air travelers have for a pre-departure coronavirus test from three days to one. Previously, only unvaccinated travelers had to take a test no more than one day before travel. The reduced time frame aims to “provide less opportunity to develop an infection with the omicron variant prior to arrival in the United States,” according to the updated CDC order. 
The new rules went into effect today and affect all air passengers 2 years and older flying into the U.S. from a foreign country, regardless of vaccination status or nationality.
U.S. airlines have been asked to collect contact-tracing information for inbound international travelers and send it to the CDC “upon request” since Nov. 8, when the country adopted a new set of international travel restrictions. The information collected includes names, addresses, phone numbers, emails and dates of birth.  
Bailey Schulz
The U.S. and much of the rest of the world are still contending with the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus, and now here comes omicron to further complicate matters.
Where exactly did this variant come from? Scientists don’t know for sure, but they believe a good bet is omicron developed in someone who is immunocompromised.
Whereas most people can clear the virus in about a week as their immune system attacks the invader, preventing it from mutating, those with suppressed immunity may harbor the virus for months. That allows the coronavirus to accumulates changes that make it harder to eradicate.
Omicron has as many as 50 mutations, including 30 on the spike proteins that sit on the surface of the virus. Researchers are now studying whether those mutations make omicron more virulent, infectious and/or capable of evading the protection produced by vaccines.
— Karen Weintraub
Current coronavirus vaccines might be less effective against the omicron variant than the initial virus and subsequent variants, one of the creators of the Oxford-AstraZeneca warns. Sarah Gilbert, a professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford, told the BBC that omicron’s spike protein contained mutations known to increase the transmissibility of the virus. Other mutations may cause antibodies to be less effective with omicron, she said. She also urged the world to take seriously the lessons being learned during this pandemic.
“This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods,” she said. “The truth is, the next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both.”
Strangers have been donating breast milk after the mother of a Missouri newborn died of complications from COVID-19. Megan Richards, a mom of six from Oak Grove, had been providing breast milk for her youngest child, 5-month-old Myles, through her illness. She had planned to breastfeed until Myles’ first birthday in July. Since her death last month, the Richards family has received 400 ounces of donated breast milk, including a donated freezer to store it. The family would need around 10,000 ounces to reach Myles’ first birthday. Brittany Eppenauer, Megan Richards’ sister, says nearly 300 emails have flooded in from women who want to donate. 
“The first donation that we received came from a woman named Megan,” Eppenauer said. “It’s overwhelming to know that other moms care that much, to make sure that we can fulfill my sister’s wishes.”
Scott Gleeson
A new study found that the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine serves as an effective booster on top of full vaccination from the Pfizer vaccine. A J&J booster, administered six months after two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, increased antibody and T-cell responses, according to the study, demonstrating potential benefits of mix-and-match boosters. 
“There is early evidence to suggest that a mix-and-match boosting approach may provide individuals with different immune responses against COVID-19 than a homologous boosting approach,” said Dan Barouch, director of the center for virology and vaccine research at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
The CDC signed off on mix-and-match COVID-19 booster shots in October. The agency recently changed its guidance on booster shots in response to the new omicron variant, now recommending all Americans ages 18 and older get a booster.
UMass Memorial Health fired more than 200 caregivers who refused to get vaccinated for COVID-19, CEO and President Dr. Eric Dickson said Friday.
“Sadly, we did terminate over 200 people for not getting vaccinated,” Dickson confirmed. “We could have used them because we need everyone we have right now.”
UMass Memorial Health has had a surge of COVID-19 patients after Thanksgiving. The hospital network’s approximately 15,000 employees faced a Nov. 1 deadline to get vaccinated or to receive an exemption, after which they were placed on unpaid leave and eventually let go if they did not get a shot by Dec. 1.
Spokesperson Debora Spano said less than 1% of the staff, or about 100 people, were given exemptions for religious or medical reasons.
– Cyrus Moulton, Telegram & Gazette
Contributing: Joseph Spector, New York State Team; The Associated Press


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