Omicron may multiply 70 times faster than delta; new variant dominant in Disney World county: Latest COVID-19 updates – USA TODAY

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The omicron variant multiplies 70 times faster in the human bronchial tubes than the initial COVID-19 infection or the delta variant, according to a new study from the University of Hong Kong.
The lightning-fast spread within people may explain why the variant may transmit faster among humans than previous versions, the researchers say. Their study also showed the omicron infection in the lung is significantly lower than the original SARS-CoV-2, which may be an indicator of lower disease severity. The research is currently under peer review for publication.
By infecting many more people, a very infectious virus may cause more severe disease and death even though the virus itself may be less dangerous, said Dr. Michael Chan Chi-wai, the study’s principal investigator.
“Taken together with our recent studies showing that the omicron variant can partially escape immunity from vaccines and past infection, the overall threat from omicron variant is likely to be very significant,” he said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the omicron variant has now been reported in at least 36 states and 75 countries. Schools and businesses are grappling with how to manage the latest threat.
Thomas Denny, chief operating officer of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute and a professor of medicine, on Thursday called omicron “the perfect storm” that will prompt challenges for administrators.
“It’s horrible,” Denny said. “We have a rapidly transmitting virus that is coinciding with a time when a lot of us are spending a lot of indoor time, because it’s cold. We’re coming together in groups for the holiday season. … This new variant has thrown us a curveball at the worst possible time.”
Also in the news:
►U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres exhorted the world Thursday to make progress within days toward a now-distant goal of vaccinating 40% of the global population against COVID-19 before the year ends, saying, “Vaccine inequity is giving variants a free pass to run wild.”
►Stanford University is moving classes online and banning parties for the first two weeks of the winter quarter while requiring students to get a booster shot by the end of January in light of rising coronavirus infections nationwide and the growing spread of the omicron variant.
►Chicago Public Schools will distribute 150,000 take-home COVID-19 test kits Friday to 309 schools in communities hit hard by the pandemic, the district announced.
►The CDC says people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 should avoid contact with pets and other animals, who can catch the disease from humans but are unlikely to spread it to them.
►Almost $750,000 has been awarded to 730 West Virginia University students through the “We Are Stronger Together” campaign to help students affected by the pandemic with tuition, room and board and other expenses, the university said.
📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 50.4 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 803,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 272 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: The omicron variant of the coronavirus is moving faster than surveillance systems can track it and has so unnerved some medical experts that they’re starting to put the brakes on preparations for their holiday gatherings.
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The COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are safer and therefore preferable than the single-shot Johnson & Johnson inoculation, an advisory committee to the CDC said Thursday.
The panel voted unanimously to recommend the two mRNA vaccines over J&J’s because the latter has been linked to very rare but dangerous blood clots. They have resulted in nine deaths out of the 17 million people in the U.S. who have received the J&J shot. The median age among those who died of the condition was 45. Seven of them were obese. Two had no known medical conditions.
The CDC acted hours later, accepting the panel’s recommendation.
Getting the J&J vaccine is still regarded as much safer than any risk of the blood clots  because getting COVID-19 is considerably more likely to cause severe disease or death, the panel said.
— Elizabeth Weise
The overwhelming presence of the omicron variant in wastewater samples taken in the Florida county that’s home to Disney World provides the latest proof of how fast the new coronavirus strain is spreading, often imperceptibly.
Although there have been practically no cases of clinical infection, omicron has surpassed the delta variant in collections taken from wastewater sampling sites in Orange County, officials said. A sampling this week showed omicron represented almost 100% of the strains.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said most of the coronavirus patients at local hospitals were infected with the delta variant. However, news of how much omicron has spread figures to impact tourism in an area that gets tens of millions of travelers every year to visit theme parks like Disney World and Universal Orlando.
Omicron’s fast expansion is having a ripple effect in some parts of Europe, with France  imposing restrictions on arrivals from Britain, where health authorities said the variant is spreading at an “absolutely phenomenal pace” as case numbers double every two to three days.
For the second day in a row, the UK set a pandemic record for most coronavirus infections with 88,376 new cases confirmed Thursday, nearly 10,000 more than the previous mark. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “we’re not locking stuff down,” promoting booster shots instead.
Germany administered nearly 1.5 million vaccine shots Wednesday, its highest one-day total so far, and officials are scrambling to procure more doses in an aggressive vaccination and boosting program.
European Union leaders have said giving out booster shots is “urgent” and “crucial” to confront the surge in infections across the continent and the emergence of omicron. Besides providing boosters, some leaders such as Prime Minister António Costa of Portugal are either tightening COVID-19 border controls or extending their timeframe.
Booking platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo let their hosts choose their refund policies, so even though the pandemic is still impacting travel – especially international trips – travelers should be aware that canceling a booking can be costly.
While Airbnb and Vrbo introduced more flexible cancellation policies in the early days of the pandemic, both short-term rental platforms have since reverted to letting their hosts choose their refund policies. But,  Airbnb guests who contract COVID-19 are eligible for a refund or travel credit. For other details and tips, read more here.
Bailey Schulz,
Despite player populations that are overwhelmingly vaccinated, North American professional sports leagues have been impacted by COVID-19’s second winter at a level not seen since 2020. From the NFL reporting a single-day high in cases to the Chicago Bulls postponing two games after 10 players entered COVID-19 protocols, every active league is seeing its regular season imperiled by the pandemic.
Sports leagues have been re-writing safety protocols and urging their players to get vaccinated, and the efforts have paid off. The NFL reports nearly 95% of its players vaccinated, the NHL has just one unvaccinated holdout and the NBA also exceeds 97%, despite the rare high-profile holdout like Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving.
And yet, on Monday the NFL reported its highest day of positive COVID-19 tests, according to the NFL Network, with 36 players and one staffer forced into protocols. And in the NBA, the Los Angeles Lakers joined the Bulls, Nets and Charlotte Hornets as clubs enduring COVID-related setbacks in recent days. In the NHL, four teams have now paused due to rising COVID-19 cases.
Nurses and health care workers across the country are finding strength in numbers and participating in labor actions not seen in years
In California, which has a strong union tradition, Kaiser Permanente management misjudged workplace tensions during the COVID-19 crisis and risked a walkout of thousands when union nurses balked at signing a four-year contract that would have slashed pay for new hires. In Colorado, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Massachusetts, nurses have been embroiled in union battles over staffing and work conditions.
“There’s a nursing shortage and a shortage of nursing instructors, nationwide. They’ve seen aides leave. They’ve seen cleaners leave,” said Liz Soriano-Clark, a teacher-turned-nurse in Pittsburgh. “Why is that? Because they can make more at McDonald’s and not have to clean up vomit.” Read more here.
Christine Spolar, Mark Kreidler and Rae Ellen Bichell, Kaiser Health News
The omicron variant is quickly gaining ground in the United States, health officials warned Wednesday, as two more confirmed cases of the coronavirus strain were identified in Michigan, bringing the state’s known total to three.
Although omicron is estimated to make up only about 3% of coronavirus cases in the U.S., “early data suggests that omicron is more transmissible than delta, with a doubling time of about two days,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC.
At that level of growth, omicron could be the dominant strain in the U.S. soon.
“My guess is that omicron will become the dominant variant in early January 2022,” said Dennis Cunningham, Henry Ford Health System’s medical director of infection control and prevention. Read more here.
— Kristen Jordan Shamus and Christina Hall, Detroit Free Press


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