Leaders say ‘no need to panic’ as omicron confirmed in more states; Connecticut passes grim COVID death milestone: updates – USA TODAY

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Politicians and public health leaders repeated similar messages again and again as the weekend began: The omicron variant has arrived in yet another state, but everything we know about preventing COVID remains the same.

When announcing a case in the state, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy urged residents to wear masks, get vaccinated and get a booster shot to reduce the spread of the virus.

“Personal prevention” remains the best way to fight COVID, Missouri’s director of the Department of Health and Senior Services said in statement about an omicron case.

The variant has also arrived in Pennsylvania, but “There is no need to panic. … We also know the path to controlling the virus and limiting variants: get vaccinated, get boosted, and take your children ages 5 and older to get vaccinated,” a state Department of Health spokesman said.

Researchers are scrambling to learn more about the heavily mutated variant that is driving a surge in cases in South Africa and has rapidly spread to dozens of countries around the world.

Questions remain about how transmissible the variant is and how easily it can sneak past the immune defenses of previously infected and vaccinated people. It’s also too early to say for certain how risky an omicron infection is.

But for now, health experts agree there’s no reason to back off on measures proven to combat COVID-19, especially as delta continues to infect thousands of Americans a day. Masks work regardless of the variant; vaccines still give the immune system an advantage in fighting the coronavirus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci on Friday especially urged Americans to get their COVID-19 vaccine booster shots, saying the booster dose increases “the number of neutralizing antibodies against all the variants.” 

What are omicron variant symptoms? Everything to know about the latest coronavirus strain

Understanding omicron: How the latest coronavirus variant, now in the US, is mutating and spreading

Also in the news:

►Reinfection among people who have been previously infected with COVID-19 appears to be more common with omicron than with earlier variants, according to preliminary findings released Thursday from a South African research group. The study has not yet been peer reviewed and does not examine protection against variants provided by vaccination.

In another new study not yet peer reviewed, researchers found that a part of omicron’s genetic code is also present in another virus, possibly one that causes the common cold. Researchers speculate this mutation could cause the virus to be more contagious but less deadly. 

►An Italian dentist is facing possible criminal charges after trying to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in a fake silicone arm. A nurse said the man acknowledged he didn’t want a vaccine but a health pass that will be required for entering public venues in the country starting Monday. The man had already been suspended from work because of his refusal to get vaccinated.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said news of Antonio Brown and Mike Edwards’ suspensions over fake vaccination cards upset him because it undermines the “amazing job” his football club has done at handling COVID-19.

Hiring slowed sharply in November as COVID-19 related hurdles clouded the outlook for the labor market in the months ahead.

►The Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and the Treasury are set to issue guidance by mid January that would allow over-the-counter COVID-19 diagnostic tests to be reimbursed by group health plans or health insurance providers.

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded about 49 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 787,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 265 million cases and 5.2 million deaths. More than 198 million Americans — roughly 59.7% of the population – are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

📘 What we’re reading: Researchers are still piecing together data, early anecdotal evidence and existing COVID-19 knowledge to better understand the new, mutated omicron variant of the coronavirus. But less than two weeks into the global effort, those clues are giving experts a glimpse of the variant’s threat.

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.

Connecticut passes grim COVID death milestone

Connecticut on Friday became the 25th state to report the COVID-19 death of at least 1 of every 400 residents, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows.

Some of states that passed that mark earlier have gotten much worse. Mississippi is reported the death of 1 of every 289 residents, while Alabama is approaching the death of 1 in 303. The numbers may not be exact because of the population estimates used by Johns Hopkins University.

On the other side of the scale, COVID-19 has killed about 1 of every 1,500 residents in Vermont.

Despite the availability of free, safe, effective vaccines this year, some 33 states have already reported more COVID-19 deaths in 2021 than they did in all of 2020. In the spring, the U.S. was swept by the more contagious alpha variant, and the far more contagious delta variant began taking over this summer. Since delta arrived, about 180,000 Americans have been reported dead of COVID-19.

— Mike Stucka

Michigan hospitals near breaking point amid delta surge

Michigan hospitals are near the breaking point with patients battling COVID-19 and other illnesses during the state’s fourth coronavirus surge, fueled by the delta variant.

Some health systems say they have surpassed pandemic peaks from before COVID-19 vaccines were available.

“We’re now well beyond anything we’ve seen before here in west Michigan with a number of hospitalized patients, at least at Spectrum Health,” said Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan. “I wish I could say we’re on the way down.”

Rather, he said, trends suggest things could get worse before they get better.

With 23% to 25% of coronavirus tests returning positive results at Spectrum, Elmouchi said, “this is really driving through infections, future hospitalizations, and, unfortunately, future deaths.”

Leaders from three western Michigan hospital systems and two in metro Detroit said Friday that the majority of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, as are the sickest, who need intensive care and ventilators.

— Christina Hall and Kristen Jordan Shamus, Detroit Free Press

South Africa sees rise in infections

New COVID-19 cases in South Africa have burgeoned from about 200 a day in mid-November to more than 16,000 on Friday. Omicron was detected over a week ago in the country’s most populous province, Gauteng, and has since spread to all eight other provinces, Health Minister Joe Phaahla said.

Even with the rapid increase, infections are still below the 25,000 new daily cases that South Africa reported in the previous surge, in June and July.

South Africa’s hospitals are so far coping with the surge, even those in Gauteng province, which accounts for more than 70% of all new infections, Phaahla said.

— The Associated Press

US COVID-19 map: Tracking cases and deaths

New COVID testing rules for international air travel start Monday

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is shortening the testing window all international air travelers have to take 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 timeframe aims to “provide less opportunity to develop infection with the omicron variant prior to arrival in the United States,” according to updated CDC order. 

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.  

Read more about what international travelers should know.

— Bailey Schulz

Contributing: The Associated Press