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COVID-19 live updates: Dr. Ashton believes omicron already circulating in US


(NEW YORK) — As the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the globe, more than 5.2 million people have died from the disease worldwide, including over 776,000 Americans, according to real-time data compiled by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

Just 59.1% of the population in the United States is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Here’s how the news is developing. All times Eastern:

Nov 29, 4:15 pm
CDC strengthens booster recommendations

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday strengthened its recommendation on booster doses for adults.

The previous recommendation was that all adults 50 and older should get a booster, and those 18 to 49 may want to get boosters. Now, the CDC says all adults should get a booster shot six months after their Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or two months after the Johnson & Johnson shot.

CDC director Rochelle Walensky said, “I strongly encourage the 47 million adults who are not yet vaccinated to get vaccinated as soon as possible and to vaccinate the children and teens in their families as well because strong immunity will likely prevent serious illness.”

-ABC News’ Eric M. Strauss

Nov 29, 3:31 pm
Spain, Sweden, Czech Republic confirm 1st omicron cases

A 51-year-old man in Spain who traveled from South Africa on Nov. 28 has become Spain’s first confirmed case of the omicron variant, according to the health ministry.

The man has mild symptoms and is under quarantine.

Sweden has identified its first omicron case, also a person who recently visited southern Africa, the Swedish Public Health Authority said.

A vaccinated 60-year-old woman has become the first confirmed omicron case in the Czech Republic, officials said. She visited Namibia in southwest Africa via South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. Eight people who traveled with the infected woman were contact traced and are now quarantined, officials said.

These countries also have confirmed omicron cases: Canada (2); the United Kingdom (11); Italy (1); Belgium (1); the Netherlands (13); Germany (3); Denmark (2); Portugal (13); Israel (1); Australia (5); Hong Kong (3); Botswana (19); and South Africa (exact number not clear).

Nov 29, 1:40 pm
Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin leading nation in case rate

Experts say the steady surge of infections is expected to only intensify in the weeks to come, after millions of Americans traveled and gathered over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Nationally, hospitalization numbers have ticked up to about 53,000, according to federal data. After nearly 10 weeks of steady declines, this marks the third consecutive week that the U.S. has seen an increase in hospitalizations.

Older populations are bearing the brunt of this latest surge, with Americans 65 and older accounting for more than 41% of current hospitalizations.

Minnesota and Michigan currently hold the nation’s highest case rate, followed by Wisconsin, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Arizona, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, according to federal data.

-ABC News’ Arielle Mitropoulos

Nov 29, 12:56 pm
Dr. Ashton: Omicron ‘absolutely’ in US

ABC News’ chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton said Monday that she “absolutely” believes omicron is already circulating in the U.S.

“When you hear the virus has been detected in so many countries, it should come as no surprise it’s here,” she said. “Viruses mutate for a living. As long as there are unvaccinated people in the world — in South Africa, 6% vaccination rate — this should not be a surprise.”

Ashton said it will be critical for the U.S. to ramp up its genetic sequencing to effectively monitor the spread of new variants, including omicron.

Ashton, however, stressed that the U.S. in a much better place than one year ago.

“We’re better at testing, we’re better at surveillance, we’re better at treating and we’re better at preventing,” Ashton said.

-ABC News’ Arielle Mitropoulos

Nov 29, 12:18 pm
Biden says omicron is ’cause for concern, not a cause for panic’

President Joe Biden stressed Monday that the omicron variant is a “cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”

“We’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed — not chaos and confusion,” Biden said. “We have more tools today to fight the variant than we ever had before, from vaccines to boosters to vaccines for children.”

If updated vaccines are needed to fight omicron, “we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool,” Biden said.

“I want to reiterate Dr. [Anthony] Fauci believes that the current vaccines provide at least some protection” against omicron, “and the booster strengthens that protection significantly,” Biden said.

“We do not yet believe that additional measures will be needed,” Biden said, but his administration is working with Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to develop plans in case.

Biden again emphasized that the best protection is getting vaccinated and urged any adults who were fully vaccinated before June 1 to go get a booster immediately. He also asked Americans to wear masks indoors.

Nov 29, 12:00 pm
New York City reinstates mask advisory ‘at all times’ indoors

New York City officials reinstated a mask advisory on Monday, “strongly recommending” all residents, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks inside public settings.

Public settings include grocery stores, building lobbies and offices, said Dr. Dave Chokshi, commissioner of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

“Masks are still required for everyone in public transit, health care settings, schools and congregate settings,” he added.

The omicron variant will likely be detected in New York City in the coming days, Chokshi said.

Health officials are “very, very carefully” monitoring the variant, said Mayor Bill de Blasio.

-ABC News’ Aaron Katersky, Brian Hartman, Arielle Mitropoulos

Nov 29, 11:33 am
Biden delays enforcement of federal worker vaccine mandate until after holidays

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget is telling federal agencies they can hold off on suspending or firing federal workers for not complying with the vaccine mandate until after the holidays, according to a memo obtained by ABC News.

This change, which has not yet been publicly announced, comes as President Joe Biden is putting pressure on private employers to embrace their own vaccine mandates.

Ninety-two percent of federal workers have already had at least one vaccine dose, according to the Office of Management and Budget. The federal workforce’s compliance rate stands at 96.5%, meaning employees have had at least one vaccine dose or have a pending or approved exception or extension request.

-ABC News’ Anne Flaherty

Nov 29, 10:17 am
Omicron completely evading vaccines is ‘extremely unlikely’: Dr. Ashish Jha

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University School of Public Health, told TODAY he assumes omicron is already in the U.S. and predicts it’ll be identified in the next few days.

But Jha said he believes it’s “extremely unlikely” that omicron would completely evade vaccines.

“I think that our vaccines will hold up — the question is … is it a little bit less effective? A lot less effective? We will have that data — both laboratory data and clinical data — in the next week or two at the most,” he said.

“I wouldn’t make any major changes to plans” for the holidays yet, he continued. “I would just wait and make sure you’re vaccinated and everybody around you is vaccinated.”

“If you’re fully vaccinated — and especially if you’re boosted — you’re going to have more protection against this variant,” Jha said.

-ABC News’ Cheyenne Haslett

Nov 29, 9:42 am
Portugal finds 13 cases of omicron variant among Lisbon soccer club

Portuguese health authorities on Monday confirmed 13 cases of the omicron variant among professional soccer players.

The Ricardo Jorge National Health Institute said the players who tested positive are all members of the Lisbon-based Belenenses SAD soccer club and that one of them had recently traveled to southern Africa, where the omicron variant was first identified last week.

The institute is investigating whether this is one of the first reported instances of local transmission of the new coronavirus variant outside of southern Africa, where most of the cases have been recorded so far.

All 13 players have been placed in quarantine and those who have been in contact with them were ordered to isolate, regardless of their vaccination status or their exposure to possible contagion. The players and their close contacts will be regularly tested for COVID-19, the institute said.

-ABC News’ Aicha El Hammar Castano

Nov 29, 9:05 am
Moderna’s chief medical officer talks omicron variant

Moderna’s chief medical officer, Dr. Paul Burton, said the omicron variant probably emerged around mid-October in southern Africa.

“How transmissible is it? We think it’s probably quite transmissible. But how severe is the disease it causes? We don’t know the answer to that question yet,” Burton told ABC News’ Amy Robach in an interview Monday on Good Morning America.

“While we think that vaccine effectiveness may come down based on the mutations seen in this virus … we should be able to get antibodies up” with the booster shot, Burton said.

“We’ll know from tests in the next couple of weeks how effective the vaccines are against this variant,” he added.

Nov 29, 8:15 am
Omicron variant will ‘spread widely,’ Fauci warns

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious diseases expert, is urging Americans who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and are eligible to get a booster shot to do so now, in anticipation of the omicron variant spreading “widely.”

So far, there are no known confirmed cases of the new variant in the United States, according to Fauci, who is the chief medical adviser to U.S. President Joe Biden.

“But obviously, we’re on high alert,” Fauci told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in an interview Monday on Good Morning America.

“It’s inevitable that, sooner or later, it’s going to spread widely because it has at least the molecular characteristics of being highly transmissible,” he added, “even though there are a lot of things about it that we do not know but will be able to ascertain in the next week or two.”

Fauci, who is also the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said omicron clearly has a “transmissibility advantage,” based on what scientists have seen in southern Africa, where the variant was first identified last week.

“But the extent of that, again, still needs to be worked out,” he noted. “We’ll know soon.”

Fauci said the severity of illness that the omicron variant can inflict remains unclear, despite early reports that some patients had mild symptoms.

Although there is still so much unknown about the new variant, Fauci said it’s clear that vaccinated individuals, particularly those who have received booster doses, fare better against COVID-19 than their unvaccinated counterparts.

“So we don’t know exactly what’s going on with this new variant,” he said, “but I would assume — and I think it’s a reasonable assumption — that when you get vaccinated and boosted and your [antibody] level goes way up, you’re going to have some degree of protection, at least against severe disease.”

Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna booster shots have been authorized for all adults in the United States. Anyone over the age of 18 can get a booster dose at least six months after they received their second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, or at least two months after they got their single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“I would strongly suggest you get boosted now and not wait for the next iteration of [the vaccine], which we may not even need,” Fauci said. “The pharmaceutical companies are preparing to make a specific booster for [omicron], but we may not need that.”

Nov 29, 4:44 am
WHO says overall global risk of omicron variant is ‘very high’

The World Health Organization has assessed the overall global risk related to a newly discovered variant of the novel coronavirus as “very high.”

In a technical brief published Sunday, the WHO explained that omicron, or B.1.1.529, “is a highly divergent variant with a high number of mutations,” some of which it said “are concerning and may be associated with immune escape potential and higher transmissibility.”

“Given mutations that may confer immune escape potential and possibly transmissibility advantage, the likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high,” the WHO concluded in a risk assessment. “Depending on these characteristics, there could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences, depending on a number of factors including where surges may take place.”

The variant was first identified in southern Africa last week and has quickly spread to several countries across the globe, sparking new travel restrictions and shaking financial markets. On Friday, the WHO officially named the variant omicron and designated it as a “variant of concern.” Both the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that variants of concern have shown to spread more easily than others and cause more severe disease.

While omicron has not yet been detected in the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, told ABC News on Sunday that the variant will “inevitably” arrive.

“The question is,” he added, “will we be prepared for it?”

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