January 21, 2022

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US hits 800k coronavirus deaths; Cornell has possible omicron outbreak: COVID-19 updates – USA TODAY

9 min read

The U.S. has reached its latest COVID-19 milestone as the country eclipsed 800,000 deaths, despite the widespread availability of vaccines and now booster shots.

The milestone brings the U.S. one step closer to 1 million deaths from COVID-19, at a moment when experts worry about a possible winter surge and the impacts from the new omicron variant, which is more resistant to vaccines, that’s rapidly spreading in parts of the world.

“There is no question that we will reach 1 million deaths sooner rather than later,” Robert Glatter, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told USA TODAY in a recent interview. “At the current trajectory we may reach it much sooner than expected, with cases, hospitalizations and deaths significantly increasing in the past two months.”

Such a death toll may be inevitable, but “we can still do a lot within our means to prevent that from happening,” said Ogbonnaya Omenka, an assistant professor and director of diversity at the Butler University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. 

Marking the milestone Tuesday evening, a bipartisan group of congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, met on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to hold a moment of silence.

Experts say while the U.S. continues a steady march toward 1 million deaths, the pace can be slowed by increasing vaccination rates, a process that has been made more difficult by the politicization of public health recommendations.

But with the looming triple threat of the flu season, variants and the holidays, other mitigations, including masking indoors and testing if sick or exposed to the virus, will be needed.

“The potential for a catastrophic surge of deaths looms large this winter,” Glatter said. “The outlook … looks bleak at best.”

Also in the news:

►New York’s ethics watchdog agency on Tuesday ordered former Gov. Andrew Cuomo to repay to the state the proceeds he received from his $5 million book deal last year to write about his response to COVID-19 pandemic after investigators found he flouted the terms of the agreement by using staff and state resources to help him craft the book. 

►The CDC advised travelers to avoid Italy, Greenland and Mauritius, regardless of vaccination status, adding the three countries to its level 4 “very high” coronavirus advisory list. A total of 84 destinations are currently on the list, including France, Germany and the U.K. 

►Kroger announced Tuesday it is ending some benefits for unvaccinated workers, including paid emergency leave for unvaccinated employees who test positive for COVID-19. Unvaccinated employees who are salaried, non-union or management level will also have to pay a monthly $50 surcharge for their company healthcare plan.

►The Air Force has discharged 27 people for refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine, making them what officials believe are the first service members to be removed for disobeying the mandate to get the shots. 

►On the heels of a record 37 players testing positive for COVID-19 on Monday, the NFL is requiring Tier 1 and 2 employees to obtain COVID-19 vaccine boosters.

►Pop star Billie Eilish revealed during her Monday appearance on “The Howard Stern Show” that she was sick for nearly two months after testing positive for COVID-19 in August. She told Stern that she could have died if she weren’t vaccinated, adding that “to be clear that it is because of the vaccine that I’m fine.”

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 50 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 798,710 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 270.8 million cases and 5.3 million deaths. More than 202 million Americans — 60.9% of the population — are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC

📘 What we’re reading: A year after the first COVID-19 vaccine, here’s what’s next for researchers – and what worries them.

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.

Pfizer’s antiviral reduces hospitalization, death by 89%

An experimental antiviral drug from Pfizer to combat COVID-19, delivered in a five-day course of pills, reduced hospitalization or death among high-risk people by 89%, according to an analysis of a study by the drugmaker.

For people at average risk, the drug reduced their chances of severe disease by 70%. 

The drug was tested on people who were not vaccinated but is also expected to protect people who have so-called breakthrough infections after vaccination.

Paxlovid appeared safe in both studies, which included nearly 3,500 volunteers. Lab studies suggest the antiviral will remain potent against the omicron variant, which has been rapidly spreading across the globe.

The new research “underscores the treatment candidate’s potential to save the lives of patients around the world, whether they have been vaccinated or not,” Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chairman and CEO said. “Emerging variants of concern, like omicron, have exacerbated the need for accessible treatment options for those who contract the virus, and we are confident that, if authorized or approved, this potential treatment could be a critical tool to help quell the pandemic.”

Paxlovid is designed to block the activity of an enzyme that the coronavirus needs to replicate and is taken with a low dose of an HIV drug that helps slow the body’s breakdown of that enzyme so it remains active longer.

Late last month, an FDA advisory committee narrowly recommended authorizing a different COVID-19 antiviral from Merck, called molnupiravir. Unlike that drug, Paxlovid will not cause the kind of genetic mutations in the virus that had worried some on the committee.

– Karen Weintraub

Possible omicron outbreak at Cornell shutters facilities, forces online exams

Cornell University, one of the country’s Ivy League schools, announced Monday it was shuttering a number of school facilities and moving to all online exams after a possible omicron outbreak was discovered among students. 

Martha Pollack, president of the school, made the announcement after noting rapid tests on campus have “continued to identify the rapid spread of COVID-19 among our student population.” Among those tests, Pollack said, labs have identified evidence of the omicron variant “in a significant number” of the positive cases, though further testing will be done to confirm the variant. 

The school was moved to “alert level red” and facilities like the library, fitness centers and gyms were closed. Athletic events, social events and even a recognition ceremony for December graduates were also cancelled. All exams, which were currently underway, were moved online to prevent further spread. 

As of Monday, 469 students have tested positive for the virus. 

Students who wish to leave campus are being advised to test negative for COVID-19 prior to traveling. Pollack, in the message to students, said visitors and guests are not allowed on the college campus, with the exception of those picking up students for break. 

– Christal Hayes, USA TODAY, and Matt Steecker, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

More than 40% of people with COVID-19 never show symptoms, study finds

New research shows more than 40% of those who tested positive for COVID-19 were asymptomatic, according to the study published Tuesday in JAMA Network Open.

Researchers looked at 95 studies from January 2020 to February 2021 consisting of nearly 30 million people in Asia, Europe, North America, South America and Africa. More than 60% of confirmed COVID-19 cases among people under 20 were asymptomatic; nearly 50% in people 20 to 39; about 32% in people 40 to 59, and about 33% in those over 60.

While 40% of COVID-19 infections overall were asymptomatic, they represented only .25% of the tested population. But health experts say it’s still a cause for concern. It’s also likely an underestimation as testing was not widely available in many countries during the study’s timeframe. 

“A quarter of a percent of the tested population ending asymptomatic, that doesn’t seem like a very large amount,” said Mark Cameron, infectious disease immunologist as Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. “However, when you multiply that by the hundreds of millions of people around the world, that’s a significant amount of people transmitting the virus that’s falling through the cracks.”

— Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY

South African study finds omicron ‘highly transmissible,’ more resistant to COVID-19 vaccines

The omicron variant is substantially more contagious and reduces the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, but people who are fully vaccinated are still largely protected against severe disease, according to a study from South Africa released Tuesday.

The variant, which is believed to have emerged this fall in southern Africa, looks poised to take over the world, as delta did before it. Omicron accounts for 90% of COVID-19 cases in South Africa and is a growing problem in Europe. It has been seen in at least 30 U.S. states, though the delta variant still dominates the American outbreak.

Formally identified only the day before Thanksgiving, information on omicron’s characteristics – including how contagious and dangerous it may be – are just emerging.

The new study from Discovery Health, South Africa’s largest private health insurer, shows that two shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which provided over 90% protection against infection with the original version of the virus is only 33% protective against omicron.

Full vaccination continues to provide 70% protection against severe disease, which seemed to hold up across high-risk groups, though it declined somewhat in people over 60 and even more in those over 70. Read more here.

— Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY

African countries see surge in cases but deaths remain low

Despite an 83% surge in new COVID-19 cases in Africa due to the delta and omicron variants, the region is seeing fewer deaths compared to previous surges, the WHO said in a Tuesday report.

The number of new cases in the continent is doubling every five days, and Africa recorded more than 196,000 new cases in the week ending on Dec. 12. But deaths “remain low” and dropped by 19% last week, the WHO said, adding that “this data should be interpreted with caution as the pattern may change in the coming weeks.”

“We are cautiously optimistic that deaths and severe illness will remain low in the current wave, but slow vaccine rollout in Africa means both will be much higher than they should be,” Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said in a statement.

Vaccination rates vary greatly across the region with only 20 African countries vaccinating at least 10% of their populations by Dec. 13. Six African countries had fully vaccinated 40% of their populations while Mauritius and Seychelles reached 70%.

“We’re at a pivotal moment in this pandemic where complacency is the enemy,” Moeti said. “With supplies starting to increase we now must intensify our focus on other barriers to vaccination. They include lack of funding, equipment, healthcare workers and cold chain capacity along with tackling vaccine hesitancy.”

University of Florida launches probe into reports of pressure to destroy COVID-19 research

The University of Florida is investigating possible violations of its research integrity policy following a 274-page faculty committee report that included claims of barriers to publish COVID-19 research and pressure to destroy data.

It is the latest development of the university’s academic freedom saga, which began in late October when it became public that multiple professors were restricted from participating in lawsuits against the state. The issue has developed into a nationwide debate over academics, freedom of speech, politics, prestige and money that has reached as far as UF’s accreditor and Congress.

In an emailed statement sent to faculty and staff Friday, David P. Norton, the university’s vice president for research, said University of Florida Research and the university’s Office of Compliance and Ethics have initiated a formal investigation. He added its results would be “made public once completed” but did not specify a timeline.

The lengthy Faculty Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Academic Freedom document released in early December reported the following claims:

  • There was external pressure to destroy COVID-19 data and inconsistencies in procedures for things like data destruction
  • A State of Florida government entity created barriers to and delayed publication of COVID-19 data
  • University of Florida employees were told verbally not to criticize Gov. Ron DeSantis or UF policies related to COVID-19 in media interactions

The committee report also discussed faculty members’ “grave concern about retaliation” and “a sense that anyone who objected to the state of affairs might lose his or her job or be punished in some way.”

— Danielle Ivanov, The Gainesville Sun

Contributing: The Associated Press

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