With cases of the Omicron variant now recorded from New York to Hawaii, health officials across the United States say that community spread is inevitable, with one case already traveling from an anime convention in New York City to Minnesota.
President Biden is confronting the worrisome new variant with a strategy that encourages boosters for all adults and aims to expand testing availability and improve its affordability, plans laid out in a speech from the National Institutes of Health on Thursday.
Within hours, additional cases of Omicron were being reported in all corners of the country. Officials announced that New York State had confirmed its first five cases of the variant: a 67-year-old woman in Suffolk County who returned from South Africa, two residents of Queens. one resident of Brooklyn and another person in New York City who had traveled recently. The vaccination status of most of the individuals remained unknown.
Another case was identified in a vaccinated man from Minnesota who had recently traveled to New York City for an anime convention at Javits Center in Midtown Manhattan, which hosted 53,0000 attendees over three days. Officials immediately urged all convention participants to get tested.
Leaders in Minnesota credited robust disease surveillance systems for finding it.
“This news is concerning, but it is not a surprise,” Gov. Tim Walz said in a statement. “We know that this virus is highly infectious and moves quickly throughout the world. Minnesotans know what to do to keep each other safe now — get the vaccine, get tested, wear a mask indoors and get a booster.”
A vaccinated Colorado resident who had recently returned from southern Africa was the state’s first confirmed case. An additional case in California — the first being in San Francisco on Wednesday — was announced in Los Angeles county. The infected person had been vaccinated and had traveled to South Africa in November.
But an Oahu resident with no history of travel is the first Omicron case in Hawaii.
“This is a case of community spread,” the state’s department of health said in a news release. The individual had previously been infected with the coronavirus but was never vaccinated.
At a rare joint news conference on Thursday, New York’s governor, Kathy Hochul, and Mayor Bill de Blasio urged New Yorkers not to panic in light of the confirmed Omicron cases, and recommended booster shots for eligible people. They said it was too soon to know how much of a threat the variant might pose to the state.
“We’re not defenseless against this variant at all,” Ms. Hochul said, adding. “We’re not having shutdowns. We’re not changing our protocols.”
Still, Mr. de Blasio said he expected to see more Omicron cases detected in the coming days. “We have to assume there’s community spread,” he said.
The variant has prompted concern among scientists and public health officials because of an unusually high number of mutations. But it will be weeks, at least, before scientists can say with confidence whether it is more contagious — early evidence suggests it is — whether it causes more serious illness, and how it responds to vaccines.
People looking for a booster shot of a Covid-19 vaccine probably don’t need to fret about what brand it is: Many combinations of shots are likely to provide strong protection, according to a large new study.
In a comparison of seven different vaccine brands, British researchers found that most of them prompted a strong immune response, with the mRNA shots from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech eliciting the largest responses. The study was published on Thursday in The Lancet.
It’s too soon for researchers to say much about how well different vaccine boosters will work against the new Omicron variant, which has mutations that may allow it to evade some of the antibodies produced by existing Covid-19 vaccines.
All of the study’s 2,878 volunteers initially received two shots of either the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccines.
The researchers then tested seven different vaccines as boosters: along with AstraZeneca and Pfizer, they tried three brands that have been authorized in various countries: Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Novavax. They also tried two shots that have not been authorized anywhere: an mRNA vaccine from CureVac, and a vaccine from Valneva made from inactivated coronaviruses.
After four weeks, the researchers collected blood samples from the volunteers and measured their antibody levels.
Most of the boosters used in the study raised antibodies to a level that would be the equivalent of at least 90 percent protection against infection. And the mRNA vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna produced much higher antibody levels than the other vaccines did.
A past coronavirus infection appears to give little immunity to the new Omicron variant rippling across the globe, South African scientists warned on Thursday, potentially tearing away one layer of defense that humanity has won slowly and at immense cost.
Just a week after its existence was revealed to the world, the heavily mutated variant, which scientists fear could be the most contagious one yet, is already by far the dominant form of the virus in South Africa and spreading fast, according to officials there. Top European disease experts said Thursday that it could be the dominant form in Europe within months.
Scientists in South Africa have reported a sudden, sharp rise last month in coronavirus cases among people in that country who had already been infected, in a study that has not yet been reviewed and published by a scientific journal. The authors noted that there was no such upswing when the Beta and Delta variants emerged.
They did not say how many of those reinfections could be attributed to Omicron, but South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases reported on Wednesday that when it conducted a genetic analysis on a sampling of coronavirus-positive test results from November, almost three-quarters were the new variant.
“Population-level evidence suggests that the Omicron variant is associated with substantial ability to evade immunity from prior infection,” the authors of the unpublished study wrote.
In an online briefing held by the World Health Organization’s regional office for Africa, South African scientists presented a blunter version of the same conclusion, simply based on the country’s raw numbers: About 40 percent of South Africans have had the coronavirus and about 30 percent have been at least partially vaccinated (though there is no doubt some overlap), and yet the number of new cases is soaring.
“We believe that previous infection does not provide them protection from infection due to Omicron,” said Anne von Gottberg, a microbiologist at the communicable disease institute.
South Africa has the world’s fastest-growing caseload, though the figures are small compared with those in many other countries. In the first half of November, it was averaging about 260 new reported cases a day. On Tuesday, the figure was over 4,300, the highest in months. It jumped to more than 8,600 on Wednesday, and to more than 11,500 on Thursday.
Scientists say that the number and type of changes suggest that Omicron is much more transmissible than earlier forms of the virus, though solid proof of that is still lacking. As countries around the world have raced to implement new travel rules, with some barring fliers from southern Africa, experts say those measures could have a limited effect if not accompanied by other steps, including expanding vaccinations, wearing masks and social distancing.
“Border control can reduce the risk of importation and can buy time,” Dr. Takeshi Kasai, the World Health Organization’s regional director for the western Pacific told an online news conference on Friday. “But it’s not possible to completely stop the virus unless you completely close the border, which has a significant impact.”
Nightclubs, restaurants and cinemas in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, reopened to vaccinated customers on Friday, more than 100 days after the city went into lockdown because of an outbreak of the Delta variant.
The reopening comes as the country moved to its new post-vaccination “traffic light” classification system, in which unvaccinated people are mostly shut out of public life. Different regions of the country have been allocated a color — red, orange or green, depending on the perceived risk of transmission — denoting the level of restrictions in place. No region in New Zealand is presently in the “green” zone.
Those who have not been fully inoculated against the coronavirus are now barred from eating in restaurants, visiting bars or nightclubs, going to gyms or mixing with vaccinated people in almost any setting, including houses of worship. Masks are mandatory in many public settings, including on airplanes and on many forms of public transport, in addition to pharmacies and at other gatherings.
Auckland plunged into a snap lockdown on Aug. 17 after a single case of the Delta variant was identified in the city. That case quickly snowballed into the country’s largest outbreak since the pandemic began, with dozens of new infections being reported each day after months of no cases.
On Friday, people flocked to the city’s bars, restaurants and cafes, making the most of the good weather. To mark the reopening, a number of Auckland bars welcomed patrons from the first permitted moment, at 11:59 p.m. on Thursday. Businesses must check vaccine passes before granting patrons admission.
Under the rules, Auckland will remain largely cut off from the rest of the country until Dec. 15. Only people who have been vaccinated will be permitted to travel to other regions of the country, many of which have lower vaccination rates.
New Zealand aims to have 90 percent of its eligible population ages 12 and above vaccinated in each district. As of Friday, only two regions had met that target, and another 10 had vaccinated at least 85 percent of eligible people.
In October, the country announced sweeping vaccine mandates for more than 40 percent of all workers, including teachers and those working in service industries. More than 1,300 health workers were forced to leave their jobs last month after they refused to be vaccinated.
Deborah Tudhope was growing anxious. An American lawyer living in London, she was hoping to fly back to the United States in two weeks to see her 96-year-old mother, who lives in a retirement home in Maine. But the Omicron-driven travel restrictions announced on Thursday by the White House have her worrying that the trip may not happen.
Ms. Tudhope, 72, has had to reschedule her required coronavirus test for the day before her flight, which the airline had already pushed back a day. With the rules seemingly shifting by the hour, she said she faced multiple hurdles: getting out of Britain, getting into the United States and visiting her mother in the home.
“I don’t know how this whole thing is going to work out,” said Ms. Tudhope, who described herself as disheartened, if not surprised, by the turmoil. “But I did make sure the flights are re-bookable.”
Such private dramas are playing out all over the world, as thousands of people — Americans living abroad and foreigners hoping to visit the United States — grapple with the new complexities of holiday travel in the age of Covid.
On Thursday the Biden administration shortened the time frame for international travelers to the United States to take a Covid test within a day before departure, regardless of vaccination status.
That has left would-be travelers nervously calculating whether they will get test results back in time to make their flights or worrying that their home countries could impose more stringent travel bans while they are away.
To cancel or not to cancel. That is the question that travelers are grappling with as the Omicron variant scuttles around the world, reminding people that the pandemic roller-coaster ride is far from over. What’s different this time around is that the holiday travel season is right around the corner, and tourism, in general, has finally started to rebound.
Whether the variant, which has been identified in at least 20 countries, is more severe or more transmissible than other forms of the coronavirus is likely to remain unknown for at least two weeks.
Though most people are by now experienced with making high-stakes health-risk assessments in the face of incomplete information, that doesn’t make the decision about whether to travel or not easy.
Courtney Niebrzydowsk, an international travel risk analyst at the University of Denver, said she urged people to ask themselves two primary questions when they were considering traveling: 1. Can this travel be postponed? and 2. How flexible can you be?
She also urges people to think through all the scenarios that could emerge if they travel — like testing positive, facing a canceled return flight or learning last-minute that their destination country has expanded its quarantine requirement — and map out detailed contingency plans, including costs, missed obligations and how to approach health care. Often, she said, after going through this exercise, people have “less appetite for travel.”
Jessica Herzstein, a physician who advises organizations on how to manage health risks, said that she discourages anyone who is unvaccinated or immune-compromised from traveling. She also advises travelers going to destinations with a particularly high prevalence of cases to consider canceling. For those planning to travel, Dr. Herzstein strongly advises booster shots for those eligible and to take along a supply of at-home rapid antigen tests.
Over-the-counter rapid coronavirus tests will soon become a much bigger part of the Biden administration’s response to the pandemic and the new Omicron variant.
After a primary focus on vaccination, the White House announced on Thursday that private health insurers would soon have to reimburse patients for such tests. It also said it would make 50 million free tests available for uninsured Americans, to be distributed through health clinics and other sites in rural and underserved communities.
But for consumers who do have insurance, the White House approach will require some legwork. It left some health policy experts questioning why the United States does not purchase tests on behalf of all Americans and provide them at little to no cost, as some European countries have done. Instead, Americans will have to buy tests and then submit the receipts for reimbursement.
The recent surge in hospitalizations and the arrival of the Omicron variant prompted the Biden administration to try to expand testing availability and improve affordability. The new approach probably rests on expedience, said Andy Slavitt, a former adviser to the White House on coronavirus policy.
“From the standpoint of test makers, this takes away the risk of manufacturing, which should help bring costs down,” he said. “They can quantify the market now.”
If consumers with private coverage are able to navigate the reimbursement process, and use their health plans to pay for Covid tests, that could lead to an unintended consequence: higher prices.
“If the consumer is thinking, ‘I will get reimbursed,’ they won’t really care about the price,” said Ge Bai, a professor of health policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “The rule is meant to help promote testing, but it also instills inefficiency into the system.”
South Korean officials said on Friday that they would temporarily reverse the phased reopening they began last month, lowering the cap on group sizes for social gatherings and requiring proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test for entry to restaurants, cafes and other facilities starting next week.
The announcement by Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum came as nearly 80 percent of the country’s hospital beds for patients with severe illness were in use, and days after six cases of the Omicron variant were confirmed among inbound travelers.
On Friday, officials said that they had confirmed South Korea’s first Omicron cluster, one associated with a church.
At least two members of a church in the city of Incheon were confirmed to have the variant. They had worshiped alongside two travelers who tested positive after a trip to Nigeria, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said in a statement. Another 800 people who were potentially exposed are being tested.
Churches have been the site of previous major coronavirus outbreaks in South Korea, including one identified last month at a religious facility with 500 members in the city of Cheonan in which 445 cases have now been confirmed, over 400 of them among unvaccinated people, the local authorities said.
In his announcement on Friday, Mr. Kim said that the government would limit private gatherings for four weeks. In and around Seoul, where gatherings have had a 10-person cap, the limit will be six; other areas had a limit of 12, which will be cut to eight.
Officials said they would also require everyone entering restaurants, cafes, cram schools, movie theaters, sports stadiums, museums and libraries to be fully vaccinated.
New daily cases in South Korea have surged steadily for the past two months, jumping from around 1,500 in mid-October to 5,266 on Thursday, the country’s highest level since the pandemic began.
“Our gradual recovery of daily life is now facing its most serious threat yet,” Mr. Kim said. “All pandemic indicators across the country are sending danger signals.”
Most of those hospitalized were unvaccinated, over age 60 or had pre-existing conditions, health officials have said. While 80 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, rates for children have remained low, with only about 20 percent of those ages 12 to 17 fully inoculated, according to official statistics.
To encourage vaccinations among children, Mr. Kim said, South Korean officials will begin requiring vaccine passes for them starting in February.
South Korean officials have also tightened curbs at the border since they confirmed the first cases of the Omicron variant on Wednesday. On Friday, the government began halting quarantine exemptions for inbound travelers from all countries, and started requiring visitors to observe a 10-day quarantine period and take three rounds of P.C.R. tests after arrival.
A month ago, Spain was riding high on its successes against Covid-19. The country’s caseload was among the lowest in Europe, and nearly 80 percent of the country had been vaccinated, leaving few eligible people to give a shot to.
Then came the Omicron variant, and success gave way to uncertainty.
Three cases of the variant have been detected so far in Spain, as the number of Covid-19 infections steadily rose all November. The appearance of the variant has now prompted local governments to swiftly roll out new measures they had been considering. Catalonia is introducing a Covid-19 “passport,” the first in Spain. The Basque region is preparing emergency measures with restrictions on bars and restaurants that look like a return to the past.
The new steps show how fragile the gains against the virus can be. But the country’s broad acceptance of vaccination may prove to be critical.
If the current vaccines offer good protection against the variant, then Spain could be largely shielded against a potential new wave. If fighting Omicron requires reformulating the vaccines, then Spaniards seem ready and willing to take another shot if their leaders recommend it.
“As far as vaccines go, in Spain there’s just a wide consensus among citizens — they follow the recommendations of the scientists,” said Salvador Illa, Spain’s former health minister who oversaw the country’s response during the pandemic’s first year.
As much of Europe reels from a surge of infections, experts attribute Spain’s vaccine success, in part, to its widely trusted public health system, which spearheaded the effort. Politicians also played a big role, taking their doses with fanfare early on and avoiding politicized debate about the vaccine. Spaniards, for the most part, followed the health guidance of their leaders when it came to vaccines, masks and other precautions.