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Friday, December 17, 2021 | Kaiser Health News

Biden Warns Of Deadly Winter; Fauci Says Omicron To Be Dominant Variant

Winter is bringing the threat of “severe illness and death,” President Joe Biden warns. Dr. Anthony Fauci forecasts that it would only be a matter of weeks until omicron is the dominant covid variant in the U.S. And a small study in South Africa indicates that omicron covid can break through booster shot protections.

Fox News:
Biden Warns Of ‘Winter Of Severe Illness And Death’ For The Unvaccinated

President Biden said Thursday that Americans unvaccinated against the coronavirus are facing a winter of “severe illness and death.” “It’s here now and it’s spreading and it’s going to increase,” the president said about the omicron variant while meeting with his coronavirus response team. “For unvaccinated we are looking at a winter of severe illness and death if you’re unvaccinated for themselves, their families, and the hospitals they will soon overwhelm.” “But, there’s good news,” Biden added. “If you’re vaccinated and have your booster shot you’re protected from severe illness and death.” (Mark Miller, 12/16)

Fauci Says Omicron Will Become Dominant Covid Variant Soon, Urges Booster Shots

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s top medical advisor, said Thursday that omicron will become the dominant Covid-19 variant in the United States within a few weeks, urging people to get vaccines and booster shots to fight it off. “It is the most transmissible virus of Covid that we had to deal with those far. It will soon become dominant here. That’s one thing we know,” Fauci told a virtual U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation audience. (Macias, 12/16)

And a new, small study has more bad news about omicron —

Small S.Africa Patient Study Shows Omicron Breaking Through Booster Shots 

A small study of seven COVID-19 cases in South Africa shows the Omicron variant can break through booster vaccine shots, one of the scientists involved said on Thursday. A group of seven German visitors to Cape Town, aged between 25 and 39, were infected at some point in late November or early December with confirmed cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant. … None had reported past infection with COVID-19. The infections occurred between one and two months after receipt of the booster shot. (Cocks, 12/16)

In other news about the spread of omicron —

A Covid-19 ‘Viral Blizzard’ Is About To Hit The US, Expert Says 

With Covid-19 hospitalizations rising as the holiday season gets into full swing, experts are urging people to take precautionary measures against a new variant that may quickly sweep the nation. While the Delta variant is still a worrying presence, there could be millions of more Americans infected within weeks due to the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. (Caldwell, 12/17)

The Washington Post:
Omicron Surge Gives Many Americans Whiplash 

With the number of omicron cases appearing to double every two days, confirmed U.S. coronavirus infections have increased more than 50 percent in roughly two weeks, from 81,900 on Nov. 30 to 124,110 on Dec. 16, according to The Washington Post’s rolling seven-day average. After a briefing on the omicron variant from his coronavirus response team Thursday, President Biden warned that for unvaccinated Americans, “we are looking at a winter of severe illness and death.” He added: “Omicron is here. It’s going to start to spread much more rapidly at the beginning of the year, and the only real protection is to get your shots.” (Pager and Diamond, 12/16)

With Omicron In ‘Full Force,’ NYC To Hand Out Masks, Tests

Alarmed by a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases and the increasing prevalence of the omicron variant, New York City officials will distribute one million masks and 500,000 home tests, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday. The mass distributions are part of a broader plan to counter the virus’ spread that also includes making testing more easily available through more sites and extended hours. The state’s governor also said an online site would be set up where residents could ask for at-home tests to be sent to them, in targeted ways. (12/16)

Houston Chronicle:
Houston Sees Early Signs Of New Omicron-Fueled COVID Wave As Texas Medical Center Cases Triple

Houston is seeing early signs of another wave of COVID-19 infections, fueled in part by a fast-spreading omicron variant, as public health officials warn of a nationwide spike in cases as early as next month. The daily average of positive cases in the Texas Medical Center more than tripled last week, from 232 to 721, and Houston Methodist on Tuesday recorded nearly five times the number of positive cases in its system compared to the previous week. Harris County Public Health on Tuesday reported 483 new cases, the highest single-day total in more than two months. (Gill, 12/16)

Los Angeles Times:
Omicron Cases Jump In L.A. County As Experts Warn Of Rapid Spread – Los Angeles Times

The number of Omicron cases in Los Angeles County rose to at least 30, officials said Thursday has they continued to urge vaccinations and booster shots to slow the spread. Officials confirmed 12 new cases Thursday, saying the spread will likely intensify in the coming weeks. Of the 30 total Omicron cases in L.A. County, 24 people were fully vaccinated and four had also received booster doses. None have been known to be hospitalized, and none have died. (Lin II, 12/16)

KHN’s ‘What The Health?’: Oh, Oh, Omicron 

This week, the U.S. passed the milestone of 800,000 dead from covid-19, as hospitals are starting to fill following the Thanksgiving holiday and the ominous omicron variant starts to spread rapidly. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court signals it’s likely to roll back abortion rights in the next year, and Congress runs out of time to pass President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill in 2021. (12/16)

Also —

Omicron Symptoms: Cold, Runny Nose, Headache, London Cases Shows

Symptoms associated with the Covid-19 omicron variant could be similar to those that normally accompany a cold, but experts are warning people that they should not underestimate the risks posed by the more transmissible strain. One British study has now suggested that omicron infections could be associated with symptoms that make it easy to mistake it for an everyday illness like a cold. The Zoe Covid Study, which analyzes thousands of Covid symptoms uploaded to an app by the British public, looked this week at symptoms associated with Covid cases in London that were recorded over two separate weeks in October and December, that is, before (as far as we know) and after omicron was spreading in the capital. (Ellyatt, 12/16)

Hospitals Delay Surgeries, Treat People At Home As Covid Surges

In rural Arizona, the strain on hospital staff has caused a plea for federal help. Axios reports on how some medical staff are at “breaking point.” And a KHN report covers how some paramedics are being pressed into transferring patients between overstretched hospitals instead of tackling emergencies.

The Boston Globe:
Amid Surge In Patients, Hospitals Treat More People At Home

When Eleni Nicolau became sick with COVID after Thanksgiving, a breakthrough infection that hit the 83-year-old hard, she found herself alone in a hospital room, separated from her family and struggling to breathe. Then doctors gave her a new option: Did she want to finish her hospitalization at home? An ambulance brought Nicolau to the triple-decker where she lives in Worcester, and where for the next five days, nurses gave her oxygen, steroids, and antiviral drugs. Doctors talked to her on daily video calls. A biosensor on her arm tracked her vital signs around the clock. ”Everything you would have in the hospital, my mom had here,” said her daughter, Fran, who helped care for her. (Dayal McCluskey, 12/16)

Crain’s Detroit Business:
Henry Ford Health Hospitals, At Or Near Capacity, Delay Surgeries

Henry Ford Health System’s hospitals have had to delay or relocate non-urgent surgeries to manage the increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations, which its executives describe as a crisis. All of the Detroit-based system’s hospitals are near or at capacity and the situation is dire, executives reported in a news conference Wednesday morning. The news follows a similar announcement last week from Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor. (Frank, 12/16)

Rural Arizona Hospitals Seek Feds Help For COVID Staffing

Arizona is committing millions of dollars and asking the federal government for extra help as hospitals face a growing strain from rising COVID-19 caseloads and warn they are nearing their limits. Gov. Doug Ducey earmarked another $35 million aimed at helping hospitals staff their existing beds and discharge patients more quickly. His administration also asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for 133 people to bolster staffing at seven rural hospitals. (12/16)

Weight Of COVID Pushing Health Care Workforce To Breaking Point 

New waves of COVID infections are crashing into a health care system whose workers are at a breaking point — if not already past it. Hospital workers have had little relief from COVID over the past two years. And that burned-out, dispirited workforce is again being overwhelmed by surges from Delta, while facing the specter of yet another wave from Omicron. (Reed, 12/17)

As Hospitals Fill Up, Paramedics Spend More Time Moving Patients, Less On Emergencies

The night after Thanksgiving, a small ambulance service that covers a huge swath of southwestern Colorado got a call that a patient needed an emergency transfer from the hospital in Gunnison to a larger one with an intensive care unit 65 miles away in Montrose. The patient — a 78-year-old man — was experiencing atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that usually isn’t life-threatening. But for patients like this one with chronic health conditions, a history of cardiac issues and high blood pressure, the condition can cause a stroke or heart failure. (Santoro, 12/17)

In other news about the spread of covid —

COVID-19 Fears Dash Hopes For The Holiday Season — Again

Lines again stretch around blocks at some COVID-19 testing sites. Refrigerated mobile morgues are on order, and parts of Europe are re-tightening borders amid a winter spike in coronavirus infections. This year’s holiday season was supposed to be a do-over for last year’s subdued celebrations. Instead it’s turning into a redux of restrictions, cancellations and rising angst over the never-ending pandemic. “This year, more than ever, everyone needed a holiday,” said John McNulty, owner of Thief, a Brooklyn bar that had to close for a day earlier this week because of an infected employee. (Rubinkam, Peltz and Swenson, 12/17)

Cincinnati Enquirer:
With Christmas and Kwanzaa near and COVID-19 a risk, we ask, ‘Would you do this, doc?’

The countdown has reached single digits until Christmas arrives and Kwanzaa commences, and there’s only so much you can get done. You can go last-minute shopping, prepare feasts and plan gatherings for families and friends, get the kids to see Santa, and hit up that office party. You can, with luck anyway. But with omicron around and the delta variant still in the air, the question may be, should you? (Demio, 12/17)

NYC Mayor-Elect Adams Plans New Steps In Covid Response

Eric Adams isn’t mayor yet. But New York City’s mayor-elect plans to make changes to the city’s Covid-19 response when he takes over City Hall on Jan. 1. In reaction to the rapid rise in Covid cases and hospitalizations in the city this week, the mayor-in-waiting pledged to create a new color-coded warning system to alert New Yorkers to the Covid threat level. He said the introduction of the omicron variant and the fast spike in Covid around the holidays would require some changes once he came to office. (Nahmias, 12/16)

USA Today:
Dave Ramsey Sued For Religious Discrimination Over COVID Strategy

Personal finance guru Dave Ramsey required employees at his company to disregard COVID-19 work-from-home orders and attend in-person gatherings of more than 900 workers who were encouraged not to wear masks or maintain social distance, a new federal workplace discrimination lawsuit asserts. Employees at Ramsey Solutions – the Franklin, Tennessee, headquarters for the evangelical Christian bestselling author and media mogul – who wanted to work from home instead of coming to office were guilty of “weakness of spirit,” Ramsey said, according to the lawsuit. (Snider, 12/16)

The Hill:
Florida Man Kicked Off United Flight For Using Underwear As Mask In Protest 

A Florida man was kicked off a United flight for using a thong as a mask to protest the airline’s mask mandate. The passenger, Adam Jenne, told local news outlet NBC2 that he believes he was in compliance with the airline’s mask mandate, as the thong covered both his nose and mouth on the Dec 15. flight between Ft. Lauderdale and Washington, D.C. Airline staff, however, disagreed — and removed him from the flight.  (Raik, 12/16)

The New York Times:
Affordable Coronavirus Tests Are Out There, if You Look

Your ability to find free tests may depend on where you live and work — and how much time and effort you’re willing to devote. Last week, for instance, Vermont issued its own mandate requiring insurers to cover the cost of at-home tests. The rule is retroactive and will apply to all tests purchased on Dec. 1 or after. Other states may ultimately issue similar rules — another reason to save your receipts. In addition, some employers offer free tests for employees on-site, supply free rapid tests to take home or provide health plans that cover the cost of at-home testing. (Anthes, 12/16)

Severe Covid More Than Doubles Patient’s Risk Of Dying Inside A Year

In other sobering covid research news, scientists have found infections can cause long-term impacts to the brain. But AstraZeneca announced a lab study of its antibody drug Evusheld worked against the omicron variant of covid, and a separate study suggests shark antibodies may be useful in the battle against the virus.

WUSF Public Media:
A Severe Case Of COVID Significantly Raises Death Risk In Following Year, UF Study Shows 

New research shows that people who are hospitalized with severe illness due to COVID-19 are more than twice as likely to die in the following year compared to people who did not contract the virus. In this conversation, the study’s lead author, Arch Mainous, a professor of medicine at the University of Florida, says the research points to the need for vaccination to prevent people from getting severe COVID-19 in the first place. (Sheridan, 12/16)

COVID Can Lead To Lasting Harm To The Brain, Scientists Find

Months after a bout with COVID-19, many people are still struggling with memory problems, mental fog and mood changes. One reason is that the disease can cause long-term harm to the brain. “A lot of people are suffering,” says Jennifer Frontera, a neurology professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Frontera led a study that found that more than 13% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients had developed a new neurological disorder soon after being infected. A follow-up study found that six months later, about half of the patients in that group who survived were still experiencing cognitive problems. (Hamilton, 12/16)

On  antibody research —

AstraZeneca Antibody Cocktail Works Against Omicron In Study 

AstraZeneca said on Thursday a lab-study of its COVID-19 antibody cocktail, Evusheld, found that the treatment retained neutralising activity against the Omicron coronavirus variant, showing promise for wider use of the therapy. The study was conducted by independent investigators of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the company said, adding that more analyses of Evusheld against Omicron are being conducted by AstraZeneca and third-parties, with data expected “very soon.” (12/16)

The Washington Post:
Regeneron, AstraZeneca Give Mixed Results On Their Covid Antibody Cocktails Against Omicron 

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and AstraZeneca, makers of monoclonal antibody cocktails used as treatment for many coronavirus patients who have not been vaccinated, announced contrasting data Thursday about the potency of their covid-19 therapies against the omicron variant. Regeneron, which warned earlier this month that its antibody treatment may not be as effective against the new variant, said data confirms it has “diminished potency” against omicron but remains useful against delta. … AstraZeneca, however, said that a lab study of Evusheld, the company’s coronavirus antibody cocktail, found that the treatment “retained neutralizing activity” against omicron. (Bella, 12/16)

Regeneron Developing Antibodies To Target Omicron As Current Cocktail Loses Potency Against Variant

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals is developing new antibodies that work against the omicron variant of Covid-19, after the company confirmed that its current cocktail has diminished potency against the heavily mutated strain. CEO Leonard Schleifer told CNBC on Thursday that Regeneron plans to conduct trials on the new antibodies in the first quarter of 2022. Schleifer said Regeneron is working with the Food and Drug Administration to get the next generation of antibodies approved as efficiently as possible. (Kimball, 12/16)

The Washington Post:
As The Omicron Variant Threatens To Wipe Out Monoclonal Antibodies, The U.S. Is Saving Up One That Will Still Work

With the omicron variant of the coronavirus poised to thwart most covid-19 treatments, U.S. public health officials are stockpiling the one monoclonal antibody that remains effective so that it can be deployed when the variant becomes more prevalent. Omicron represents an estimated 3 percent of coronavirus cases in the United States, but in some states it is estimated to make up 13 percent of all cases, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday. Some hospitals are reporting even more concerning figures: At Houston Methodist, omicron grew from 13 percent of cases to more than 30 percent in four days. In New York, the percent of positive tests doubled in three days — a key sign of accelerating spread. (Johnson, 12/16)

Milkwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Shark Antibodies May Prove Effective Against COVID-19

Nurse sharks gliding around a tank at the University of Wisconsin-Madison may hold the secret to an unusual, previously unexamined treatment for COVID-19, according to a new study published Thursday in the journal Nature Communications. Antibodies derived from the immune systems of sharks proved effective against the new coronavirus, including the Delta variant, in lab experiments using human lung and embryonic kidney cells. (Johnson, 12/16)

Also —

How The Little-Known B And T Cells Can Protect Against COVID Variants 

The body’s long-term immune responses help to defend against emerging coronavirus variants even as antibody immunity is waning in people who are vaccinated or who’ve had prior COVID-19 infections. Variants are testing the success of the COVID-19 vaccines, as antibody levels typically drop after peaking from infection or vaccination. (Drage O’Reilly, 12/16)