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The omicron variant should create a wealth of immunity for at least the next year and annual COVID-19 shots will probably be needed for "some time," Bill Gates says.
"Once Omicron goes through a country then the rest of the year should see far fewer cases so COVID can be treated more like seasonal flu," Gates tweeted during a Twitter QandA with Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, earlier this week.
Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said a "more transmissive variant" than omicron is not likely to emerge. But he acknowledged that COVID-19 has provided numerous surprises during the pandemic.
Fueled by the omicron variant, the pace of newly reported COVID-19 infections in the United States is still rising. The country reported more than 5.5 million cases in the week ending Wednesday, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. Compared to a week before, 47 states had rising case counts, 38 states had rising death counts and 49 states had more COVID-19 patients in hospital beds. The country now has more than 152,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, federal data shows, and about 25,200 people are in intensive-care beds.
Also in the news:
►West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, whose state was an early leader in COVID vaccinations but now sits well below the national average, said he's feeling better after initially experiencing moderate symptoms of the disease. “Without question, the fact that I chose to get vaccinated and boosted saved my life,'' said Justice, 70, who tested positive Tuesday.
►Center for COVID Control, a nationwide coronavirus testing company under investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice, is pausing operations for a week.
►CDC guidelines recommend wearing every N95 and KN95 mask for no more than five uses. Some experts offered tips on how to keep masks clean and in good working order. Read more here.
►Doctors in Kansas and Missouri are hunting down ventilators and running out of monoclonal antibodies. St. Louis’ health director urged people to only leave home to go to work, school, doctor’s appointments and grocery shopping. Both states have vaccination rates well below 60%, per the CDC. Almost 63% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated.
►Novak Djokovic drew the top seed Thursday in the Australian open and was issued a first-round match for Sunday – even though Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has yet to announce whether he will cancel Djokovic's visa. The tennis star says he doesn't need to meet Australia's vaccine requirement because he already has contracted COVID.
📈Today's numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 63.97 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 846,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 319 million cases and nearly 5.5 million deaths. More than 208 million Americans – 62.8% – are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
📘What we're reading: Should you swab your throat with an at-home COVID test amid omicron? This is why experts say no.
Supreme Court blocks Biden vaccine mandate for large employers
The federal government can't force companies to require their employees to vaccinate against COVID-19 or test for it, but it can mandate that health care workers at facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding get the shots, the Supreme Court ruled in unsigned opinions Thursday.
The first decision constitutes a significant blow to the Biden administration's efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic, considering it applies to 84 million-plus workers at companies with more than 100 employees. However, many of the employers had already implemented the requirement, leading to a surge in vaccinations.
"Although Congress has indisputably given OSHA the power to regulate occupational dangers, it has not given that agency the power to regulate public health more broadly," wrote the court, which voted 6-3 along ideological lines on this issue. "Requiring the vaccination of 84 million Americans, selected simply because they work for employers with more than 100 employees, certainly falls in the latter category."
The other decision impacts more than 10 million health care workers.
– John Fritze
Even with schools open, large number of students absent
With all the efforts being made to keep schools open for in-person instruction, there's increasingly a missing element in classrooms -- students.
Teachers around the U.S. are confronting classrooms where as many as half of students are absent because they have been exposed to COVID-19 or their families kept them at home out of concern about the surging coronavirus. Some of the nation's biggest school systems report absentee rates around 20% or higher.
In New York, about 76% of the city’s approximately 1 million public school students attended class Wednesday, and low attendance has prompted Mayor Eric Adams to go back on a pledge to keep children in schools. Adams said he'll consider allowing a return to some form of virtual instruction.
Los Angeles public schools marked about 30% of the district's 600,000-plus students absent Tuesday, the first day back after the winter break. In Seattle, attendance has averaged 81% so far this semester. That figure is down from a normal of 90% to 83% in Clark County, Nevada, home to Las Vegas.
“This is really taking a toll on the learning,'' said Tabatha Rosproy, an educator at a school in Olathe, Kansas, who was named the 2020 national Teacher of the Year. "If you have three kids in your class one day and you’re supposed to have 12, you have to reteach everything two weeks later when those kids come back.”
US to buy another 500 million at-home, rapid tests
The federal government will buy 500 million at-home rapid COVID-19 tests, doubling the purchase the White House announced last month, President Joe Biden said Thursday. Biden spoke about what the administration is doing in response to the current coronavirus surge.
The first batch of 500 million tests, which Biden announced in December, have yet to be distributed. Americans will be able to request tests through an online website that has yet to be unveiled. The tests will be sent to people's homes.
– Maureen Groppe
Experts urge pregnant people to get vaccinated at 'earliest opportunity'
The number of pregnant people who are getting vaccinated is steadily increasing amid the coronavirus current surge, but health experts say the modest improvement is not enough. The renewed concern comes following a large study published Thursday in "Nature Medicine" that shows unvaccinated pregnant people and their babies may suffer the worst consequences of the virus. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh Usher Institute analyzed a database that tracked nearly 145,000 pregnancies in 130,000 women from March 2020 to Oct. 2021. The study found 98% of pregnant women admitted to critical care were unvaccinated.
Researchers reported more than 450 perinatal deaths, when a baby dies in the womb or during the newborn period, all associated with unvaccinated pregnant women.
“The key take home message that we’d love to get across is that the better way to protect mom and baby is vaccination at the earliest opportunity," said study co-author Aziz Sheikh. "That can be done at any stage in pregnancy." Read more here.
– Adrianna Rodriguez
High risk? Don't take chances with COVID-19
As the coronavirus tears across America, it is a particularly bad time for high-risk people to catch COVID-19. And that means a lot of Americans are vulnerable. Nearly 40% of U.S. adults are considered at high risk for a serious infection because they're over 65, are carrying extra pounds or have certain medical conditions. And while there are good treatments to prevent infected people from needing hospital care, including two medications approved recently, they are almost totally unavailable across the country.
"Right now, we've got nothing else to treat ambulatory patients with COVID," said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, who directs the division of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "We have no monoclonals right now. We don't have the oral drugs yet and we don't have any other options – so it's really really important to try to protect yourself." Read more here.
– Karen Weintraub
Experts criticize CDC messaging
Many Americans navigating the COVID-19 pandemic during the latest virus surge say frequent changes in federal guidelines don't make their lives any easier. And they aren't alone in their frustration. Some prominent health experts who have stood by the CDC and its science-based decisions since the beginning of the pandemic are now criticizing the agency for poor communication.
On every policy update, the CDC must back up its decision with clear data and translate the science so the general public can understand it, said Thomas Hipper, associate director of the Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health. When announcing the new isolation guidelines on Dec. 27, CDC officials failed to specifically cite the science, Hipper said.
“Simply announcing the change and trying to explain it without the clear rationale leaves you exposed to questioning,” he said. “Letting the public see those imperfect choices helps justify why the decision was made.”
Health experts said the second issue contributing to the CDC’s messaging problem is that local health departments and national organizations feel left out of the agency's decision-making. Finally, experts said, the CDC has left itself open to charges that it lacks accountability. The agency has reiterated the science of the pandemic is evolving, and although that is true, health experts say the CDC still needs to acknowledge its errors in that space of inherent uncertainty.
“It humanizes this effort, and it would go a long way in building back trust,” Hipper said. “There’s nothing wrong in acknowledging that, ‘Hey, we didn’t get everything right, but we’re committed to getting it as right as we can.’”
More kids being hospitalized, but cases generally not too severe
More kids in America are testing positive for the coronavirus as the nation hits records in cases and hospitalizations. Children have made up more than 7 million of the 63 million U.S. infections since the pandemic began.
Given the "astonishing number of new infections" in children each day, University of South Florida epidemiology professor Jason Salemi expects to see more children being hospitalized for COVID-19 in the coming weeks. Fortunately, because of the relatively mild symptoms in most omicron patients, the vast majority of these cases won't be too severe, experts say. You can find details and data on kids and COVID here.
– Janie Haseman and Aleszu Bajak
COVID patients crowding out other patients in need
Just as a cresting wave of COVID-19 patients need care, hospitals are facing severe staffing issues because so many are either out sick themselves, caring for family members or quarantining because of exposure. About one in five hospitals reported having “critical staff shortages” in data released Wednesday by the Department of Health and Human Services, a USA TODAY analysis found. One in four anticipated critical shortages within the next week. Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky and New Hampshire have less than 10% capacity remaining in their ICUs.
Physicians such as Chicago cancer surgeon Dr. Ryan Merkow must make wrenching decisions about who gets operated on and who must wait. He said Northwestern Memorial Hospital is "full of COVID patients. Our surgical floors have been converted to COVID floors."
Some cancer patients go through chemo and fly in family members to help with recovery. “And then we have to pull the rug out from under them,” he said. Read more here.
– Elizabeth Weise and Kristen Jordan Shamus
Biden sending medical teams to states overwhelmed by surge
The federal government is sending medical teams to six states – New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, Michigan and New Mexico – to help hospitals overburdened by COVID-19, USA TODAY has learned. President Joe Biden announced the deployments Thursday when discussing steps the administration is taking to address a surge in infections driven by the omicron variant.
His remarks come as hospitalizations for COVID-19 are setting records. Some hospitals are delaying elective surgeries as states are deploying National Guard members to health care facilities. Biden faces pressure even from members of his own party to do more to get the pandemic under control, and his new actions are expected to center on additional manpower.
-- Maureen Groppe and Donovan Slack, USA TODAY
Contributing: Mike Stucka, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bill Gates says COVID will soon be like the seasonal flu. Updates.