Americans across the country celebrated Christmas on Saturday – many with empty chairs at dinner tables – amid mounting concerns from the quickly spreading omicron variant.
The dangers posed by the latest coronavirus variant kept many families apart, canceled thousands of flights and led to a new round of restrictions across the globe as the pandemic was on the cusp of stretching into a third year.
As of Saturday, the omicron variant accounted for 73.2% of new COVID-19 infections in the nation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. The week ending Dec. 11, it accounted for only 12.6% of new cases.
States including Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York have reported a record number of cases — the most since the pandemic began, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from John Hopkins University.
New restrictions rolled out in countries across the world. European countries such as France barred large outdoor gatherings on New Year's Eve. Denmark shuttered theaters and museums and banned the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. Spain reinstated its mask mandate and barred non-essential activities in some areas.
Many U.S. churches canceled in-person services, but for those that did have in-person worship, clerics reported smaller but significant attendance.
“Our hopes for a normal Christmas have been tempered by Omicron this year … still filled with uncertainties and threats that overshadow us,” the Rev. Ken Boller told his parishioners during midnight Mass at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in New York City. “Breakthrough used to be a happy word for us, until it was associated with COVID. And in the midst of it all, we celebrate Christmas.”
Also in the news:
► A police chief in a small North Carolina town has been placed on unpaid leave because he reportedly told officers about a “clinic” where they could get COVID-19 vaccination cards without actually being vaccinated.
► The Biden administration will lift its temporary travel ban on South Africa – where omicron was first detected – as well as Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe, on Dec. 31, said Kevin Munoz, White House assistant press secretary, in a tweet Friday.
►A recent study out of South Africa suggests those infected with the omicron variant of the coronavirus are at reduced risks of hospitalization and severe disease compared to those infected with the delta variant. But researchers also cautioned that at least some of this reduction is likely a result of high population immunity in the country.
📈Today's numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 52 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 816,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 279.1 million cases and 5.3 million deaths. More than 204 million Americans – 61.7% – are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
📘 What we're reading: Throughout the pandemic, lawmakers from coast to coast have passed laws, declared emergency orders or activated state-of-emergency statutes that severely limited families’ ability to seek recourse for lapses in COVID-related care. Read the full story.
Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY's free Coronavirus Watch newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.
Thousands of flights canceled on Christmas because of variant
Travelers with last-minute holiday flights this year are scrambling to find new flights as major airlines canceled thousands of flights in large part because of the omicron variant.
More than 2,500 commercial flights were canceled Christmas Day, according to FlightAware. A large share of the flights, more than 1,000, were canceled by Chinese airlines. About 300 were canceled by Delta, 250 by United and another 125 by JetBlue, the flight tracking website reported.
Another nearly 5,000 flights in the U.S. were delayed.
On Christmas Eve, another 2,380 flights were canceled, the website said. Two major U.S. airlines, Delta and United, canceled hundreds of Christmas Eve and Christmas flights. They cite crew shortages after sick calls from the fast spreading omicron variant and weather in pockets of the country.
United canceled 176 Christmas Eve flights, or 9% of scheduled flights, Delta, 151, or 7%, FlightAware reported.
Christmas Day is one of the lightest travel days of the holiday travel rush. JetBlue is also having issues: 72 Christmas Eve flights were canceled, or 7% of its scheduled flights.
Delta said late Friday morning that it expects the cancellations to continue into Sunday, a busy travel day ahead of the new work week.
Callers to Delta's general customer service line were quoted a wait of two hours and 43 minutes late Friday morning. United was quoting a 25- to 30-minute wait. A recording on United's reservations line said "significant weather'' has impacted its call center staffing and urged travelers without flights in the next 72 hours to call back later.
Airlines have struggled with long wait times as travel surged this year.
– Dawn Gilbertson and Christal Hayes, USA TODAY
3 members of K-pop sensation BTS diagnosed with COVID-19
Three members of the K-pop superstar group BTS have been infected with the coronavirus after returning from abroad, their management agency said.
RM and Jin were diagnosed with COVID-19 on Saturday evening, the Big Hit Music agency said in a statement. It earlier said another member, Suga, tested positive for the virus on Friday.
All three got their second jabs in August, the agency said.
BTS is a seven-member boy band. The four other members are J-Hope, Jungkook, V and Jimin.
According to the agency, RM has exhibited no particular symptoms while Jin is showing mild symptoms including light fever and is undergoing self-treatment at home. The agency said Friday that Suga wasn’t exhibiting symptoms and was administering self-care at home in accordance with the guidelines of the health authorities.
RM had tested negative after returning from the United States earlier this month following his personal schedule there. But he was later diagnosed with the virus ahead of his scheduled release from self-quarantine, the agency said.
On Christmas, pope prays for pandemic’s end
Pope Francis prayed Saturday for an end to the coronavirus pandemic, using his Christmas Day address to urge health care for all, vaccines for the poor and for dialogue to prevail in resolving the world’s conflicts.
Amid a record-setting rise in COVID-19 cases in Italy this week, only a few thousand people flocked to a rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square for Francis’ annual “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the city and the world”) Christmas address. Normally, the square would be packed with tens of thousands of holiday well-wishers.
At least they could gather this year. Italy’s 2020 holiday lockdown forced Francis to deliver a televised address from inside the Apostolic Palace to prevent crowds from forming in the square. Although Italy this week counted more than 50,000 cases in a single day for the first time, the government has not ordered another lockdown.
Francis prayed for “consolation and warmth” for older adults who are alone because of the pandemic, as well as for health care workers who “generously devote themselves” to caring for the sick.
“Grant health to the infirm and inspire all men and women of good will to seek the best ways possible to overcome the current health crisis and its effects,” he said. “Open hearts to ensure that necessary medical care – and vaccines in particular – are provided to those peoples who need them most.”
Positive COVID test? Here’s what to do.
Testing positive for COVID-19 starts a confusing, disruptive and at times frightening process – one that millions of Americans will likely go through in coming weeks as the omicron variant rapidly spreads this holiday season.
First, you need to isolate. That’s a more intense version of quarantining – it means cutting off contact with other people as much as possible, so that you reduce your chances of infecting them. It also means forgoing travel, not going to work and even limiting contact with people in your own household who aren't infected.
The CDC says it’s a necessary step whether you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated; showing symptoms or feeling fine.
Everyone who tests positive for COVID-19 should also monitor their symptoms. And people who are unvaccinated or at high risk for severe disease should be extra vigilant for symptoms that might require emergency care. Call your doctor for early treatment options.
How long should you isolate? How long will I be contagious? What if you are a close contact with someone who tested positive? Here’s what you should know about omicron and COVID this holiday season.
Contributing: Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Thousands more flights canceled because of omicron: COVID updates