Live updates: Omicron disrupts the holidays as COVID-19 cases prompt delays and closures

Published December 27, 2021 at 8:10 AM EST
People with suitcases and masks line up to check in at Los Angeles International Airport on Dec. 21.
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People wait on line to check in for their flights in the international terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) amid a surge in omicron variant cases on Dec. 21.

Thousands of flights were canceled over the weekend, and delays are persisting into this week. The lines for testing are long, but scientists say vaccinations and booster shots are largely warding off severe illness and hospitalizations.

Follow the latest updates on omicron's impact below.

White House

Biden pledges support for governors as they face a new COVID-19 surge

Posted December 27, 2021 at 12:49 PM EST

President Biden met via teleconference with the nation’s governors today, seeking to reassure them that the White House is doing all it can to help tackle the latest surge in omicron-linked COVID-19 infections.

In the call with the National Governors Association, Biden emphasized that “there is no federal solution” to the pandemic. “This gets solved at the state level,” he said.

The president appeared to be responding to criticism that his administration has been slow to ramp up testing, pointing out all his team had done to get tests in the hands of ordinary Americans.

“My message is: If you need something, say something, and we are going to have your back any way we can,” he said.

Delays in getting easy-to-use COVID tests into the hands of the people who need them has confounded public health experts who fear that the administration’s promise of 500 million such tests by next month may be too little, too late to help much with the current surge in cases. Those cases are likely to spike after the family gatherings over Christmas and the New Year.

“I know the lines have gotten very long in some states,” Biden told the governors. “That's why I ordered FEMA to set up pop-up sites in places with high demand to shorten the wait.”

Biden on Monday also said he would support shortening the current 10-day coronavirus quarantine to alleviate staffing shortfalls in hospital workers if health authorities recommend doing so.

He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency had “stood up six new sites in New York City in five days.”

“We went from no over-the-counter test in January to 46 million in October, 100 million in November and almost 200 million in December,” he said.
“But it's not enough. It's clearly not enough,” the president acknowledged.

Nearly two years after the first COVID-19 case in the U.S., Americans are becoming increasingly fatigued with the pandemic and they blame Biden. In polls aggregated by FiveThirtyEight, Biden’s approval ratings have fallen to around 48% from around 60% earlier in his first year in office.

World

Europe imposes new restrictions as omicron infections soar

Posted December 27, 2021 at 12:06 PM EST
Shoppers walk along Regent Street on December 27, 2021 in London, England. Retailers have seen a decrease in footfall amid a recent surge in COVID-19 cases across the UK due to the Omicron variant.
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Shoppers walk along Regent Street on Monday in London. Retailers have seen a decrease in footfall amid a recent surge in COVID-19 cases across the UK due to the omicron variant.

Some Western European countries are imposing new restrictions to slow the spread of omicron as infections on the continent continue to rise.

Under new rules that took effect in Scotland on Monday, physical distancing of 1 meter (roughly 3 feet) was required in pubs, restaurants, gyms and other businesses. Large events were also drastically curtailed starting Sunday morning.

Belgium, which had ordered the closure of cinemas and other businesses last week, was considering additional measures. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said in a newspaper interview that he was mulling mandatory vaccination as hospitals in the country continued to fill up, according to Politico.

Germany reinstituted stricter public health protocols, lowering crowd size limits and canceling fireworks displays for a second year running, theGuardianreported.

The leaders of the United Kingdom and France were also contemplating stronger measures to beat back the rush of omicron.

Data

3 charts on the current state of COVID-19 around the country

Posted December 27, 2021 at 10:36 AM EST

NPR has been tracking COVID-19 cases and deaths as well as vaccination rates across the U.S. with data from the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

See how your state stacks up:

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Fauci says New York was right to ease quarantine rules for health care workers

Posted December 27, 2021 at 10:00 AM EST
Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden, says easing quarantine rules for health care workers will help keep them in their essential jobs.
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Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden, says easing quarantine rules for health care workers will help keep them in their essential jobs.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, is praising New York officials for lowering the number of days health care workers must remain in quarantine after having COVID-19.

The state announced on Christmas Eve that fully vaccinated health care staff and other essential workers can return to work five days after a positive coronavirus test if they meet certain safety standards. Previously they had to remain out for 10 days.

“You need the health care workers. And when you have them out for the full 10 days, and you do that over a wide swath of people, you can have a situation where you really do not have enough health care workers,” Fauci told NPR’sMorning Edition on Monday.

“I think that’s something that we’re going to be considering” beyond New York, Fauci added.

Public health officials have worried that the highly infectious omicron variant, though it may cause milder illness, could once again overwhelm hospitals with the sheer number of patients getting sick.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance for health care workers with COVID-19 last week, saying they could return to work after seven days if they were asymptomatic and had a negative test.

“As the healthcare community prepares for an anticipated surge in patients due to Omicron, CDC is updating our recommendations to reflect what we know about infection and exposure in the context of vaccination and booster doses,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at the time.

Fauci said easing quarantine guidance for the general population would be “under consideration” but added that the administration was currently focusing on getting essential workers back on the job.

Fauci also said during an interview on MSNBC’sMorning Joe that it would be “reasonable to consider” a vaccine requirement for domestic flights. He noted that such mandates already exist for some colleges and workplaces, and that it might help boost the number of Americans who get the shot.

“When you make vaccination a requirement, that’s another incentive to get more people vaccinated,” Fauci said. “If you want to do that with domestic flights, I think that’s something that seriously should be considered.”

World

An Israeli hospital is conducting a trial of a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine

Posted December 27, 2021 at 9:46 AM EST

Sheba Medical Center in Israel is conducting what it calls the world's first thorough trial of a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, as Israel considers a new booster campaign for its older population.

One hundred-fifty hospital staff are participating in the trial, including a heart transplant surgeon. He said he hopes a fourth shot protects him from accidentally passing the omicron variant to his heart patients.

Israel was expected to start offering a fourth round of COVID shots to citizens 60 and older, but health officials are still considering whether that's necessary.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's daughter tested positive for the coronavirus. Officials say further tests show a high probability that Bennett's daughter caught the omicron variant. The prime minister has tested negative but is remaining in isolation at home.

Wellness

Tips for handling another pandemic-scrambled holiday season

Posted December 27, 2021 at 9:36 AM EST

If you're feeling extra stressed this year, you're not alone. Weekend All Things Considered spoke with neuroscientist, wellness coach and author Magdalena Bak-Maier to get advice for those who are feeling the pandemic holiday blues. Listen to the full interview here and read the highlights below.

Why the winter holiday season can be such a hard time, even without a pandemic

Christmas is known to psychologists for being “highly triggering, Bak-Maier says — “if for no other reason than because it tends to bring up a lot of family dynamics.

“It reminds us of our connection with our relatives, memories of people we might have potentially lost, and the stress of it being quite performative, as in, you know, we're asked to be jolly and happy and maybe put on masks of all of that or take part in things when maybe some of us kind of want to sit on the sidelines and not really be part of it. So there's an awful lot about Christmas in its own right that can be very loaded for quite a lot of us.”

What people can do if they’re feeling overwhelmed or isolated

“When people are feeling helpless in any situation, if we can't do it alone, we should certainly reach out for help through any possible means and not find ourselves isolated and alone and trying to deal with these emotions on our own,” Bak-Maier says.

But there are small steps people can take to feel better, she says, like focusing on what we can do in the short term.

“Oftentimes, what we have to really think about is, how am I going to make today be a really good day?” she says.

“I would invite people to really think about, how do you construct the next 24 hours? How do you plan to make sure that you have some things you can look forward to, and begin to take that control back and that sense of agency? And really thinking about how you look after yourself. And that comfort can give your nervous system a better sense that, actually, you can survive the moment.”

Another tip: Looking back at other difficult situations in the past that you’ve overcome, “to fall back on the sense that, you know, if you were able to do that and were resilient in the past, then your own history suggests that you'll be able to get across whatever the next obstacle is as well.”

How routines can help

Routines can be a source of comfort because “we don’t have to think about them” and they can act as a safety net.

“Even if I find it really hard, I know that I get up and I brush my teeth and I make my bed and I give myself a breakfast. And that's already a really good start, you know? And from then on, your brain develops cues from your actions. So as you're moving forward in the day, your mind is getting this cue like, hold on a second. I'm holding it. You know, I'm getting on with the day. And that reinforces a sort of positive loop of direct experience that we're showing up.”

Data

Omicron is spreading quickly, but fewer of the infected are ending up in the hospital

Posted December 27, 2021 at 8:56 AM EST
A crowd forms as people attempt to receive COVID-19 testing kits from city workers in the Brooklyn borough of New York City on Christmas Eve.
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A crowd forms as people attempt to receive COVID-19 testing kits from city workers in the Brooklyn borough of New York City on Christmas Eve.

As the omicron variant coronavirus spreads rapidly, one positive is that a smaller percentage of infected people are winding up in the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms compared to earlier strains.

Washington, D.C.; New York City; Chicago; San Francisco and Seattle are among the cities that have seen rapid and substantial increases in the numbers of infections. There are also big surges in Miami, New Orleans and Houston.

But Dr. Robert Wachter at the University of California, San Francisco, tells NPR’s Michaeleen Doucleff that fewer hospitalizations as a percentage of those infected is likely due to two things: greater immunity among the public from vaccines and prior coronavirus infection, and that omicron might be slightly less severe than delta.

Vaccines don’t stop infections with omicron, but they do reduce the risk of hospitalization by about 70% — with a booster shot, that figure is even higher.

However, Wachter cautions: "If you're a person who has no immunity at all, no vaccination and no prior infection or your prior infection was a year and a half ago and it was mild, you’re not out of the woods.”

“There is a reasonable chance that you will get very sick with omicron,” he says.

Even so, the rapid spread of omicron — resulting in 10,000 cases in a single day in Chicago, for instance, and a more than five-fold increase in the last two weeks in Washington, D.C. — means a lot of infected people. Watcher estimates that in San Francisco 1 and 20 people are walking around the city with COVID and don't even realize it. They're totally asymptomatic. Watcher calls that “pretty shocking.”

“If you were in a room with about 30 or 40 [people], there's almost a near certainty, about a 90% chance that one of them has COVID. So that's a little scary,” he says.

Public opinion

What polling finds about Americans' attitude toward omicron and Biden's approach

Posted December 27, 2021 at 8:09 AM EST

As COVID-19 cases spike and the omicron variant spreads rapidly, partisan gaps remain in Americans' attitudes about the pandemic. Meanwhile, President Biden's approval on how he's handling the virus has fallen.

A new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that nearly 6 in 10 Democrats are concerned about getting seriously ill from COVID-19, compared to about 4 in 10 Republicans, NPR’s Danielle Kurtzleben reports. Those numbers intersect with other divides in the population — Black and Hispanic Americans are more worried than white Americans, and the vaccinated are more worried than the unvaccinated (even though unvaccinated people are at higher risk for severe illness).

And as Americans' fatigue with the virus has grown, their approval of Biden's handling of the pandemic has fallen. While his approval in the first half of this year largely held above 60%, according to polls aggregated by FiveThirtyEight, it's now at around 48%. That reflects slight declines among Democrats and larger declines among Independents and Republicans.

Travel

Flight cancellations blamed in part on omicron continue to snarl holiday travel

Posted December 27, 2021 at 8:03 AM EST
Travelers with suitcases wait for shuttle buses outside the Denver International Airport on Sunday.
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AP
Travelers queue up for shuttle buses to rental car lots at Denver International Airport Sunday. Airlines cancelled hundreds of flights Sunday, citing staffing problems tied to COVID-19 to extend the nation's travel problems beyond Christmas.

The omicron-fueled surge in COVID-19 continues to ripple through commercial airports around the world, causing thousands of cancellations at the height of the holiday travel season.

Many people who planned this year to go to family gatherings after being forced to skip them a year ago found they had trouble getting to them. Airlines have blamed pandemic-related staffing shortages as well as winter storms for the delays and cancellations that have left many holiday travelers with few options.

According to Flight Aware, there were more than 2,200 cancellations on Monday, with more than 750 U.S. flights affected. That adds to the thousands of cancellations that began piling up late last week.

The cancellations at major U.S. aviation hubs in New York; Washington, D.C.; Miami; Atlanta and Chicago affected secondary routes nationwide.
Even so, “things are getting a little better,” CNBC airlines reporter Leslie Josephs tells Up FirstHowever, when flight crews in one area call in sick and flights need to be canceled, she says, it has a “cascade” effect on connecting flights across the country.

Delta told NPR that weather and omicron continue to impact the airline's flight schedule this week.

"Of the 4,155 total mainline and connection flights scheduled Sunday, the airline had canceled 161, with around 40 more cancelations forecasted for the day, fewer cancelations than predicted less than a day ago," according to a statement from the airline.

Lufthansa Airlines said last week it saw a "massive increase in sick leave" that caused some cancellations, though the company could not confirm they were COVID-19 related. "However, today and for the time being, we have no more cancellations and fly our schedule as planned," a spokesman said in a statement to NPR.

International impact

In China, where the new COVID-19 surge in the northwest city of Xian has forced the government to order that roads and buildings be disinfected, hundreds of China Eastern and Air China flights out of Beijing and Shanghai were canceled.

Delta Air Lines said Monday that new cleaning requirements at a Shanghai airport caused it to turn back a flight from Seattle, according to The Associated Press, which quoted from a statement from the airline saying that the new mandates at Shanghai Pudong International Airport “require significantly extended ground time and are not operationally viable for Delta.”

Hong Kong has also banned Korean Air flights from South Korea for two weeks because some arriving passengers were found to be positive for the virus.

Meanwhile, Germany’s Lufthansa has announced that it will cut 10% of its flights this winter due to ripple effects from the new wave of infections across Europe.

"Above all we are missing passengers in our home markets of Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Belgium, because these countries have been hit hardest by the pandemic wave," the airline’s CEO, Carsten Spohr, told a German newspaper, saying the mid-January to February period had seen a sharp drop off in bookings.