NY breakthrough infections grow sevenfold, but unvaccinated 13 times more likely to wind up in hospital: COVID-19 updates – USA TODAY

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The daily rate of breakthrough COVID-19 infections among New Yorkers grew more than seven-fold in December but was still dwarfed by new infections among the unvaccinated, newly released data shows.

The number of new coronavirus infections per 100,000 vaccinated residents rose from 29.8 in the first week of the month to 222.3 in the last week, according to data from the New York State Department of Health. In the same period, the rate of new cases in unvaccinated adults rose almost as starkly from 239.6 to 1,583.1 per 100,000.

The data also showed vaccine effectiveness against severe infection remained high, with just 4.59 fully vaccinated adults out of 100,000 being hospitalized with COVID-19 in the week of Dec. 27. Although that number did increase in December, the hospitalization rate for unvaccinated New York state residents is still nearly 13 times higher.

Because of rising breakthrough infections caused by the omicron variant, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a COVID-19 booster shot mandate for New York health care workers.

The mandate, which is pending approval by a state Health Department panel on Tuesday, would require workers at hospitals, nursing homes and other health care settings to get the booster within two weeks of becoming eligible, Hochul said.

– N’dea Yancey-Bragg, USA TODAY and David Robinson, New York State Team

Also in the news: 

►Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, her office said in a statement, which quoted her saying, “I am experiencing cold-like symptoms but otherwise feel fine which I credit to being vaccinated and boosted.”

►With COVID hospitalizations increasing sevenfold in three weeks and the tourist-heavy Mardi Gras events approaching, New Orleans is reinstituting its indoor mask mandate starting Wednesday.

►Ten days into 2022, there have already been more COVID-19 infections this January than in any month of the pandemic. Through Monday the U.S. had reported more than 6.81 million cases, topping December 2020’s previous record of about 6.48 million cases, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows.

World Health Organization Europe director Dr. Hans Kluge told reporters Tuesday that half of Western Europe could be infected with COVID-19 in six to eight weeks, and there is a “closing window of opportunity” to prevent health systems from being overwhelmed.

►The CDC is considering updating its mask guidance to recommend people wear N95 or KN95 masks worn by healthcare professionals, the Washington Post reported

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 62 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 842,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 313 million cases and 5.5 million deaths. More than 207 million Americans – 62.6% – are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

📘What we’re reading: As Americans nationwide continue to scramble for access to quick, reliable COVID-19 tests amid a national shortage, state and local authorities are warning residents to be on the lookout for fraudulent pop-up sites trying to scam people out of money and personal information.

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.

Fauci accuses Rand Paul of inciting threats on his life

Dr. Anthony Fauci and Sen. Rand Paul renewed their feud during a congressional hearing Tuesday, and this time it was the presidential medical adviser going on the offensive.

Fauci accused the Kentucky Republican of endangering his life by repeatedly attacking him for political reasons, and even fund-raising based on his stance against the renowned infectious disease expert. Paul’s website calls for Fauci’s firing.

“Senator, we are here at a committee to look at a virus now that has killed almost 900,000 people (in the U.S.),” Fauci said, “and you keep coming back to personal attacks on me that have absolutely no relevance to reality.

“What happens when he gets out and accuses me of things that are completely untrue is that all of a sudden that kindles the crazies out there, and I have threats upon my life, harassment of my family and my children with obscene phone calls, because people are lying about me.”

— Morgan Watkins, Louisville Courier Journal

Las Vegas school district takes ‘five-day pause’ due to staffing shortage

An “extreme staffing shortage” linked to a wave COVID-19 cases has prompted the school district that serves Las Vegas to close classrooms for two days and other school-related activities for five.

The Clark County School District, one of the largest in the country with 320,000 students, will take a “five-day pause” starting Friday and running through the Tuesday after the holiday weekend. The district is reporting nearly 3,000 coronavirus infections among its staff.

The district said in a statement that staff will be asked to work from home Friday and Tuesday, with in-person instruction resuming Wednesday. Extracurricular activities such as athletics and field trips will be canceled during the five days.

The missed days of instruction are expected to be made up in two future “contingency days.”

United to cancel flights in light of 3,000 workers testing positive

United will cancel an unspecified number of flights in response to having 3,000 of its U.S. employees out of work after testing positive for the coronavirus despite the airline being among the first companies to impose a vaccine mandate.

United CEO Scott Kirby told employees in a memo Tuesday that the near-term reduction in flight inventory is being done to “make sure we have the staffing and resources to take care of our customers.”

JetBlue and Alaska have already announced proactive flight cuts due to an unprecedented number of sick calls.

— Dawn Gilbertson

Shortage of testing brings out scammers, some in fake pop-up sites 

There has been “an uptick in our COVID fraud complaints,” including complaints related to testing, an official of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General said Tuesday.

“We are seeing fraudulent activity around testing. It could be random pop-up sites, and it could be at-home test kits,” said Yvonne Gamble, the office’s Acting Director of Communications. “Be vigilant. Be careful. Be mindful, and make sure whoever you are dealing with is an authorized provider and a place that you can trust.”

A shortage of testing for the coronavirus amid the omicron-driven surge has resulted in long lines at many government-run sites, difficulty in finding at-home tests and the emergence of scammers looking to profit. 

In Illinois, Attorney General Kwame Raoul issued a consumer alert warning residents about “pop-up” COVID-19 testing sites and price gouging of at-home rapid tests.

“It is important for people to know that these sites are not licensed or regulated by a government agency,” Raoul said in a statement, “and they should ask questions before visiting a pop-up testing location – or try to utilize a state-sponsored testing site.”

— Grace Hauck

Omicron may have crested, but its damage has not

The stunning surge of infections nationwide fueled by the omicron variant has probably peaked. Its impact has not.

Hospitalizations and deaths, which trail cases by a few weeks, figure to continue rising for the better part of January, according to modeling by researchers.

As of Monday, reported COVID-19 cases had increased 53% from a week earlier, averaging more than 750,000 new infections per day, according to Johns Hopkins University data. About 27,000 Americans were getting admitted to hospitals every day and more than 1,600 were dying.

“Omicron came in and spread so fast it infected everybody who could be infected. Also, it was the holidays, so people were traveling, which increased the spread,” said Ali Mokdad, professor of epidemiology and health metrics at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine.  

— Elizabeth Weise

Pfizer developing vaccine to target omicron

Developing a COVID-19 vaccine specifically designed to target the omicron variant is “the most likely scenario,” Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla said as new coronavirus cases exploded to more than 700,000 a day in the U.S. on average. The new shot could be ready by March, he said.

Pfizer is working on an omicron-targeted vaccine, Bourla said at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference on Monday, in addition to a shot that includes both the previous vaccine and the omicron-specific vaccine, or a “hybrid,” as he described it. 

“We will have not only data, but I think we will be ready almost to go file and launch if it’s successful and if we need the demand,” he said.

Bourla said the pharmaceutical company will have the quantities to launch the vaccine in March, adding that he believes the general population will have to receive an annual booster shot to keep COVID-19 at bay. Those at high risk may need it more often.

The omicron variant appears to be causing milder illness than the delta variant. However, COVID-19 remains a much more dangerous disease for the unvaccinated, who are 10 times more likely to test positive, eight times more likely to be hospitalized and 20 times more likely to die than someone who’s been fully vaccinated and boosted, the CDC says.

Chicago to resume in-person classes after city, union reach agreement

Chicago teachers and students were set to come back to the classroom this week after city leaders reached an agreement Monday with the Chicago Teachers Union on COVID-19 safety protocols amid a nationwide surge of cases fueled by the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Teachers returned to work Tuesday and students are expected back in classrooms Wednesday for the first time in a week, city leaders said. The Chicago Teachers Union voted late Monday to suspend its labor action after agreeing on a tentative deal, but the union’s 25,000 members must still vote on it.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city and union compromised on a metric that would automatically shift a school to remote learning if a certain number of students and staff test positive.

Classes came to a halt last week after 73% of the union’s members voted in favor of temporarily shifting to remote learning, and the district reacted by canceling classes entirely. The city and the union both filed complaints to a state labor board, and a group of school families filed a lawsuit in Cook County.

– Grace Hauck and Erin Richards, USA TODAY

Kentucky mobilizes more National Guard members to help hospitals with omicron

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday that he will send in more National Guard members to help hospitals, which are “filling up” as the omicron variant “continues to burn through the commonwealth.” 

With 26% of people getting tested for COVID-19 now turning up positive, hospitals have seen a significant increase in patients, Beshear said, and “if we continue (our) trajectory, all of our beds will be filled very soon.”

With the new deployment, Kentucky will have 445 active guard members helping hospitals throughout the state. They will be in 27 hospitals and 10 other facilities, such as nursing homes. 

“Even if omicron remains a milder disease,” Public Health Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack said, “with our hospitals already struggling now, the next few weeks could get much worse.” 

– Sarah Ladd and Olivia Krauth, Louisville Courier-Journal

Contributing: Grace Hauck, USA TODAY; The Associated Press