Omicron and Vaccine News: Covid Live Updates – The New York Times

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Passengers last month at Berlin Brandenburg airport in Germany.
Credit…Clemens Bilan/EPA, via Shutterstock

The European Union recommended on Tuesday that people traveling among its 27 member states who have been vaccinated in the past nine months or recovered from the coronavirus should not face additional restrictions like testing or quarantine — the latest indication that the bloc is accepting Covid-19 as a part of everyday life rather than a severely disruptive force.

The change came a day after the World Health Organization said that the spread of the Omicron variant could change the pandemic from overwhelming to manageable.

“Omicron offers plausible hope for stabilization and normalization,” said Dr. Hans Kluge, the agency’s director for Europe, although he cautioned it was too early to drop the restrictions entirely, as large areas of the global population remain unvaccinated.

Under the new recommendation, E.U. residents with a Covid digital certificate recording their full course of vaccination, a certificate of recent recovery from the disease or a negative test result not older than 72 hours will be able to move freely across the bloc.

The rules, which come into force on Feb. 1, are aimed at coordinating travel restrictions across the bloc. Public health measures remain the remit of national governments, a dynamic that in the past has led to a patchwork of chaotic rules. Individual countries can still impose additional requirements on visitors, such as quarantines or negative test results.

But the bloc recommended additional restrictions for people who are not vaccinated or have not recovered from the virus, and who are coming from areas that the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control indicates as having a high circulation of the virus. Such people will be able to travel if they can show a negative test result, but will have to quarantine and undergo additional testing.

Given a spike in infections because of Omicron, which is now the dominant variant in Europe, almost the entire bloc is within that high-circulation zone.

In an attempt to encourage more Europeans to get booster shots, the bloc also said that proof of two-dose vaccinations will expire after nine months. After that period, people who want to renew their digital certificates must get an additional coronavirus vaccine dose. So far, slightly over 40 percent of the bloc’s residents have received an extra dose.

The bloc is also retaining a legal tool that will allow it to swiftly introduce more restrictive travel rules if a threatening new variant or other Covid emergency emerges.

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Olympic officials in China said on Tuesday that they had confirmed a coronavirus case connected to a foreign athlete or team official who is part of a bubble set up to insulate participants in the Beijing Games from the rest of the country.

The 2022 Winter Olympic Organizing Committee said the case was one of three new confirmed ones among 15 infections. Twelve of the positive cases were among new arrivals.

The outbreak underscores the reality that the virus is likely to continue to spread within the bubble — which was set up as much to protect China from a Covid-19 outbreak as it was to shield the athletes — as participants continue to arrive in Beijing over the coming week.

In an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus, China has sought to separate Olympic participants. Athletes will eat, live and compete only among a group of people who do not interact the general population.

Olympics officials say that participants who test positive but are asymptomatic will be sent to a special quarantine area within the bubble. Others will be treated in one of two hospitals.

With China committed to a zero-tolerance approach to the spread of the virus, the precautions around the bubble are tougher than the measures taken in Tokyo during last year’s Summer Olympics. Along with regular testing, participants will have to leave China immediately after the Games or face weeks of quarantine.

The news coronavirus cases are not the first to emerge inside the bubble. Before Tuesday, there had been 35 Olympic personnel who tested positive for the virus in the bubble, though they were categorized as “other stakeholders,” according to the committee. An additional 55 people tested positive on arrival during airport testing.

Despite its aggressive efforts to stamp out the virus, China has struggled to contain new waves of infections across the country. This month, the organizing committee said that members of the public would not be sold tickets to attend the Games, except for a select few who would be screened in advance.

In other global news:

  • Nearly two days after New Zealand imposed its highest level of coronavirus restrictions because of the threat of Omicron, the government said residents would not be able to buy rapid antigen tests over the counter because of a shortage of supply and amid concerns about the tests being misused. The government will instead supply them to high-risk people, including those with symptoms or to workers and businesses in certain sectors. “People who need a test will be able to access a test,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a news conference on Tuesday. There are 4.6 million rapid tests in the country, and 36.6 million more on order.

Natasha Frost contributed reporting, and Liu Yi contributed research.

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Credit…Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

The Food and Drug Administration has formally restricted the use of antibody treatments that lost their once-considerable effect when faced with the Omicron variant, pausing a therapy that had been widely embraced, including by people who eschewed vaccinations.

Many health systems stopped using the antibody treatments weeks ago as Omicron surged. And while doctors have welcomed the news of additional treatments like antiviral pills, they say the trickle of pills and other treatments are no match for the geyser of new cases.

The F.D.A. said on Monday that it was limiting the emergency use authorizations of the Regeneron and Eli Lilly antibody treatments to say the infusions should not be used now, with the Omicron variant dominant, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated at 99.5 percent of all new cases nationally.

During an earlier wave driven by the Delta variant, those Regeneron and Lilly medications were effective at keeping infected people out of the hospital if given early enough. As Omicron emerged, it became apparent that the treatments would not neutralize the virus, and large health systems, including some in New York City, stopped using them in December.

Federal officials moved to pause their use soon after but were rebuked by Republican governors saying they could still help some patients with the Delta variant. That has become an increasingly shaky position, given the difficulty most doctors have in figuring out which variant each patient has.

Since then, one monoclonal antibody treatment by GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology has remained effective against Omicron, though doctors have said it is in short supply. Physicians on the front lines who stopped using the ineffective treatments in December immediately began looking for replacements as cases soared.

Federal officials in January began shipping the antiviral pills Paxlovid by Pfizer and molnupiravir from Merck. The medications have proven complicated to dispense, given Paxlovid’s interactions with many other drugs and molnupiravir’s risks to patients of childbearing age.

They have also been hard to find, with doctors saying they have to place dozens of calls to find pills in stock at pharmacies.

Dr. Mark Morocco, a University of California, Los Angeles emergency physician, said high-risk patients, no longer eligible for the antibody treatments, were getting treatment that is similar to what people got in 2020, including supplemental oxygen and steroids. As for the antiviral pills and the effective antibody treatments, he said, supplies are “very difficult to find.”

“In my view, those drugs are not really available, essentially to us, at all,” Dr. Morocco said.

Despite the lack of efficacy in the Regeneron and Eli Lilly products, federal data show that nearly 20,000 doses were given to patients last week alone, with the heaviest use in Florida, Louisiana and Michigan.

The treatments, widely considered safe, can have side effects including shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting.

Options for the early treatment of Covid continue to expand. On Friday, the F.D.A. approved the use of remdesivir for outpatients, as researchers found it effective at reducing hospitalizations when used early.

Brii Biosciences has announced that its monoclonal antibody works well against Omicron and is under review by the F.D.A.

New, effective treatments can’t come soon enough, though, said Dr. Steve Pergam, a professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who also treats patients.

He said quantities were so sparse that early treatments are going to the leukemia patients with the highest risk of death from Covid. And given the current delays in testing, matching the highest-risk cancer patients to the handful of treatments is a major undertaking.

“The thing we tell patients is you need to do everything you can to not get this,” he said, “because it can still be pretty dangerous.”

Christina Jewett

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A New York State judge ruled on Monday that the state’s mask mandate had been enacted unlawfully and is now void, according to court documents.

In December, amid a winter virus surge, Gov. Kathy Hochul renewed a mask mandate at all indoor public places throughout the state — including in schools and nursing homes and on public transit — to last a month. The state Health Department then extended the mandate an additional two weeks, to expire on Feb. 1.

In his decision, State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Rademacher wrote that Ms. Hochul and state health officials lacked the authority to enact the mask mandate without the approval of state lawmakers. Regardless of the “well aimed” intentions of state officials, such authority is “entrusted solely to the State Legislature,” Justice Rademacher wrote.

The state attorney general’s office plans to appeal the ruling. And Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state Education Department, said the state Health Department would appeal, which would automatically restore the mask rule until an appellate court issues a ruling.

“Therefore, schools must continue to follow the mask rule,” she added.

While the ruling overturns the statewide mandate for masks in schools and public places, it does not reverse local mandates.

Ms. Hochul said in a statement on Monday that her office strongly disagreed with the ruling and would be “pursuing every option to reverse this immediately.”

“My responsibility as governor is to protect New Yorkers throughout this public health crisis, and these measures help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and save lives,” she said.

The ruling was applauded by some Republicans, including Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, who said in a statement on Monday that it was a “win for small businesses, parents, students, and the freedom of all New Yorkers.”

“Governor Hochul’s authoritarian mandates were crushing New York small businesses that already have faced unprecedented challenges throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ms. Stefanik said. “By forcing masks on the children in our schools, these mandates have impeded the development of our next generation.”

In New York, the Omicron surge has been receding, but it is not over. An average of about 20,000 people are now testing positive daily for Covid-19, down sharply from this surge’s peak of 90,000 people who tested positive on Jan. 7. The rate of positivity has also fallen, by half, from over 22 percent to 10 percent.

But New York’s daily cases remain far higher than at the start of the surge in early December, and hospitals are still straining to treat about 10,000 Covid patients statewide. Hospitalizations have begun declining but remain higher than at any point since May 2020. More than 130 people each day have been dying of the virus statewide.