‘Unprecedented demand’ leads to home COVID test kit rationing; South Africa’s omicron surge may be over: Live updates – USA TODAY

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Heavy demand for COVID-19 home test kits, including sellouts at some stores, has led major pharmacy chains to ration individual purchases.

Increased interest in testing comes as the nation is experiencing a COVID case surge, and the omicron variant is rising quickly in its percentage of diagnoses. Tests are at a premium for holiday travelers hoping to gather safely with family and friends.

Customers are limited to four over-the-counter antigen tests at Walgreens pharmacies, while CVS is restricting buyers to six kits.

“As the nation experiences a surge in COVID-19 cases coinciding with the holidays, we are seeing unprecedented demand for related testing and vaccine services and products,” Walgreens said in a statement posted on its website Tuesday.

The company said it is working with suppliers to ensure test kits are available through the holidays, but “due to the incredible demand for at-home rapid testing, we put into effect a four-item purchase limit on at-home COVID-19 testing products in our stores and digital properties.”

CVS, which carries five at-home tests, is working “around the clock” to make them available to customers, CVS Health spokesman Joe Goode said Tuesday in a statement to USA TODAY. “To ensure equitable access to tests both in-store and digitally, we’ve added a limit of six test kits per purchase.”

Home tests may temporarily be out of stock online, he said, “due to a recent surge in demand, and to retain community-based access to tests in our stores.” 

In addition to home tests, both chains also offer lab-based and rapid COVID testing at their stores. Because of demand, testing appointments fluctuate and may be limited in many parts of the country, the Walgreens statement said, although the chain expects “appointment availability to rapidly evolve.”

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced the purchase of 500 million at-home rapid COVID-19 tests, which are expected to be available in January.

Also in the news:

► New York; New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; and Puerto Rico all set records Tuesday for their surging COVID-19 case counts. In the week ending Tuesday, cases in Washington were 9.3 times what the CDC says is a high level of community transmission. In New York they were 7.1, New Jersey, 5.7, and Puerto Rico, 2.5, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data show.

►South Africa’s noticeable drop in new COVID-19 cases in recent days may signal that the country’s dramatic omicron-driven surge has passed its peak, medical experts say. After hitting a high of nearly 27,000 new cases nationwide on Thursday, the numbers dropped to about 15,424 on Tuesday. 

► California will require health care workers to receive a COVID-19 booster shot, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday, pledging to make sure hospitals are prepared as a new version of the disease begins to spread throughout the state.

► Royal Caribbean International’s Symphony of the Seas didn’t provide a COVID test to a symptomatic passenger. After disembarking, she tested positive.

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 51.2 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 810,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 276.3 million cases and 5.3 million deaths. More than 204.5 million Americans – 61.6% –  are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC

📘 What we’re reading: Alicia Carrasco, a Latina doctor, wanted to spark trust in the COVID vaccines. So, she enrolled her babies in a clinical trial.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY’s Coronavirus Watch free newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

Omicron doesn’t need to ruin the holidays: Here’s what you need to know about rapid tests

As millions of people seek coronavirus tests before holiday trips to see family and friends, they are encountering familiar challenges of the pandemic – long testing lines and stores often sold out of home tests.

Experts who track testing say the nation’s supply remains uneven 20 months into the pandemic, and the testing shortage comes as the fast-spreading omicron variant accounts for about 3 out of every 4 new COVID-19 cases.

“Testing, in particular, is perhaps the most critical public health tool to support our vaccine efforts to limit transmission,” said Dr. Michael Mina, an infectious disease expert and former Harvard professor. “Testing is our eyes on this virus and if we can’t see it, then we’re flying blind.”

Need to get a test before traveling? While rapid antigen tests are less sensitive – meaning they are slightly less likely to detect the virus when compared to PCR tests – advocates say they are accurate enough to detect the virus when a person is infectious and likely to pass it to others. Read more here.

– Ken Alltucker, USA TODAY

Inaccurate death certificates across the country hide the true toll of COVID-19

Nearly 1 million more Americans have died in 2020 and 2021 than in normal, pre-pandemic years, but about 800,000 deaths have been officially attributed to COVID-19, according to the CDC data. A majority of those additional 195,000 deaths are unidentified COVID-19 cases, public health experts have long suggested, pointing to the unusual increase in deaths from natural causes. 

An investigation by Documenting COVID-19, the USA TODAY Network and experts reveals why so many deaths have gone uncounted: After overwhelming the nation’s health care system, the coronavirus evaded its antiquated, decentralized system of investigating and recording deaths.

Short-staffed, undertrained and overworked coroners and medical examiners took families at their word when they called to report the death of a relative at home. Coroners and medical examiners didn’t review medical histories or order tests to look for COVID-19. They and even some physicians attributed deaths to inaccurate and nonspecific causes that are meaningless to pathologists. In some cases, stringent rules for attributing a death to COVID-19 created obstacles for relatives of the deceased and contradicted CDC guidance.

“Our death investigation system urgently needs both oversight and standardization of training and procedures,” said Andrew Stokes, a professor in the Department of Global Health at the Boston University School of Public Health. “It’s hampered our ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and leaves us unprepared for future public health emergencies.” Read more here.

– The Documenting COVID-19 project and USA TODAY Network

NHL players won’t play in Beijing Olympics as COVID cases surge

The NHL had said it would do everything possible to keep its pledge that players could return to the Olympics.

But with COVID cases surging and games being postponed, the league and players association accepted the inevitable and are opting out, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity because an official announcement hasn’t been made.

When the NHL reached the agreement on the 2022 Winter Games, it said it would depend on whether the COVID-19 situation would create so many postponements that the league would need to use the Feb. 7-22 Olympic break in order to reschedule games.

That happened in recent weeks as COVID-19 cases soared. On Sunday, the league postponed all cross-border games through the Christmas break (Dec. 24-26). On Monday, it decided to start its Christmas break two days early. 

An announcement will be made on Wednesday.

– Mike Brehm, USA TODAY Sports

Contributing: Mike Stucka, USA TODAY; The Associated Press