Global risk of omicron variant is 'very high;' Biden urges vaccinations, masks; judge blocks vaccine mandate: Latest COVID-19 updates

·7 min read

The omicron variant first discovered in South Africa last week is likely to quickly spread around the globe and could result in "severe consequences," the World Health Organization warned Monday.

"There could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences depending on a number of factors including where surges may take place," the WHO said in a technical brief. "The overall global risk related to the (omicron variant) is assessed as very high."

The WHO said there is currently no information to suggest symptoms connected with omicron differ from those associated with other variants. No deaths linked to the omicron variant have been reported, the WHO added. However, it said preliminary evidence raises the possibility the variant has mutations that could help it both evade an immune-system response and make it more transmissible.

President Joe Biden addressed the latest threat Monday, once again urging Americans to get vaccinated, obtain a booster shot and wear masks in public places.

"This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic," Biden said. "We have more tools to fight the variant than we have ever had before."

And if more are needed, the U.S. will develop them, Biden said, reiterating with a tweet later in the day what he said at his news briefing:

"In the event — hopefully unlikely — that updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to Omicron, we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool,'' Biden said.

The U.S. will need about two weeks to learn more definitive information about the omicron variant's transmissibility and severity, Dr. Anthony Fauci said.

The variant already has been identified in countries across the world, including France, Canada, Australia and Hong Kong. Fauci told Biden that he believes "existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID."

Also in the news:

►Citing the emergence of the omicron variant, the CDC on Monday said "everyone ages 18 and older should get a booster shot'' of the COVID vaccine if it has been at least six months since they completed the regimen of Pfizer or Moderna shots or two months after getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

►Pfizer will request FDA authorization of its booster shot for 16- and 17-year-olds in the coming days, the Washington Post reported.

►On the first day of trading after initial news of the omicron variant sent the S&P 500 tumbling by 2.3% Friday, its worst day since February, the markets bounced back. The S&P 500 was up by 1.3% at closing and the Dow Jones gained 237 points.

►Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy was placed in the NFL's COVID-19 protocol on Monday and will miss Thursday night’s game in New Orleans after testing positive.

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►Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general, said it's "unacceptable" for some countries to vaccinate groups at very low risk of severe disease and give boosters to healthy adults while just 1 in 4 African health workers has been vaccinated.

📈Today's numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 48.4 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 778,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 262 million cases and 5.2 million deaths. Nearly 197 million Americans — roughly 59.3% of the population — are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

📘What we're reading: Omicron, how do you even pronounce it? The latest variant's name comes from the Greek alphabet. Here's what it means.

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Judge halts vaccine mandate for health care workers in 10 states

A federal judge in Missouri has blocked the Biden administration from imposing a COVID vaccine mandate on health care workers in 10 states, saying it lacks a ''rational connection between the facts found and the choice made.''

U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp also said the requirements issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid failed to get congressional approval, which he argued was necessary, and were not subjected to the usual period of public comment.

"Truly, the impact of this mandate reaches far beyond COVID," Schelp wrote. "CMS seeks to overtake an area of traditional state authority by imposing an unprecedented demand to federally dictate the private medical decisions of millions of Americans. Such action challenges traditional notions of federalism."

In addition to Missouri, the judge's ruling applies to Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, New Hampshire, Nebraska, Wyoming and North and South Dakota. All had sued claiming the vaccination mandate was unconstitutional.

-- Galen Bacharier, Springfield News-Leader

Biden says vaccines, not lockdowns, the right tool against omicron variant

President Joe Biden vowed there would be no new lockdowns imposed in response to the new variant of the coronavirus — named omicron — instead encouraging Americans to get vaccinated and wear masks indoors in public places as the best tools to fight off COVID-19.

"The best protection against this variant or any of the variants out there ... is getting fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot,'' Biden said in a White House news briefing Monday. "Most Americans are fully vaccinated but not yet boosted.''

During a meeting with the COVID-19 response team Sunday, presidential adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci told Biden existing vaccines – particularly those augmented with booster shots – will provide protection against severe cases of COVID-19.

Biden plans to outline Thursday a "detailed strategy" on how the administration will combat COVID-19 in the coming winter.

"Not with shutdowns or lockdowns," he said. "But with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more." He also urged Americans to wear masks when indoors at public venues. Read more here.

Much of omicron remains a mystery, but vaccination figures to help

Much remains unknown about omicron, the new variant of concern whose presence is increasingly identified in countries throughout the world. Canada, the U.K, Spain and Portugal are among nations recently detecting cases.

The extent of omicron's transmissibility -- is it more or less contagious than the highly infectious delta variant? -- its ability to evade vaccine protection and the severity of illness it causes remain a mystery.

It is likely COVID-19 vaccines provide a measure of protection, scientists believe, but it's not clear how much. Here's what we do know about omicron.

Biden says travel restrictions provide time to combat omicron variant

The WHO urged countries not to impose flight bans on southern African nations, saying in a statement that "South Africa should be thanked for detecting, sequencing and reporting this variant, not penalized."

The U.S., however, on Monday began restricting travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. Biden said the restrictions are to provide time for public health officials to learn more about omicron – and for more Americans to get vaccinated and obtain booster shots.

"Sooner or later we will see cases of this new variant in the United States," Biden acknowledged.

WHO gathers for special session on new rules for outbreaks

The WHO's World Health Assembly began a special session Monday to discuss a new global treaty for responding to future pandemics. The special session, just the second in the history of the WHO, will last until Wednesday.

The session is geared toward establishing a process to draft agreements "on pandemic preparedness and response," according to a news release from the organization. Tedros told the gathering the international response to the pandemic has been slow and uncoordinated.

"Omicron’s very emergence is another reminder that, although many of us might think we are done with COVID-19, it is not done with us," Tedros said. "We are living through a cycle of panic and neglect. Hard-won gains could vanish in an instant."

Omicron variant identified in more countries across the globe

Cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus popped up in countries on opposite sides of the world Sunday as many governments rushed to close their borders.

Japan announced it would suspend entry of all foreign visitors hours after Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners. Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday — among a growing raft of travel curbs being imposed by nations around the world as they scrambled to slow the variant's spread.

Scientists in several places, from Hong Kong to Europe, have confirmed its presence since South Africa announced its presence last week.

“This time the world showed it is learning,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, singling out South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for praise. “South Africa’s analytic work and transparency and sharing its results was indispensable in allowing a swift global response. It no doubt saved many lives.”

Canada’s health minister said the country's first two cases of omicron were found in Ontario after two individuals who had recently traveled from Nigeria tested positive.

Contributing: Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Omicron update: Do not panic over latest COVID variant, Biden says