The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Tag: omicron variant

Biden White House Ramps Up Delivery Of Free COVID Tests And KN-95 Masks

The Biden administration is taking several steps to address the latest wave of COVID-19, including the creation of a response team designed to head off possible future variants of the coronavirus.

Experts say the month of February will likely be "tough" in terms of omicron, though there are signs that the wave may be peaking as reported infections and hospitalizations slow. Health officials are simultaneously concerned about future variants developing and groups like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control continue to monitor the ever-changing situation.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, meanwhile, has made moves to address the crisis, recently launching the Pandemic Innovation Task Force, which is focused on developing treatments, vaccines, testing, and other tools to respond to variants that may appear within six months to two years.

Eric Lander, who serves as President Joe Biden's science adviser, leads the group along with Dawn O'Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services. Bloomberg reported that the task force builds on the $65.3 billion, 10-year pandemic preparedness plan released by the White House in September to coordinate efforts across the government in the event of future outbreaks.

That plan is a reversal from former President Donald Trump, whose team, upon taking over, discarded the pandemic preparedness plan left in place by President Barack Obama's team and left the Office of Science and Technology Policy director seat vacant for two years.

The Biden administration on Tuesday also launched an official website to offer COVID-19 tests to every American household, a day ahead of the scheduled launch.

The site, COVIDtests.gov — which allows each household to order 4 free at home COVID-19 test kits, to be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service — immediately attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors and was the most visited federal government page. According to the official federal government analytics site, it received over 47 million visits in its first 48 hours of operation.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration also announced that it would make 400 million N95 masks available to Americans for free. The masks are being sourced from the Strategic National Stockpile and will be sent to local pharmacies and community health centers for anyone to pick up.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance on Jan. 14 to reflect the fact that N95 caliber masks, in comparison to cloth masks, "offer the highest level of protection" against COVID-19 infection.

Biden has publicly voiced support for masks since the height of the pandemic in 2020 and has continued to publicly mask himself while promoting vaccination efforts.

Republished with permission from American Independent

Fox News Promotes Its Dumbest Anti-Vax Lie To Date

Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant, Fox News has been relentlessly undermining the vaccination effort, including by recklessly misinterpreting a Danish study on vaccine efficacy against the latest variant.

The study, circulated by professional COVID-19 “contrarian” Alex Berenson and mentioned in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, was originally published on medRxiv, a website for preliminary studies that have not been peer-reviewed. A warning on the website states the studies “should not be relied on to guide clinical practice or health-related behavior and should not be reported in news media as established information.”

This warning did not stop Fox hosts and personalities from citing the study and cherry-picking data to claim that vaccination makes it more likely for an individual to contract COVID-19. The study found that 90 days post “vaccine protection,” or the date 14 days post-second dose, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine had negative vaccine efficacy. The authors of the study, however, explained the unusual result as “different behavior and/or exposure patterns in the vaccinated and unvaccinated cohorts causing underestimation of the vaccine efficacy.”

In an email to PolitiFact, one of the authors of the study also suggested that the negative efficacy could be explained by the fact that vaccinated people may test more than unvaccinated people and an overrepresentation of vaccinated people in the studied cohort. Furthermore, Fox hosts and personalities failed to convey the authors’ conclusion that “booster vaccination offer[s] a significant increase in protection” and that their “findings highlight the need for massive rollout of vaccinations and booster vaccinations.”

Article reprinted with permission from Media Matters

Biden Orders Insurance Companies To Cover Eight Monthly COVID Tests

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Insurance companies will be required to cover eight over-the-counter at-home coronavirus tests per person each month starting Saturday, the Biden administration said, expanding access to highly sought-after kits as Americans grapple with a surge in coronavirus cases.

The White House also said on Monday that there is no limit to the number of COVID-19 tests, including at-home tests, that insurers must cover if they are ordered or administered by a health care provider.

The measures are part of a bid by President Joe Biden to make testing more widely available to Americans facing soaring coronavirus cases due to the highly infectious Omicron variant.

In a speech in December, Biden outlined plans to distribute 500 million at-home coronavirus test kits and stand up new federal testing sites, adding to the 20,000 already in existence. However, experts decried the announcement as "too little too late" amid testing shortages nationwide.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday that Americans should be able to order the tests online later this month, noting that all contracts for rapid tests should be awarded over the next two weeks. The first was signed last week.

Under the insurer coverage plan announced Monday, the administration said that insurers are still required to reimburse tests purchased by consumers outside of their network, at a rate of up to $12 per individual test.

It was not immediately clear what incentives were offered to insurers to agree to the plan. The Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Eric Beech and Alexandra Alper; Editing by Chris Reese and Cynthia Osterman)

Airport Chaos As More Than 2,600 US Flights Are Cancelled

Washington (AFP) - Air travel continued to be severely disrupted in the United States on Saturday, with bad weather in parts of the country adding to the impact of a massive spike in Covid-19 infections fuelled by the Omicron variant.

The United States had 2,604 cancelled flights, more than half of the 4,529 cancelled worldwide, shortly after 4:30 pm (2130 GMT), according to tracking website FlightAware.

In addition, 3,447 domestic flights were delayed on Saturday, out of a total of 7,602 worldwide for the day.

The worst affected US airline was Southwest, which had to cancel 13 percent of its flight schedule, according to the site.

In the United States, airports in Chicago were particularly hard-hit because of difficult weather, with a snowstorm expected in the area on Saturday afternoon and into the night.

The global air travel industry is still reeling from the highly contagious Omicron variant.

Many pilots, flight attendants and other staff are absent from work after contracting Covid-19, or because they are quarantining after coming in contact with someone who has the infection.

Some 7,500 flights were cancelled by airlines worldwide over the Christmas weekend.

S&P 500 Hits Record Close As Omicron Fears Subside​​

By Lewis Krauskopf, Medha Singh and Bansari Mayur Kamdar

(Reuters) - Wall Street's main indexes posted solid gains for a third straight session on Thursday, with the S&P 500 marking a record-high close, as encouraging developments gave investors more ease about the economic impact of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Stocks ended the holiday-shortened week on a positive note, lifting sentiment heading into Christmas. Gains were broad among S&P 500 sectors, led by consumer discretionary and industrials, which both rose about 1.2 percent.

Vaccine makers AstraZeneca Plc and Novavax Inc said their shots protected against Omicron as UK data suggested it may cause proportionally fewer hospital cases than the Delta variant, though public health experts warned the battle against COVID-19 was far from over.

The arrival of Omicron has helped ratchet up market volatility for much of the last month of 2021, which has been a strong year for equities.

“There was a lot of negative sentiment coming into the final part of the year, and investors have likely continued to see pretty strong economic growth and pretty positive developments as it relates to healthcare innovation around COVID and that is putting in a bit of a bid into equities and causing investors to look to allocate capital as they close out the year,” said Matthew Miskin, co-chief investment strategist at John Hancock Investment Management.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 196.67 points, or 0.55 percent, to 35,950.56, the S&P 500 gained 29.23 points, or 0.62 percent, to 4,725.79 and the Nasdaq Composite added 131.48 points, or 0.85 percent, to 15,653.37.

Defensive sectors, which have mostly outperformed in December, generally lagged on Thursday. The real estate sector fell 0.4 percent.

The S&P 500 has gained for three days, after falling in the three prior sessions.

“People are seeing the strength on Tuesday and Wednesday and all of a sudden everybody is more optimistic again,” said Robert Pavlik, senior portfolio manager at Dakota Wealth Management.

For the week, the S&P 500 rose 2.3 percent, the Dow gained about 1.7 percent and the Nasdaq climbed 3.2 percent.

Trading volumes were expected to be thinner than usual ahead of the Christmas and New Year holidays. The stock market will be closed on Friday in observance of the Christmas holiday.

In another medical development against the pandemic, the United States authorized Merck & Co's antiviral pill for COVID-19 for certain high-risk adult patients, a day after giving a broader go-ahead to a similar but more effective treatment from Pfizer Inc. Merck shares fell 0.6%, while Pfizer dropped 1.4 percent.

The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits held below pre-pandemic levels last week as the labor market tightens, while consumer spending increased solidly, putting the economy on track for a strong finish to 2021.

Tesla Inc shares rose 5.8 percent, gaining sharply for a second day after chief executive Elon Musk said on Wednesday he was "almost done" with his stock sales after selling over $15 billion worth since early November.

The S&P 500 is up about 26% so far this year. Still, the environment for equities could be changing heading into next year as the Federal Reserve is expected to begin raising interest rates in 2022.

Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a 2.40-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 2.22-to-1 ratio favored advancers.

The S&P 500 posted 35 new 52-week highs and no new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 62 new highs and 80 new lows.

About 8 billion shares changed hands in U.S. exchanges, compared with the 11.8 billion daily average over the last 20 sessions.

(Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf in New York, Medha Singh and Bansari Mayur Kamdar in Bengaluru; Editing by Uttaresh.V and Matthew Lewis)


Large Holiday Gatherings In U.S. Unsafe Even For Boosted, Fauci Warns

By Ahmed Aboulenein and Katharine Jackson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Americans vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 can be with family over the holidays but attending large gatherings is not safe, even for those who received a booster dose, top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said on Wednesday.

The United States faces a second Christmas of upended holiday plans, with a surge in infections fueled by the now-dominant Omicron variant of the coronavirus forcing many to cancel travel, reconsider visiting loved ones, and question attending holiday parties.

"There are many of these parties that have 30, 40, 50 people in which you do not know the vaccination status of individuals. Those are the kind of functions in the context of Omicron that you do not want to go to," Fauci said at a White House briefing.

Early evidence indicates Omicron is less severe than the Delta variant, said Fauci, citing studies from South Africa and Scotland, but warned Americans must remain cautious.

"This is good news. However, we must wait to see what happens in our own population which has its own demographic considerations," he said.

The seven-day average of COVID-19 cases in the United States rose 25 percent from the previous week to about 149,300 cases per day, said U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, with average daily deaths up 3.5 percent at 1,200.

Omicron represents approximately 73 percent of cases across the country, said Walensky, and as high as 90 percen of cases in some areas, such as the eastern Atlantic states, parts of the Midwest, South, and northern Pacific states.

"This increase in Omicron proportion is what we anticipated and what we have been preparing for," she said.

The U.S. government will have 265,000 treatment courses of Pfizer Inc's COVID-19 anti-viral treatment available by January and 10 million by late summer, said White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients.

The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday authorized Paxlovid, Pfizer's pill for at-risk people aged 12 and above.

The government will provide any resources Pfizer needs for production and will distribute treatments to states and localities at no charge as soon as they are delivered, he said.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Katharine Jackson; Additional reporting by Caitlin Webber in Washington and Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Leslie Adler and Alistair Bekk)

Even Donald Trump Himself Cannot Sell MAGA Extremists On COVID Vaccines

During a recent event with former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, former President Donald Trump was booed by some anti-vaxxers after revealing that he had received a COVID-19 vaccine booster. Trump insisted that the MAGA movement deserves the credit for COVID vaccines, but that messaging didn’t persuade the anti-vaxxers who booed him. Discussing this incident in an op-ed published on December 20, Washington Post opinion columnists Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent lament that anti-vaxxer sentiment is so ingrained in the MAGA movement at this point that even Trump himself cannot convince far-right anti-vaxxers to get vaccinated.

Not everyone in Trumpworld is pushing anti-vaxxer arguments. Former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is running for governor of Arkansas, describes COVID-19 vaccines as “the Trump vaccine.” And Trump has similar messaging, arguing that his supporters should hail COVID-19 vaccines as a MAGA achievement instead of rejecting them.

Trump told the crowd, “Look, we did something that was historic. We saved tens of millions of lives worldwide. We together, all of us — not me, we — we got a vaccine done, three vaccines done, and tremendous therapeutics … This was going to ravage the country far beyond what it is right now. Take credit for it. Take credit for it. It’s great — what we’ve done is historic. Don’t let them take it away…. If you don’t want to take it, you shouldn’t be forced to take it. No mandates. But take credit because we saved tens of millions of lives. Take credit. Don’t let them take that away from you.”

The response to those comments, Waldman and Sargent note, was “boos from at least some in the crowd.”

“There is clearly a good portion of the Republican base that in this case, finds the truest expression of Trumpism in rejecting what Trump himself is telling them,” Waldman and Sargent write. “Opposition to vaccines has been woven so tightly into their political identity that not even Trump himself can remove it.”

But as Waldman and Sargent point out, being an anti-vaxxer has become a badge of honor in MAGA World.

“For some time, we’ve heard reports of people who live in conservative communities getting secretly vaccinated, fearful of letting others around them know they’ve gotten a vaccine,” the columnists point out. “It’s reasonable to assume some people in liberal communities likewise lie about having been vaccinated. The idea that one’s political identity requires fighting against vaccines is constantly reinforced from all directions, whether by conservative media or politicians who are responsive to what they know their constituents are hearing…. Red states that are this far down this road are not going to immediately reverse course now that Trump is suddenly talking sense on this matter.”

Article reprinted with permission from Alternet

With Warning For Unvaccinated, Biden Reveals Plan To Fight Surging Omicron

By Steve Holland and Jarrett Renshaw

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday more federal vaccination and testing sites to tackle a surge in COVID-19 driven by the Omicron variant, and said 500 million free at-home rapid tests will be available to Americans starting in January.

Biden offered both a warning to the unvaccinated, who he said have "good reason to be concerned," and reassurance that those who are inoculated can gather for the holidays despite the new variant sweeping the country.

"No this is not March of 2020," Biden told reporters at the White House. "Two hundred million people are fully vaccinated, we're prepared, we know more."

Biden's remarks came as some cities and states imposed new measures aimed at protecting the public, including stricter vaccine mandates.

Striking a dire tone about the risks to the one-in-four American adults who are not fully vaccinated, Biden said they "have a significantly higher risk of ending up in the hospital or even dying."

Biden noted that former President Donald Trump has also received his booster shot. "Maybe one of the few things he and I agree on," he said.

The measures laid out on Tuesday include activating new pop-up vaccination clinics run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and federal testing sites starting this week, including in hot spot New York City.

Biden also said that some 1,000 military doctors, nurses and medics have been deployed to support hospitals already being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients in some areas.

Biden's pandemic response has been criticized for focusing on vaccines at the detriment of testing and masking, and for underestimating the impact of the anti-vaccine movement in the United States.

In his speech, Biden said Americans had a patriotic duty to get vaccinated and called out social media companies and TV networks for "peddling lies and allowing misinformation that can kill their own customers."

The new federal measures will not be fully in place by Christmas, leaving many Americans scrambling to find available tests ahead of holiday gatherings and travel - and confused about whether it is safe to press ahead with their plans.

The Omicron variant, which was first detected last month and now accounts for 73 percent of U.S. cases, is causing infections to double in 1.5 to 3 days, according to the World Health Organization. It is not yet known whether it causes more serious illness than the Delta variant.

The rapid rise of infections is once again disrupting life across the country, canceling events from Broadway shows to professional sports.

In New York, Washington, and other U.S. cities there were long lines for COVID-19 tests as people sought to find out if they were infected before celebrating the holidays.

"If I don’t, I could take a chance of sending it home to my family, and I’m not trying to do that," said Ronald Tives as he lined up in Washington's Farragut Square on Tuesday.

$100 For A Booster In New York City

With new infections spiking, local officials are also taking steps to encourage vaccinations, including boosters, and increase testing and mitigation measures.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Tuesday a $100 incentive for residents who get a COVID-19 vaccine booster at city-run sites by the end of the year.

The city's public hospitals said they would ban most visitors. Starting on Wednesday, only hospitalized infants and children, women in labor and dying patients can have visitors. They must be fully vaccinated or show a negative COVID-19 test from the past 24 hours.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom said on Twitter that all healthcare workers would be required to receive booster vaccines. The state is expected to announce additional measures on Wednesday.

Chicago will require patrons to present proof of COVID-19 vaccinations for entry to restaurants, bars, gyms and some other indoor spaces, effective January 3, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said on Tuesday.

Biden noted that the Omicron variant is so contagious that it will infect vaccinated Americans but that they will be far less likely to become seriously ill.

These breakthrough infections are rising among the 61 percent of the country's fully vaccinated population, including the 30 percent who have gotten booster shots.

Still, Biden told Americans that those who are vaccinated and follow guidance around using masks, especially while traveling, should feel comfortable celebrating the holidays as planned.

New COVID-19 cases rose 19 percent in the United States in the past week and are up 72 percent since the start of December, according to a Reuters tally.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has increased 27 percent this month, with hospitals in some areas already strained by the Delta variant that emerged earlier this year.

There have been more than 51 million infections and 810,000 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the United States since the pandemic began, the most of any country.

(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw and Ahmed Aboulenein; Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker and Sharon Bernstein; Writing by Maria Caspani; Editing by Peter Cooney, Bill Berkrot, Sonya Hepinstall and Cynthia Osterman)