January 18, 2022

Biden pledges 500M more tests; Bill Gates says COVID will soon be ‘like seasonal flu.’ Live updates. – USA TODAY

The omicron variant should create a wealth of immunity for at least the next year and annual COVID-19 shots will probably be needed for “some time,” Bill Gates says.

“Once Omicron goes through a country then the rest of the year should see far fewer cases so COVID can be treated more like seasonal flu,” Gates tweeted during a Twitter QandA with Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, earlier this week.

Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said a “more transmissive variant” than omicron is not likely to emerge. But he acknowledged that COVID-19 has provided numerous surprises during the pandemic. 

Fueled by the omicron variant, the pace of newly reported COVID-19 in the United States is still rising. The country reported more than 5.5 million cases in the week ending Wednesday, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. Compared to a week before, 47 states had rising case counts, 38 states had rising death counts, and 49 states had more COVID-19 patients in hospital beds. The country now has more than 152,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, federal data shows, and about 25,200 people are in intensive-care beds.

Also in the news:

►Arizona on Thursday surpassed 25,000 COVID  fatalities. The Department of Health Services urged Arizonans to be protect themselves and their communities by getting “vaccinated/boosted, stay home if sick, mask and distance indoors.”

►CDC guidelines recommends wearing your N95 and KN95 mask for no more than five uses. However some experts offered tips on how to prolong your mask wear and keep them clean. Read more here.

►Novak Djokovic drew the top seed Thursday in the Australian open and issued a first-round match for Sunday – even though Immigration Minister Alex Hawke had yet to announce whether he will cancel Djokovic’s visa. Djokovic says he doesn’t need to meet Australia’s vaccine requirement because he already has contracted COVID.

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 63.2 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 844,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 317 million cases and nearly 5.5 million deaths. More than 208 million Americans – 62.7% – are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

📘What we’re reading: Should you swab your throat with an at-home COVID test amid omicron? This is why experts say no.

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.

US to buy another 500 million at-home, rapid tests

The federal government will buy 500 million at-home rapid COVID-19 tests, doubling the purchase the White House announced last month, President Joe Biden said Thursday. Biden spoke about what the administration is doing in response to the current coronavirus surge.

The first batch of 500 million tests, which Biden announced in December, have yet to be distributed. Americans will be able to request tests through an online website that has yet to be unveiled. The tests will be sent to people’s homes.

Maureen Groppe

Experts urge pregnant women to get vaccinated at ‘earliest opportunity’

The number of pregnant people who are getting vaccinated is steadily increasing amid the coronavirus current surge, but health experts say the modest improvement is not enough. The renewed concern comes following a large study published Thursday in “Nature Medicine” that shows unvaccinated pregnant people and their babies may suffer the worst consequences of the virus. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh Usher Institute analyzed a database that tracked nearly 145,000 pregnancies in 130,000 women from March 2020 to Oct. 2021. The study found 98% of pregnant women admitted to critical care were unvaccinated.

Researchers reported more than 450 perinatal deaths, when a baby dies in the womb or during the newborn period, all associated with unvaccinated pregnant women. 

“The key take home message that we’d love to get across is that the better way to protect mom and baby is vaccination at the earliest opportunity,” said study co-author Aziz Sheikh. “That can be done at any stage in pregnancy.” Read more here.  

Adrianna Rodriguez

High risk? Don’t take chances with COVID-19

As the coronavirus tears across America, it is a particularly bad time for high-risk people to catch COVID-19. And that means a lot of Americans are vulnerable. Nearly 40% of U.S. adults are considered at high risk for a serious infection because they’re over 65, are carrying extra pounds or have certain medical conditions. And while there are good treatments to prevent infected people from needing hospital care, including two recently approved, they are almost totally unavailable across the country.

“Right now, we’ve got nothing else to treat ambulatory patients with COVID,” said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, who directs the division of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “We have no monoclonals right now. We don’t have the oral drugs yet and we don’t have any other options – so it’s really really important to try to protect yourself.” Read more here.

– Karen Weintraub

Experts criticize CDC messaging

Many Americans navigating the COVID-19 pandemic during the latest virus surge say frequent changes in federal guidelines don’t make their lives any easier. And they aren’t alone in their frustration. Some prominent health experts who have stood by the CDC and its science-based decisions since the beginning of the pandemic are now criticizing the agency for poor communication.

On every policy update, the CDC must back up its decision with clear data and translate the science so the general public can understand it, said Thomas Hipper, associate director of the Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health. When announcing the new isolation guidelines on Dec. 27, CDC officials failed to specifically cite the science, Hipper said.

“Simply announcing the change and trying to explain it without the clear rationale leaves you exposed to questioning,” he said. “Letting the public see those imperfect choices helps justify why the decision was made.”

Health experts said the second issue contributing to the CDC’s messaging problem is that local health departments and national organizations feel left out of the agency’s decision-making. Finally, experts said, the CDC has left itself open to charges that it lacks accountability. The agency has reiterated the science of the pandemic is evolving, and although that is true, health experts say the CDC still needs to acknowledge its errors in that space of inherent uncertainty.

“It humanizes this effort, and it would go a long way in building back trust,” Hipper said. “There’s nothing wrong in acknowledging that, ‘Hey, we didn’t get everything right, but we’re committed to getting it as right as we can.’”

More kids being hospitalized, but cases generally not too severe

More kids in America are testing positive for the coronavirus as the nation hits records in cases and hospitalizations. Children have made up more than 7 million COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. The U.S. has seen more than 60 million cases overall.

Given the “astonishing number of new infections” in children each day, University of South Florida epidemiology professor Jason Salemi expects to see more children being hospitalized for COVID-19 in the coming weeks. Fortunately, because of the relatively mild symptoms in most omicron patients, the vast majority of these cases won’t be too severe, experts say. You can find details and data on kids and COVID here.

Janie Haseman and Aleszu Bajak

COVID patients crowding out other patients in need

Just as a cresting wave of COVID-19 patients need care, hospitals are facing severe staffing issues because so many are either out sick themselves, caring for family members or quarantining because of an exposure. About one in five hospitals reported having “critical staff shortages” in data released Wednesday by the Department of Health and Human Services, a USA TODAY analysis found. One in four anticipated critical shortages within the next week. Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky and New Hampshire have less than 10% capacity remaining in their ICUs.

Physicians such as Chicago cancer surgeon Dr. Ryan Merkow must make wrenching decisions about who gets operated on and who must wait.  He said Northwestern Memorial Hospital is “full of COVID patients. Our surgical floors have been converted to COVID floors.” Some cancer patients go through chemo and fly in family members to help with recovery.

“And then we have to pull the rug out from under them,” he said. Read more here.

– Elizabeth Weise and Kristen Jordan Shamus

Biden sending medical teams to states overwhelmed by surge

The federal government is sending medical teams to six states – New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, Michigan and New Mexico – to help hospitals overburdened by COVID-19, USA TODAY has learned. President Joe Biden announced the deployments Thursday when discussing steps the administration is taking to address a surge in infections driven by the omicron variant.

His remarks come as hospitalizations for COVID-19 are setting records. Some hospitals are delaying elective surgeries as states are deploying National Guard members to health care facilities. Facing pressure from even members of his own party to do more to get the pandemic under control, Biden’s new actions are expected to center on additional manpower. 

— Maureen Groppe and Donovan Slack, USA TODAY

Contributing: Mike Stucka, USA TODAY; The Associated Press