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From Broadway to Britain, COVID-19 is spreading new fears, forcing new shutdowns and prompting people to wonder when it will all end. And experts warn omicron is likely to become the dominant strain in the U.S. William Brangham reports on the latest, and speaks with Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, to take a deeper look.
From Broadway to Britain tonight, COVID-19 is spreading new fears, forcing new shutdowns, and prompting people to ask, when will it end?
William Brangham has the latest on the pandemic's new turn for the worse.
As the holiday season nears, concerns of a resurgent virus are growing.
President Biden met today at the White House with his COVID task force to discuss ways to curb the spread of Omicron and to deal with the current dominant variant, Delta.
Joe Biden, President of the United States: It's going to start to spread much more rapidly at the beginning of the year. And the only real protection is to get your shots.
If you're at a point where you have everything, including your booster, you're in really good shape. So, move now.
According to The New York Times' tracker, the U.S. is seeing a clear spike in cases, with a daily average of 121,000 infections. That's a 40 percent rise in the last two weeks. Deaths are up about 34 percent, with an average of 1,300 people dying every single day.
In New York state, the CDC says Omicron is estimated to make up as much as 13 percent of the state's COVID cases. Governor Kathy Hochul reinstated a mask mandate for indoor public places, which went into effect Monday.
Today, she responded to criticism that the mandate is an overreaction.
Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-NY):
This is a health care crisis, and people are going to die. That is not hyperbole. That is based on the facts that are in front of us right now.
If people had gotten vaccinated when we asked them to, and got the booster shots, I wouldn't have had to put in place a mask mandate.
In California, workplace regulations were tightened. The main change, starting in mid-January, is that any worker, vaccinated or not, who comes into contact with someone who tests positive must stay home.
And college campuses are also taking action. Classes and exams have been moved online, as an alarming rate of students have gotten COVID. At Cornell University, where 97 percent of students are vaccinated, at least 1,100 students tested positive last week. Tulane University, George Washington University, and NYU are also dealing with similar spikes.
And major professional sports leagues are also taking a hit. Scores of athletes and staff across the NBA, NHL, and NFL have tested positive or entered health and safety protocols this week. Several games have been postponed.
Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner:
It's a challenge.
With about 100 NFL players testing positive in just the last three days, football commissioner Roger Goodell said yesterday that vaccinations and boosters are a priority, but may not be enough.
Meanwhile, in Europe, countries are dealing with a similar two-pronged threat, trying to slow Omicron, while combating Delta. France moved today to restrict tourists from traveling to and from the U.K., and requiring 48 hours of isolation upon arrival.
The French prime minister said the decision is due to — quote — "the extremely rapid spread" of Omicron in the U.K.
As for the U.K., British Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted today that he is not imposing any lockdowns.
Boris Johnson, British Prime Minister:
All we're saying to people is, exercise caution, think about all the steps you can take to minimize your own risk, and get boosted now.
Yesterday, the U.K. saw its highest number of COVID cases in a single day since the pandemic began, over 78,000.
And late today, there was a setback for the vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson. A CDC advisory committee advised against taking the J&J shot, recommending Moderna and Pfizer vaccines instead. The committee cited increasing evidence of a rare blood clot disorder linked with the J&J vaccine.
This comes right as experts are warning that Omicron is likely to become the dominant strain in the U.S.
For a deeper look at all of this, I'm joined by Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute.
Dr. Topol, great to have you on the "NewsHour."
I wonder if we could talk about this J&J recommendation first. What do you make of that?
Dr. Eric Topol, Scripps Research Translational Institute:
Well, great to be with you, William.
I think the committee review of the J&J data was very sound. That is, it was a unanimous vote that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are safer. They have a great track record. Unfortunately, the J&J shot has been accompanied, rarely, with these very serious bleeding, clot issues and nine deaths. So it's best, if possible, to avoid it.
OK, let's turn more broadly to Omicron.
We know that it is incredibly contagious. It certainly seems to be. Given that, do you think we are really headed for a bad winter?
Dr. Eric Topol:
Unfortunately, it's unquestionable at this point.
This is a virus strain that's doubling just over two days, which we have never seen anything like that. We're seeing it light up in the U.K., in Norway, in Denmark. And it really is exponential growth, the likes of which we haven't seen since the pandemic started.
So it's inevitable that it's going to hit the United States, and it already is rising very quickly. And, unfortunately, a lot of people haven't appreciated that this is something we can't avoid right now in terms of this very — it has to be seen as an onslaught of Omicron new cases.
Some people have — looking at the cases that already exist of Omicron, have jumped to the conclusion that it is milder with regards to its virulence. Do you agree with that?
There isn't any question.
Fortunately, it's milder. But the problem is that people are ascribing that to the virus. And it's not related to the virus. It's because we have so much immunity built by our vaccines, by our boosters, by people who had prior COVID.
We have no evidence that the virus itself is more mild. And until we have that, we have to assume that people who don't have any protection are highly vulnerable to getting very ill.
We have been seeing also a lot of breakthrough cases.
I mentioned earlier these colleges and universities that are seeing these really explosive case numbers, largely amongst vaccinated and boosted groups.
Do you think that universities and colleges are special circumstances, or are they a harbinger of what's to come for the rest of us?
Yes, what we saw at Cornell and now subsequently many other universities is a sneak preview.
The rapidity that it spreads to — in hundreds of students — in the case of Cornell, 97 percent were vaccinated. This is what we're going to be seeing throughout the country over the weeks ahead, as this becomes the dominant strain, not just, of course, in the U.S., but throughout world.
So this is the kind of rapid spread that we have yet to see until now in the pandemic.
I mean, I feel a bit like a broken record here, talking about the need for good masks, better ventilation, vaccinations, boosters, rapid testing when possible.
Given what we know about Omicron, would you add anything to that? Would you change asking to our general precautionary principle now?
Well, the things you mentioned, William, are certainly the cornerstones of our prevention and blocking the spread.
We don't have the rapid tests that we need in this country, unlike many other places. We don't have enough people who have been vaccinated, no less who have had their booster shots. We're lagging way behind. We're 65th in the world for vaccination and lagging most countries who are onto the booster shots, and especially in people of advanced age, where the risk is considerably high.
So we're just not using the tools we have. If we used them all, we'd be in great shape to fend off Omicron. but, unfortunately, we're just not doing it.
One last question I want to ask you, an argument that I hear a lot, which is, come on, these are largely mild cases, 99 — some — the vast majority of people will get through these cases, that all this talk about Omicron is fearmongering.
What do you say to that?
That couldn't be further from the truth, William.
We may well get beyond a million new cases a day. Not only will many of those people get sick. Some will wind up in the hospital and die. But, also, we will be fostering a lot more long COVID, the chronic disabling features that could occur from Omicron, no less culturing the virus further for something beyond Omicron.
All right, Dr. Eric Topol of Scripps Research, thank you so much for being here.
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William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
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