COVID surge continues to upend Americans’ travel plans, return to school

COVID continues to spread quickly throughout the U.S. on the first Monday of the new year, forcing airlines and businesses to limit operations as many workers are falling ill or testing positive. The surge from the omicron variant is disrupting back-to-school plans in many communities as well. Amna Nawaz reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    COVID-19 has begun 2022 the way it ended 2021, spreading quickly throughout the country.

    The Omicron surge is forcing airlines and businesses to limit operations, as more workers fall ill or test positive. The chief medical officer in Congress is urging lawmakers to work from home. and the virus is disrupting back-to-school plans in many communities as well.

    Amna Nawaz reports.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Students around the country filed back into classrooms in the new year, but many schools chose to delay that return, as parents rushed to secure COVID swabs amid record cases of Omicron nationwide, schools in Newark, Milwaukee, and Cleveland moving to virtual learning or canceling classes altogether today, schools in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Detroit extending winter break to ease staffing shortages.

    North of the border, Canada's most populous province of Ontario moved all classes online, delaying reopening until at least January 17. Back in America, districts forging on with in-person classes this weekend ramped up testing efforts.

  • Tihisha Jones, Parent:

    I'm just, like, worried, really worried for my kid, because he has asthma. And I have cancer. So it's like a double whammy, because, if he get it, I'm going to get it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In the nation's largest school system, New York City, families were urged, but not required to get their kids tested.

    Newly inaugurated Mayor Eric Adams, on ABC yesterday, determined not to shutter schools.

    Eric Adams (D), Mayor of New York: We lost almost two years of education. George, we can't do it again.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    All this as the FDA today authorized Pfizer booster shots for kids aged 12 to 15. The CDC will now consider updating guidance.

    Dr. Peter Marks, FDA Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research: In the setting of a tremendous number of Omicron and Delta cases in this country, the potential benefits of getting vaccinated in this age range outweigh that risk.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Meanwhile, Omicron continues to surge. This weekend, the U.S. topped 55 million total COVID cases. Daily infections have jumped 200 percent in the last two weeks, now averaging more than 400,000 new cases a day.

    On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci defended the CDC's new shorter isolation guidelines for asymptomatic people from 10 to five days, saying testing could be added to those protocols.

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Adviser to President Biden: Looking at it again, there may be an option in that, that testing could be a part of that. And I think we're going to be hearing more about that in the next day or so from the CDC

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In parts of the U.S., the perfect storm of wintry weather and pandemic staffing problems froze travel plans for thousands this weekend, even today, around the world, more than 4,100 more flights canceled, half of them in the United States, forcing some, like Ian Harrison and his family, to improvise.

  • Ian Harrison, Traveler:

    We just need to get home, so we got in a car, a rental car, and started driving.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As the nation wonders when this latest COVID wave will pass us by.

    For more on how long this surge could last and what year three of the pandemic could look like, I'm joined by Dr. Monica Gandhi. She specializes in infectious diseases and global medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

    Dr. Gandhi, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thanks for being here.

    So, let's start with these case counts, because we see the U.S. breaking recordings. We continue to report on those. But with this variant, and at this point in the pandemic, how important a metric are case counts to you?

    Dr. Monica Gandhi, University of California, San Francisco: So, you know, not as important as they were a year ago.

    Why were they so important a year ago? Because when case counts went up, hospitalizations went up concomitantly, not one-to-one, but they were linked. They were tracking with each other. Now cases and hospitalizations are becoming uncoupled.

    Why are the two reasons for that? Higher immunity in the population, December 2021, January 2022, much higher immunity. Omicron also likely is less virulent from some reasons. It doesn't infect lung cells as well, according to five studies. So cases and hospitalizations are diverging wildly.

    And why is that important? That's important because cases don't mean what they used to. And we should start tracking hospitalizations for COVID as our main metric of, are you doing OK? What's your success metric?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, a lot of folks have been talking about the South African experience, what they have been through in their Omicron surge, which most people say lasted about four to six weeks.

    In your view, how good of a guide is the South African experience for what the U.S. could see?

  • Dr. Monica Gandhi:

    So, the one difference between South Africa and here is, it's true that they have a younger population in median, but they also divided out their results by people who are older, and still saw less severe disease in every age strata.

    So there is something about less severe disease, again, probably a more mild variant because of the lung cells and higher rates of immunity. What's their rate of immunity?; 25 percent vaccination, but a seroprevalence study showed 75 percent in terms of natural immunity, putting together with that.

    So they went up and they came down within four to six weeks. We have those same levels of immunity, luckily, a lot more, actually, because of higher rates of vaccination. And then, unfortunately, we have natural immunity from the Delta surge. So we should see the same finding where it goes up and comes back down quite quickly.

    And we're hoping for mid-January for cases to come down.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let me ask you about schools because that's top of a lot of people's minds right now.

    We saw over the last two years, with all the mitigation in place, right masking and distancing and ventilation, schools — and correct me if I'm wrong — schools did not really drive outbreaks in communities.

  • Dr. Monica Gandhi:

    They did not.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But should we be thinking about that differently with Omicron, because it is so much more transmissible

  • Dr. Monica Gandhi:

    So the difference is — you're right that we were able to keep schools open in many states in our country with these mitigation procedures, and everything went fine.

    And now we have something different. You could say, oh, we have so many cases from Omicron. You could also say that we have teacher vaccinations, vaccinations of students down to the age of 5, adult vaccinations. We have the power to prevent what was scaring us the most about COVID-19, which was severe disease.

    So we have vaccinations overlaid on top of all those mitigation procedures. And it's terribly important to keep schools open. I don't — I think many — most public health officials would not say otherwise, because of the learning loss, because of the mental illness, because of eating disorders, everything we have seen.

    We can't act like we're in 2020 with schools. We are in 2022. We have vaccines, and we know what to do to keep schools open.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Finally, I want to ask you about testing as well, because, as we know, there are not nearly enough tests for everyone who wants one.

    And we know now that Dr. Anthony Fauci has referenced they may add testing to those new protocols for people who test positive or who are exposed.

    But I guess I want to ask you, if we had those tests available, how much more strong would that make the guidance? I mean, if everyone who wanted one had one, if offices and schools had free tests, what kind of a difference would that make right now?

  • Dr. Monica Gandhi:

    It would probably not make that much of a difference.

    So, what do I mean by that, and why did they reduce the period of isolation from 10 days to five days? Because we have two years' worth of data now. And the most careful contact tracing study shows that almost all the transmission occurs within the first five days.

    In fact, the study, if you look at their guidelines that they based their guidance on is from Taiwan. It's probably the largest contact tracing study. There was zero transmissions that occurred six days after someone got symptoms. All of it occurred within the five days.

    So this is really based on data on contact tracing. Getting a negative test at five days probably isn't going to change anything, because, again, a PCR test doesn't mean that you can pass it on. It could even just show very low viral loads. And even a rapid antigen test can stay positive, but you're not infectious.

    Contact tracing studies is what tells us we're safe at five days.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We have a few seconds left, but I have to ask you, how worried are you about a new variant? Or do you think that Omicron will be the last surge that we see in the U.S.?

  • Dr. Monica Gandhi:

    One thing is, I will say, is that global vaccine equity, I don't think I can think of anything more important, because that's how we prevent new variants from happening.

    We will have new variants from animal reservoirs, but I think Omicron is going to be the one that gives so many people immunity, unfortunately, who are not vaccinated, that we're going to have low, much lower cases, and it's going to get the pandemic to a very low level phase that we can deal with.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Dr. Monica Gandhi, specializing in infectious diseases and global medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

    Dr. Gandhi, always good to see you. Thank you.

  • Dr. Monica Gandhi:

    Thank you.

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