Vaccines reduce hospitalizations, but slow testing and rapid omicron spread worry experts

The rapid and relentless spread of COVID-19 in the midst of a new variant of the coronavirus is leading to growing alarm just ahead of the holidays. Omicron infections are exploding amid a shortage of testing, and governments are imposing new restrictions. Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Crises in public health and public policy dominate the news tonight. The furious spread of COVID-19's Omicron variant has hospitals straining to keep up, and the near-collapse of the Build Back Better package has the White House and Democrats straining to find a new solution.

    First, the Omicron explosion. The CDC now says it has already become the most common variant in the U.S., accounting for three quarters of new cases.

    We begin with this report from Stephanie Sy.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    As airports fill up with holiday travelers, the U.S., along with the rest of the world, finds itself in a precarious position. The Omicron variant has made its way into at least 89 countries and in the U.S. more than 40 states.

    Over the weekend, infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci warned of what scientists are learning about Omicron and its ability to spread.

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Adviser:

    Well, the one thing that's very clear, and there's no doubt about this, is its extraordinary capability of spreading, its transmissibility capability. It is just raging through the world, really.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Americans are pressing forward with plans to gather for the holidays, bottling up testing centers. Lines in New York City have wrapped around streets.

  • Katie Roper, New York Resident:

    I have been here about an hour-and-a-half. And it's been very long. Everyone's just been waiting and waiting. And it's been really scary with the new variant, very, very scary.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Experts say vaccination remains the first line of defense against severe cases of COVID, including the new variant.

    And, today, Moderna shared preliminary data which shows the booster dose of its vaccine substantially increased antibody levels, meaning protection against Omicron.

    Former President Trump revealed last night what he's done to protect himself from COVID.

    Bill O'Reilly, Former Host, "The O'Reilly Factor": Both the president and I are vaxxed.

    And did you get the booster?

    Donald Trump, Former President of the United States: Yes.

  • Bill O’Reilly:

    I got it too.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Speaking directly to vaccine doubters, the former president reminded his followers that the shots were approved under his administration.

  • Donald Trump:

    We got a vaccine done in less than nine months. It was supposed to take from five to 12 years.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    He does not support vaccine mandates.

    But more cities are requiring proof of vaccination before entering indoor public spaces. Boston is the latest to make this move to contain Omicron. And, in D.C., the mayor reinstated an indoor mask mandate starting tomorrow.

    Community spread among the vaccinated in the nation's capital now includes Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker. They both tested positive over the weekend. Maryland's Governor Larry Hogan said he tested positive today. All three had been vaccinated and received a booster shot.

    Overseas, several countries have imposed new restrictions, in line with the WHO's guidance to government leaders.

  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General:

    An event canceled is better than a life canceled. It's better to cancel now and celebrate later than to celebrate now and grieve later. None of us want to be here again in 12 months time.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In the U.K., health officials are still weighing imposing stricter lockdowns.

  • Sajid Javid, British Health Minister:

    I didn't come into the government to restrict freedoms of people, but I think people understand why we are — presented that action to Parliament. And we keep the situation under review.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The most dramatic response in Europe so far is in the Netherlands. All nonessential stores, bars and restaurants are closed through mid-January.

    Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands (through translator): We must act now to prevent as much of the worst as possible.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Weekend protests and clashes in Europe over new restrictions show the competing pressures politicians face.

    It's a challenge President Biden will publicly address in a speech to Americans tomorrow, outlining his administration's response to the latest COVID crisis.

    There are so many questions people have about Omicron and what we're learning.

    So, joining me now is Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and an epidemiologist at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine. Dr. Gounder also cares for patients at Bellevue Hospital Center.

    Dr. Gounder, as always, thank you for joining the "NewsHour."

    And let us start there with what you're seeing on the front lines. With cases skyrocketing there in New York City, what are you seeing as far as burdens on hospitals and the health care system?

    Dr. Celine Gounder, Infectious Disease and Public Health Specialist: We are seeing cases of COVID spiking in New York City. We're seeing long lines around the block, around blocks, of people lining up to get PCR tests. Emergency rooms are full.

    But I think the other really important message here is that, in terms of our hospitalization rates, we have not seen those spike. And to give you a little bit of context, at the height of the pandemic back in the spring of 2020 at Bellevue Hospital, where I work, we had over 600 patients with COVID at the peak at any one time.

    Today at Bellevue Hospital, we have 30 patients with COVID in the hospital. So that's a dramatic difference. And that's really because so many New Yorkers have gotten vaccinated. It's one of the most vaccinated places in the country. Over 70 percent of people in New York City have gotten fully vaccinated.

    And so, while we're seeing a lot of cases, those cases are not translating into hospitalizations and deaths, as they are in other parts of the country.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Is part of that because preliminary data shows that Omicron may not be as severe as the Delta and other variants?

  • Dr. Celine Gounder:

    It's not clear that that's really what's driving this.

    Data out of the U.K. suggests that Omicron may be just as virulent as prior variants. And, remember, many of the COVID cases we're seeing are still related to Delta. And yet we're not seeing these spikes in hospitalizations, overwhelmed hospitals in terms of hospitalizations, people requiring ventilation, needing to be in the ICU.

    We're not seeing that here, and that's really because people are, by and large, vaccinated.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And so, again, the message is, get vaccinated, get boosted, and that is what will keep you safe.

    Now, when it comes to testing, I just got back from New York City myself, and I was hearing about people waiting for hours in line for testing. Rapid tests are no longer coming back rapidly because of the spike in demand.

    Why is it so hard at this juncture to efficiently and effectively test mass numbers of people?

  • Dr. Celine Gounder:

    One of the challenges, Stephanie, has been waxing and waning demand for testing over the course of the pandemic.

    Unfortunately, much of this demand has spiked around maybe a surge in cases or around the holidays, but has not been incorporated as a routine behavior for people that they get tested, say, once a week or just before they hang out with friends at a bar on the weekend.

    And that's really what it would take to have a reliable demand that manufacturers can plan for, that they can set up supply chains for. And one of the other challenges is really just having enough of the raw materials to make tests. So those are some of the bottlenecks we're dealing with.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    What do you think the Biden administration should be doing to address that a bottleneck? How crucial is testing, given what we know about Omicron's transmissibility?

  • Dr. Celine Gounder:

    Testing is really important, because, while the vaccines are highly effective, they're keeping people out of the hospital, they're preventing death, people are having infections, despite being fully vaccinated and even boosted.

    And so, in order to prevent further transmission, we really do need to layer other interventions. And that includes testing, testing so that you know if you are infectious, contagious to others and need to stay home. And so some of the things the Biden administration could be doing on that front is really trying to help ease some of these supply chain raw materials issues.

    That might include invoking the Defense Production Act, as they did to make sure we had enough raw materials for manufacturing of the vaccines. Some of the other things they could do is also make use of other types of testing technologies in certain settings, so, for example, pooled saliva PCR testing in workplaces and schools, so that you free up those individual rapid tests for use in other places.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Given what we know right now about the Omicron variant, how should people alter their behavior heading into the holidays?

  • Dr. Celine Gounder:

    In addition to getting fully vaccinated and boosted, think about this in terms of winter layers, wear a mask, socialize outdoors as much as is possible. Optimize your indoor ventilation and air filtration by opening doors and windows and placing HEPA air filtration units around the home.

    And use rapid testing to identify who might be contagious and who should not be joining in the family and friends in celebrating that day.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And do we know how reliable those at-home rapid tests are at detecting Omicron? Does that concern you at all?

  • Dr. Celine Gounder:

    There have been reports of people with symptoms testing positive on a PCR And testing negative on a rapid antigen test, particularly in the first few days of being symptomatic.

    The FDA is looking into this. Emory University has been assisting with testing in their lab, and we hope to have some answers on that soon.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It's what we have for now.

    Dr. Celine Gounder with NYU's Grossman School of Medicine, thank you so much, and happy holidays.

  • Dr. Celine Gounder:

    Happy holidays.

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