The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday authorized use of a new antiviral pill that can be taken at home to help prevent people sick with COVID-19 from becoming severely ill.

Paxlovid by Pfizer reduced severe diseases risk by almost 90% during clinical trials. It also appeared safe. Taken as a pill soon after COVID-19 symptoms start, it is intended for people at high risk for severe disease, including those over 65, people with obesity or diabetes and anyone with a weakened immune system, as well as high-risk children ages 12 and up.

White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients announced Wednesday that the U.S. government had purchased 10,000,000 treatment courses of Paxlovid. 265,000 will be made available for Americans starting in January. According to Pfizer, the pills can take between 6-8 months for production.

The Pfizer team is very optimistic and has now approved treatment. A pill that dramatically reduces the risk of hospitalizations and death for those at risk,” Zients said.

The pill is easier to deliver than previous treatments, which had to be given by injection or infusion, but requires a prescription and swallowing dozens of pills over 5 days. Research shows that the pill works well when it is administered within 5 days. However, it does not work as well after 7 days. Many hospitals and pharmacies work to speed up the process of receiving a prescription, a positive result and getting access to the medication.

As the omicron-derived variant of delta took its place, antivirals have become more significant. Monoclonal anti-virals, the most commonly used, that also prevent severe illness from occurring, will not be effective against omicron. However, sotrovimab, GlaxoSmithKline, and Vir Biotechnology continue to prove useful.

– Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY

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► Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, announced on Twitter that he has tested positive for a “breakthrough case” of COVID-19. The 81 year-old South Carolina Congressman has been fully vaccinated since September and had his booster shot.

► The Supreme Court announced Wednesday it will hear oral arguments in a number of challenges to President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine-or-testing requirements for large employers and health care facilities. 

► Johns Hopkins University data indicates that more than 1,000,000 cases are being reported each week in the United States. In three months, the country had not been at this level. However, some states were suffering from the deadly delta virus.

► New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico all set records Tuesday for their surging COVID-19 case counts. The CDC estimates that Washington had 9.3 times the number of cases during the week ended Tuesday. In New York they were 7.1, New Jersey, 5.7, and Puerto Rico, 2.5, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data show.

Washington, D.C. will require proof of vaccination at restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters and sports venues starting Jan. 15, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Wednesday.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday extended the freeze on federal student loan payments until May 1, citing the continuing impact of the pandemic.

►Dr. Anthony Fauci on Wednesday cautioned vaccinated Americans against attending large holiday parties and events with people whose vaccination status is unknown. Smaller gatherings with vaccinated individuals are a safer alternative, he said.

According to the BBC, in Wales groups that gather at restaurants or cinemas can be limited to just six persons starting Dec. 26.

► China has ordered Wednesday’s lockdown of 13,000,000 people within the north city of Xi’an, following a rise in criminal cases.

► California will require health care workers to receive a COVID-19 booster shot, Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged Tuesday to prepare hospitals for the possibility of a new strain of the disease spreading throughout the state.

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 51.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 812,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 277 million cases and 5.3 million deaths. More than 204.5 million Americans – 61.6% –  are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. 

📘 What we’re reading: Alicia Carrasco, a Latina doctor, wanted to spark trust in the COVID vaccines. She enrolled her children in clinical trials.

For the most recent news, keep checking this page. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY’s Coronavirus Watch free newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

Omicron spread may bring 140M new cases to US in next two months

Researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine recently revised its COVID-19 modeling to include updated information about the omicron variant.

Their findings showed that there could be as many as 140 million cases of new infection in the United States between Jan. 1, 2022 and March 1, 2022. The highest number was around 2.8 million per day at late January. Johns Hopkins data show that 51 million people have been confirmed in the United States since the outbreak.

“We are expecting an enormous surge in infections … so, an enormous spread of omicron,” IHME director Dr. Chris Murray said Wednesday. “Total infections in the U.S. we forecast are going from about 40% of the U.S. having been infected so far, to having in the next 2 to 3 months, 60% of the U.S. getting infected with omicron.”

Murray suggested that more than 90% people who are infected by omicron could never experience symptoms, even though meta-analyses suggest about 40% of previous variants can cause asymptomatic cases.

Modells from outside the U.S. show that there could be 3 billion new infections within the next two-months, peak transmission being in mid January with more than 35,000,000 new cases every day.

Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY

Walensky: CDC reviewing 10-day isolation guidelines

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said she expects an update “soon” on the agency’s guidelines for isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.

Walensky was asked about the current 10-day isolation guideline, which includes vaccinated and boosted people who test positive, while appearing on “CBS Mornings” on Wednesday.

She said, “We are actively reviewing those data and performing some modeling analyses in order to assess it and we expect that we will have some updates soon.”

Walensky stated Wednesday that she advises everyone to do an at-home COVID-19 testing before they gather with their family or friends in the coming holidays.

United Kingdom: Isolation guidelines have been reduced from 10 days to seven days for those who are negative on two consecutive positive tests.

NHL players won’t play in Olympics as COVID, game postponements surge

With COVID cases surging and games being postponed, the NHL and its players association said Wednesday that they were pulling out of the Beijing Olympics.

When the NHL reached the agreement on the 2022 Winter Games to send its players, it said it would depend on whether the COVID-19 situation would create so many postponements that the league would need to use the Feb. 6-22 Olympic break in order to reschedule games.

As COVID-19 claims soared, this was what happened over the last weeks. The league canceled all cross-border gaming during the December 24-26 break. It decided that its Christmas break would begin two days earlier on Monday. 

– Mike Brehm, USA TODAY

South Africa may have lost its micron peak, as evidenced by a case drop

Experts believe South Africa’s sudden drop in COVID-19-related cases over the past few days could indicate that it’s no longer experiencing a dramatic omicron driven surge.

The daily count of virus cases is notoriously difficult to track as it can fluctuate due to inconsistent testing, delays in reporting, and other factors. But they are offering one tantalizing hint – far from conclusive yet – that omicron infections may recede quickly after a ferocious spike.

The number of cases dropped from nearly 27,000 to 15,424 nationwide, after a Thursday high. In Gauteng province – South Africa’s most populous with 16 million people, including the largest city, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria – the decrease started earlier and has continued.

“The drop in new cases nationally combined with the sustained drop in new cases seen here in Gauteng province, which for weeks has been the center of this wave, indicates that we are past the peak,” said Marta Nunes, senior researcher at the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics department of the University of Witwatersrand.

Omicron does not need to spoil the holiday season: Here are some facts about Omicron rapid tests

As millions of people seek coronavirus tests before holiday trips to see family and friends, they are encountering familiar challenges of the pandemic – long testing lines and stores often sold out of home tests.

Experts who track testing say the nation’s supply remains uneven 20 months into the pandemic, and the testing shortage comes as the fast-spreading omicron variant accounts for about 3 out of every 4 new COVID-19 cases.

“Testing, in particular, is perhaps the most critical public health tool to support our vaccine efforts to limit transmission,” said Dr. Michael Mina, an infectious disease expert and former Harvard professor. “Testing is our eyes on this virus and if we can’t see it, then we’re flying blind.”

Do you need to have a test done before going on vacation? While rapid antigen tests are less sensitive – meaning they are slightly less likely to detect the virus when compared to PCR tests – advocates say they are accurate enough to detect the virus when a person is infectious and likely to pass it to others. Learn more.

– Ken Alltucker, USA TODAY

The true cost of COVID-19 is not revealed by inaccurate death certificates in the nation.

Nearly one million Americans have died earlier in 2020 than they did in pre-pandemic years. But, the CDC has reported that about 800,000. These deaths are officially attributed COVID-19. The majority of the additional 195,000 deaths in 2020 and 2021 are not yet identified COVID-19 deaths, as public health specialists have long suggested. It is a result of an unexpected increase in natural cause deaths. 

An investigation by Documenting COVID-19, the USA TODAY Network and experts reveals why so many deaths have gone uncounted: After overwhelming the nation’s health care system, the coronavirus evaded its antiquated, decentralized system of investigating and recording deaths.

Families were taken at their word by short-staffed and undertrained medical examiners and coroners when they phoned to report the loss of a loved one at home. Coroners and medical examiners didn’t review medical histories or order tests to look for COVID-19. Some physicians and coroners attributed death to non-specific and inaccurate causes, which are not understood by pathologists. Some cases were difficult for loved ones to understand because of COVID-19’s strict rules.

Andrew Stokes is a Professor in the Department of Global Health of the Boston University School of Public Health. He stated that the death investigation system needs to be standardized and monitored. This has hindered our ability to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and makes us unprepared for any future public health emergency. Learn more.

– The Documenting COVID-19 project and USA TODAY Network

Contributing to: Mike Stucka USA TODAY; The Associated Press



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