Politicians and public health leaders repeated similar messages again and again as the weekend began: The omicron variant has arrived in yet another state, but everything we know about preventing COVID remains the same.

New Jersey Governor. Phil Murphy urged residents to wear masks, get vaccinated and get a booster shot to reduce the spread of the virus.

“Personal prevention” remains the best way to fight COVID, Missouri’s director of the Department of Health and Senior Services said in statement about an omicron case.

The variant has also arrived in Pennsylvania, but “There is no need to panic. … We also know the path to controlling the virus and limiting variants: get vaccinated, get boosted, and take your children ages 5 and older to get vaccinated,” a state Department of Health spokesman said.

Researchers have been scrambling for information on the highly-mutated variant which has caused a spike in South Africa’s cases and spread rapidly to other parts of the globe.

Questions remain about how transmissible the variant is and how easily it can sneak past the immune defenses of previously infected and vaccinated people. However, it’s too soon to know how dangerous an omicron infection can be.

But for now, health experts agree there’s no reason to back off on measures proven to combat COVID-19, especially as delta continues to infect thousands of Americans a day. No matter what variant, masks are effective; vaccinations give the immune system an edge in combating the coronavirus.

“If we do those things to stop the current strains that are circulating, I think we’ll be doing the right things to stop the omicron variant,” Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, said at a Friday news conference. “… Keep doing what you are doing. Get vaccinated if you are offered one.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who spoke out on Friday in support of the COVID-19 vaccine booster shot, urged Americans to obtain their booster shots. The booster dose raises “the number neutralizing antibody against all variants.” 

What are the symptoms of omicron variation? The latest strain of coronavirus

Understanding omicron:The latest variant of coronavirus, which is now found in the US. It’s mutating rapidly and spreading.

You can also find the latest news here:

►Reinfection among people who have been previously infected with COVID-19 appears to be more common with omicron than with earlier variants, according to preliminary findings released Thursday from a South African research group. This study was not peer-reviewed and did not include protection from variants offered by vaccination.

►In another new study not yet peer reviewed, researchers found that a part of omicron’s genetic code is also present in another virus, possibly one that causes the common cold. This mutation, researchers believe, could make the virus more deadly but also less contagious. 

►An Italian dentist is facing possible criminal charges after trying to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in a fake silicone arm. According to a nurse, the man admitted that he did not want the vaccine. However, he will need a health card which will allow him access to public places in the country beginning Monday. The man had already been suspended from work because of his refusal to get vaccinated.

►Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said news of Antonio Brown and Mike Edwards’ suspensions over fake vaccination cards upset him because it undermines the “amazing job” his football club has done at handling COVID-19.

►Hiring slowed sharply in November as COVID-19 related hurdles clouded the outlook for the labor market in the months ahead.

►The Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and the Treasury are set to issue guidance by mid January that would allow over-the-counter COVID-19 diagnostic tests to be reimbursed by group health plans or health insurance providers.

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded about 49 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 787,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 265 million cases and 5.2 million deaths. More than 198 million Americans — roughly 59.7% of the population – are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

📘 What we’re reading: Researchers are still piecing together data, early anecdotal evidence and existing COVID-19 knowledge to better understand the new, mutated omicron variant of the coronavirus. These clues have given experts an insight into the threat of the variant, less than 2 weeks after the start to the worldwide effort.

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.

WHO reports that Omicron has been detected in 38 of the world’s countries.

Maria Van Kerkhove (the agency’s COVID-19 technical leader), stated that the omicron variant was detected in at most 38 countries within all six WHO regions.

Van Kerkhove believes that delta continues to be the predominant variant, but early evidence indicates that omicron is more transmissible then other variants.

The growth rate is increasing, ” she said. “We see an increasing number of omicron being discovered,” she stated.

Van Kerkhove stated that it may take longer time to establish how transmissible omicron is to delta, the effectiveness of current vaccines, and what severity of illness the new variant might cause.

According to her, “We know of cases in which people have been infected with Omicron. The severity ranges from mild to severe.” “… It’s still too early to know the extent of omicron-related illness.

Connecticut passes grim COVID death milestone

According to USA TODAY’s analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University, Connecticut has become the 25th State that reports the COVID-19 death in COVID-19 of at most 1 out of 400 residents.

Some states which had passed this mark before have become much more dangerous. Mississippi reports 1 death for every 289 residents. Alabama, however, is close to 1 death per 303. Johns Hopkins University used population estimates so the figures might not be accurate.

COVID-19, on the other hand, has claimed the lives of approximately 1 in every 1,500 Vermont residents.

Some 33 states reported higher COVID-19-related deaths this year than in 2020, despite the fact that they had access to safe and effective vaccines. After the alpha variant became more common in spring, the delta variant took control of the U.S. this summer. Around 180,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 in the year since delta was introduced.

— Mike Stucka

Michigan Hospitals nearing collapse due to delta surge

Michigan hospitals are near the breaking point with patients battling COVID-19 and other illnesses during the state’s fourth coronavirus surge, fueled by the delta variant.

Some health systems say they have surpassed pandemic peaks from before COVID-19 vaccines were available.

“We’re now well beyond anything we’ve seen before here in west Michigan with a number of hospitalized patients, at least at Spectrum Health,” said Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan. “I wish that I could tell you we’re going down.”

Instead, he stated that trend suggests things can get worse before they get better.

With 23% to 25% of coronavirus tests returning positive results at Spectrum, Elmouchi said, “this is really driving through infections, future hospitalizations, and, unfortunately, future deaths.”

Leaders from three western Michigan hospital systems and two in metro Detroit said Friday that the majority of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, as are the sickest, who need intensive care and ventilators.

— Detroit Free Press, Christina Hall and Kristen Jordan Shamus

South Africa sees rise in infections

From 200 cases per day mid-November, to over 16,000 by Friday, new COVID-19 infections in South Africa are on the rise. Omicron was detected over a week ago in the country’s most populous province, Gauteng, and has since spread to all eight other provinces, Health Minister Joe Phaahla said.

Despite this rapid rise, infection rates are still lower than the original surge of 25,000 cases in South Africa in June/July.

South Africa’s hospitals are so far coping with the surge, even those in Gauteng province, which accounts for more than 70% of all new infections, Phaahla said.

— The Associated Press

US COVID-19 mapMonitoring cases and deaths

International air travel will be subject to new COVID test rules starting Monday

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is shortening the testing window all international air travelers have to take a pre-departure coronavirus test from three days to one. Before this, travelers who were not vaccinated had to have a test done within one day of departure. 

The reduced timeframe aims to “provide less opportunity to develop infection with the omicron variant prior to arrival in the United States,” according to updated CDC order. 

U.S. airlines have been asked to collect contact-tracing information for inbound international travelers and send it to the CDC “upon request” since Nov. 8, when the country adopted a new set of international travel restrictions. 

The information collected includes names, addresses, phone numbers, emails and dates of birth.  

Learn more about international travel.

— Bailey Schulz

Contribution: The Associated Press

Source: USAToday.com

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