Thousands of people traveling for the holidays this week will first test themselves for COVID-19 without a doctor, lab or any medical oversight.

While quick home tests are hailed as a major convenience and a smart way to protect loved ones, they’ve also raised a significant challenge for public health officials. How can agencies comprehensively track cases and trends when many consumers don’t report home test results?

State and federal health officials are working since March 2020 in order to improve their ability to detect, report and monitor COVID-19-related cases. Officials in public health say that reporting cases is crucial for the detection of trends and surges, so hospitals can be prepared for an influx of patients seeking treatment.

But it’s unclear how often customers report results from the dozen authorized home coronavirus tests that typically deliver results in 15 minutes outside a lab or doctor’s office. And public health’s data blind spot is poised to grow larger.

Private test manufacturers already make more home antigen tests than standard laboratory tests — and the gap could nearly double next month as new home tests flood the market.

— Ken Alltucker, USA TODAY

In the news also:

►Beginning Monday, Massachusetts hospitals will have to cut back on non-urgent scheduled procedures due to staffing shortages and longer patient stays, according to the state’s health authorities.

►The number of air travelers this week is expected to approach or even exceed pre-pandemic levels, and auto club AAA predicts48.3 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home over the holiday period.

►More than 100 children at a vaccination event in Iowa on Saturday were given the incorrect dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, according to a statement from the hospital. MercyOne spokesperson stated that although there are not significant risks to health, the increased dose will likely cause more serious side effects.

►France has launched a plan Thursday to give COVID-19 booster shots to all adults, as it opted against a further lockdown or curfew to help combat a worrying uptick in infections in the country.

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 48 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 775,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 259 million cases and 5.1 million deaths. More than 196 million Americans — 59.1% of the population — are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

📘We’re looking at: During COVID-19, they believed home was safer than school. Some NYC parents have been accused of neglect.

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.

South African scientists discover new virus variant in the midst of spike

A new coronavirus variant has been detected in South Africa that scientists say is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province, Health Minister Joe Phaahla announced Thursday.

Coronavirus changes as it spreads. Many new variants of the virus, some with serious mutations or even death, occur. Although scientists are constantly looking for potential threats, such as those that can make it more fatal or transmittable to others, it is difficult to predict if any new variants might have adverse effects on the public’s health.

At an online briefing, Phaahla stated that South Africa had seen a drastic rise in the number of new infections.

“Over the last four or five days, there has been more of an exponential rise,” he said, adding that the new variant appears to be driving the spike in cases. South African scientists are trying to figure out what percent of these new cases could be attributed to the variant.

He said that the current variant is B.1.1.529. The new variant was also found in Botswana, Hong Kong, and South Africa by travelers.

The WHO’s technical working group is to meet Friday to assess the new variant and may decide whether or not to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.

— Associated Press

White House: The majority of federal employees have met the vaccine mandate

Just over nine out of ten federal employees have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by the required deadline, the Biden administration announced Wednesday when releasing agency-by-agency vaccination rates.

Those rates were as high as 97.8% at the Agency for International Development. The lowest rate was for workers at the Agriculture Department: 86.1%

Federal employees had until the end of Monday to get vaccinated or request a medical or religious exemption. Unlike a rule the Biden administration wants to impose on private employers, federal workers are not allowed to opt out of the vaccine requirement if they agree to weekly testing.

Workers who are not in the process of getting vaccinated or seeking an exemption will begin a “period of education and counseling, followed by additional enforcement steps,” according to the White House.

— Maureen Groppe & Michael Collins, USA Today

European Union drug regulator has approved Pfizer’s vaccine for children under five years old

The European Union’s drug regulator cleared the way for children ages 5 to 11 to begin receiving the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine on Thursday amid a new wave of infections across the continent.

The European Medicines Agency’s human medicines committee, an EU agency in charge of the evaluation and supervision of medicinal products, concluded that the benefits of vaccinating children outweigh the risks. Next, the European Committee will submit its recommendations to the European Commission. The Commission will then issue a final determination.

Germany has been facing its worst surge of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, reporting more than 333,000 cases the week of Nov. 15, according to the World Health Organization. That’s nearly double the weekly rate reported during a prior surge in December 2020.

— Celina Tebor, USA TODAY

Merkel: Germany’s 100,000 death from COVID is a sad day

German Chancellor Angela Merkel labeled Thursday “a very sad day” and backed calls for more restrictions, as her country became the latest to surpass 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

National disease control agencies reported that they had recorded 351 deaths from coronavirus-related illnesses in the 24 hours preceding the event. That brings the total number of victims to 100,119. Germany, which is fifth in Europe after France, Russia, Italy, Britain and France, has reached this milestone.

The German veteran leader who currently serves as caretaker to her successor, has warned that more than 100 deaths are already on the horizon.

“(The deaths) correlate very clearly with the number of infections that are occurring,” she said. “We know how many people on average do not survive this disease.”

The Robert Koch Institute, a federal agency that collects data from some 400 regional health offices, said Germany set a record for daily confirmed cases — 75,961 — in the past 24-hour period. Germany has seen more than 5 million COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the epidemic.

— Associated Press

Experts are concerned about the rising number of cases.

Even though early indications suggested that the U.S. might have been able to avoid another winter surge of snow, COVID-19 case numbers are increasing again.

The country reported 665,420 cases in the week ending Monday, more than a 30% increase from the pace of cases reported about a month ago, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins data.

U.S. Health and Human Services statistics show that hospitals in 32 states admitted more patients during the last week, despite rising cases in 39 states.

“Quite frankly, I’m really concerned,” said Danielle Ompad, associate professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Global Public Health. “I would say we are better off than we were last year, but cases are starting to tick up and that is something that we really need to keep an eye on.”

Health experts believed that the United States would be better able to manage the COVID-19 pandemic after nearly two years of fighting it. However, the majority of people continue to be unvaccinated. They also ignore mitigation steps, which slows progress and causes burnout in health care professionals. 

Adrianna Rodriguez USA TODAY

Contributing to The Associated Press



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