Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Nation averaging 550,000 reported infections per day; Biden tells vaccinated people: 'You are highly protected': COVID updates

Latest updates: Lower hospitalization numbers reflect vaccine effectiveness, experts say

President Joe Biden on Tuesday sought to reassure the public that the federal government is prepared to address the growing COVID-19 health crisis amid a staggering increase in infections driven by the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Addressing the country before a meeting with the White House COVID-19 response team, Biden once again exhorted Americans to get vaccinated and boosted and to wear masks in public to avoid spreading and catching the coronavirus.

“We have the tools to protect people from severe illness due to omicron – if people choose to use the tools,’’ Biden said. “There’s a lot of reason to be hopeful in (2022), but for God’s sake, please take advantage of what’s available.’’

The U.S. topped the 1 million mark in new coronavirus cases for the first time Monday. Though the total of 1.08 million was likely enhanced by holiday weekend backlogs, it obliterated the previous record of 591,000 set Thursday.

By Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. ET, another 859,245 new cases had been reported. The U.S. is now averaging about 550,000 newly reported infections per day over the last week. Johns Hopkins University data shows high testing positivity across much of the country, an indication that testing capacity is far outstripped and many counts are far short of reality.

The latest huge surge in infections is straining hospitals, contributing to flight cancelations because of crew shortages and forcing thousands of schools to scuttle plans to resume in-person teaching, among other major disruptions.

Biden pointed out the U.S. has enough vaccines and booster shots for everybody in the nation, but 35 million adults have yet to get the shots. He also emphasized the importance of keeping schools open and said the government has doubled its purchasing order of a COVID treatment pill from Pfizer from 10 million to 20 million.

Vaccinations, however, remain the strongest line of defense against the virus, even with omicron’s increased ability to cause breakthrough infections.

“You can still get COVID, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll become seriously ill,’’ Biden said. “If you’re vaccinated and boosted, you are highly protected. Be concerned about omicron, but don’t be alarmed. And if you’re unvaccinated, you have some reasons to be alarmed. You’ll experience severe illness in many cases.’’

Just before the new year, Biden put $137 million toward expanding production of at-home tests, whose scarcity remains a point of aggravation among Americans already frustrated by nearly two years of living in a pandemic.

The president acknowledged as much and said home-testing capacity will improve soon as supplies get replenished in drug stores and online sites. The government is also setting up a website, set to open this month, for Americans to request free tests by mail. 

Biden said the number of federal testing sites has increased in the last two weeks and information on options can be found by searching online for "COVID tests near me,'' but said of testing in general, "I know this remains frustrating. Believe me, it's frustrating to me, but we're making improvements.'' 

Also in the news:

►Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and state Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo have a creative solution for the scarcity of COVID testing at a time of high demand -- telling residents not to get tested unless they're symptomatic. “If you don’t have symptoms, you are not a case," Ladapo said, even though the CDC and the World Health Organization have said infected people without symptoms can spread the virus.

►How long to isolate after a positive coronavirus test? When is the best time to test after symptoms start? How long does it take to recover from COVID-19? What over-the-counter medications should I take? Here are answers to some common questions as the virus continues to evolve.

►Pandemic-caused shortages of airline workers combined with a winter storm that hit the mid-Atlantic on Monday were again causing thousands of flight delays and cancellations Tuesday, according to FlightAware.

►The omicron variant accounted for more than 95% of all new cases in the week that ended Saturday, the CDC says. That is up from 77% the previous week

►New infections reported globally are up 83% over the previous week. The world is now reporting more than 11 million cases a week.

📈Today's numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 57 million confirmed COVID-19 cases – or one for every six people in the country – and more than 829,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 294 million cases and 5.4 million deaths. More than 206.5 million Americans – 62% – are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC

📘 What we're reading: In anticipation of steep challenges reopening schools amid an omicron-driven surge of COVID-19 infections, districts plan to ramp up coronavirus testing when classes resume in January. Leaders are still scrambling to work out the details – leaving big questions about safety and logistics.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY's free Coronavirus Watch newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

Cost of highly coveted at-home tests jumps at major outlets

Until the federal government makes free at-home tests for COVID-19 available at some point this month, the kits will be pricier than before at some of the nation's most popular outlets, if they can be found at all.

Walmart, Kroger and Amazon had deals with the Biden administration to sell the coveted tests at cost, but the agreements have expired, so the prices have been adjusted up. 

The two-test Abbott BinaxNOW kits at Walmart went from $14 through the holidays to $19.88 on Tuesday. The price at Kroger jumped to $23.99. For many people that may still be a worthwhile expense, considering some outlets are limiting the number of kits that can be purchased amid heavy demand.

-- Kelly Tyko

Israeli trial shows big protection boost from fourth vaccine dose

While many Americans are lining up for a third COVID vaccine shot, Israelis may soon be moving on to a fourth.

Such a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine produces a fivefold increase in antibodies, according to a trial conducted on Israeli medical workers whose protection had waned, The Wall Street Journal reported. Israel, which has been at the forefront of COVID vaccinations, on Monday became the first country to offer fourth doses to certain groups.

Health officials said research shows protection from a third shot starts to diminish after three or four months, and they want the nation to be prepared for the expected omicron wave.

Hospitalizations a truer measure of omicron impact, some experts say

The astonishing rise in COVID-19 infections prompted by the omicron variant -- with a daily average of 480,000 -- might not be quite as meaningful as with previous strains of the coronavirus.

Because omicron is believed to cause less-severe disease than the delta variant, a more accurate measure of its impact might be hospitalizations, some experts believe.

Presidential medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci is among them, telling ABC on Sunday that because many of the omicron infections produce few if any symptoms, “it is much more relevant to focus on the hospitalizations as opposed to the total number of cases.”

Hospital admissions averaged 14,800 per day last week, up 63% from the week before but short of the peak of 16,500 per day a year ago, when the vast majority of the U.S. was unvaccinated.

It should be noted that a large number of infections, even if asymptomatic, can have an enormous economic and societal effect because of the need for those who contract the virus to isolate themselves and the high risk they could transmit it to others if they don't.

Teacher vote today could shut down Chicago schools tomorrow

Chicago teachers were expected to vote Tuesday on whether they want to switch to remote learning because of the surge in COVID-19 cases, according to a teachers union spokesperson. The school district has ordered teachers back to their classrooms. Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said classes, in-person and remote, will be canceled for 330,000 students at least for Wednesday if teachers vote for remote learning. He said students are safer in schools, and noted that restaurants and other public places remain open.

"The commitment I have to families is that I have to have a plan that prioritizes them, their children," Martinez said.

Chicago has reported record numbers of new cases in recent days, and hospitalizations are up 22% from the week prior, according to city data. 

Maryland declares state of emergency; hospitalizations hit record

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared a 30-day state of emergency Tuesday and mobilized 1,000 members of the National Guard to assist state and local health officials with the pandemic response. Maryland reached a record high 3,057 hospitalizations, up more than 500% in less than two months. The newest projections show that COVID-19 hospitalizations could reach more than 5,000 – more than double the previous peak, Hogan said.

“The truth is that the next four to six weeks will be the most challenging of the entire pandemic,” he said.

CDC: Get the Pfizer booster 5 months after second jab

The CDC on Tuesday updated its recommendation for when many people can receive a booster shot, shortening the interval from six months to five months after the second shot for people who received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. The booster interval recommendation for people who received the J&J vaccine (two months) or the Moderna vaccine (six months), has not changed. 

The CDC also is now recommending that moderately or severely immunocompromised 5- to 11-year-olds receive an additional primary dose of the vaccine 28 days after their second shot. Only the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is authorized for children 5-11. The recommendations follow similar decisions announced Monday by the Food and Drug Administration.

"Today’s recommendations allow for more people to get a boost of protection as we face #Omicron & ensure that vulnerable children can get an additional dose for protection against #COVID19," CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky tweeted.

Judge backs Navy sailors who challenged military vaccine mandate

A federal judge in Texas has issued a preliminary injunction banning the Pentagon from punishing 35 Navy Seals and sailors who refused to get vaccinated saying it violated their religious freedoms. The Pentagon has mandated vaccination for all active-duty troops. Thousands of military members have requested religious exemptions, but none have been granted. Judge Reed O'Connor, appointed by President George W. Bush, wrote that the loss of religious liberties "outweighs any forthcoming harm" to the military.

"Our nation asks the men and women in our military to serve, suffer, and sacrifice," O'Connor wrote. "But we do not ask them to lay aside their citizenry and give up the very rights they have sworn to protect."

Hospitalizations fueled by omicron variant surge rising sharply

The United States again has more than 100,000 COVID-19 patients in hospital beds, a USA TODAY analysis of federal data shows. Hospitals on Monday reported 102,486 patients in hospital beds, up about 26% from a week earlier. About as many people are in hospital beds now as when the delta variant peaked in mostly southern states in September. The federal database shows about 142,000 COVID-19 patients were in hospital beds in January 2021.

Hospitals also said in the latest week they had admitted about 152,000 COVID-19 patients, up 46.5% from the previous week. About 19,000 COIVD-19 patients are in intensive-care beds, up 8.6% from the previous week.

Experts say the omicron variant sweeping the nation might be milder than earlier versions of the coronavirus, so a lower percentage of infected people could require hospitalization. But hospital beds are filling up because so many more people are getting infected than ever before.

Vaccination is key. The hospitalization rate for adults 18 years and older from September through November was about nine times higher in unvaccinated people than those who were vaccinated, the CDC reported. 

Mike Stucka

COVID-19 cases, test shortages are closing schools across the country

A majority of schools opened in-person Monday for their spring semester start, but a growing number have shifted abruptly to remote learning again amid the omicron-fueled surge in COVID-19 infections and subsequent staffing shortages.

Public and scientific sentiment is on the side of in-person learning, and parent groups nationwide called Monday for schools to stay open. But districts in and around Detroit, Atlanta, Newark, New Jersey and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as well as individual schools elsewhere, nonetheless reverted to virtual learning for days or weeks, mostly because of staff shortages due to illness or quarantine. 

And thousands of teachers are calling out sick in Miami-Dade and Broward county public schools, as new COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket across Florida, forcing some district staff out of the office and into classrooms, the Miami Herald reported.

Some districts that aimed to increase rapid testing for COVID-19 as a layered mitigation tactic are also struggling to secure the necessary supplies.

"There definitely is a problem right now with testing supplies, and that certainly does impact mitigation," Linda Mendonca, president of the National Association of School Nurses, said Monday. Read more here.

– Erin Richards, USA TODAY

Contributing: Mike Stucka, USA TODAY; The Associated Press