A video of a Florida testing line summed up the explosion of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in America this week, with hundreds lined up for testing in Miami Thursday.
With cars lined up for seemingly over a mile, one Twitter user had to clarify, ‘It is from today. It is not from last year.’
It also comes after samples taken from sewage revealed that Omicron is now the dominant strain of Covid in Florida’s Orange County.
Line weren’t long in just the Sunshine State: In New York City, people were lined up a long way outside testing sites as the city saw cases have reached over 3,500 the last two days.
CityMD, New York’s urgent care provider that stations clinics throughout the Big Apple, said testing volume grew more than 25 percent the past two weeks, with results taking as many as three to five days to come back from their labs.
COVID cases are up 31 percent nationwide over the past two weeks, with 124,413 people testing positive for the virus. Deaths have increased by 28 percent over the past two weeks as well, with 1,288 people dying every day.
The Omicron variant, which was first discovered last month in South Africa, is taking hold in the U.S. As it spreads nationwide, 39 states have now detected cases of the variant as of late Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Three percent of new cases in the U.S. are of the variant, the CDC said, and the confirmed case total has reached 421 as of Friday morning – a 31 percent increase from Thursday.
People were lined up in the hundreds at a Miami testing site Friday, with one commenter noting that ‘This is not last year. This is today’
Testing lines at the site were caught lasting a mile long, with many waiting for dwindling testing resources
The Omicron variant has now been detected in 39 American states after the first case was reported in Alabama this week
Not only are some areas of the country seeing more positive cases, but tests are getting harder to come by.
‘The reality is testing resources aren’t infinite in this country,’ Dr. Meena Brewster, the health officer in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, told NBC News.
‘Depending on how omicron goes, we may very well get to long delays in test turnaround times and very restricted access to testing, like where we were early on in the pandemic.’
She adds that they keep running out of the free at-home tests her county continues to hand out.
Back in Florida, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava held a news conference Thursday at a drive-thru testing site, showing cars lined up.
Levine Cava suggested residents consider taking celebrations outdoors but stopped short of urging people to stop or tamper their holiday parties.
Drivers wait in lines to be tested for COVID-19, at a drive-up testing center operated by Nomi Health at Tropical Park in Miami
People wait in line to get tested for COVID-19 at a mobile testing site in Times Square on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021, in New York. New York City had been mostly spared the worst of the big surge in COVID-19 cases that has taken place across the northeastern and midwestern U.S. since Thanksgiving, but the situation has been changing rapidly in recent days
Reports from the UK’s Covid symptom tracking study indicate Omicron cases are triggering cold-like health problems like a runny nose and sneezing, as opposed to traditional signs of the virus from earlier in the pandemic, like a persistent cough
The graphs show the amount of the coronavirus detected in human bronchial cells (left) and lung cells (right) 24 and 48 hours after coming into contact with the original strain of the virus (pink), Delta (orange) and Omicron (red). There was 70 times more Omicron recorded in the bronchus — the main pipe connecting the airways and lungs — compared to previous strains, but 10 times less virus in the lungs when compared to the original version and Delta. Experts from the University of Hong Kong said this suggests the virus is more transmissible but may cause less severe illness
‘Despite all of our efforts, the pandemic is not over,’ she added.
U.S. officials intensified calls Friday for unvaccinated Americans to get inoculated in the face of the new omicron variant that contributed to a record number of infections in New York and threatened to wipe out a second holiday season in Europe.
Though the calendar is about to change, Friday had a distinctly 2020 feel: NFL games were postponed because of COVID-19 infections.
The Rockettes Christmas show was canceled for the season. European governments imposed a spate of restrictions that ground travel to a halt and saw travelers lying low.
The United States is over 50 million positive cases and just this week, passed 800,000 people killed by Covid-19
Deaths from the coronavirus have increased in November and especially December, as the Omicron variant takes hold
Cases have also risen greatly in December, with some states reaching levels not seen since January
The coronavirus is spreading again across most of the country, with many areas seeing double-digit percent increase in cases
Much remains unknown about omicron, but officials warn that it appears more transmissible than the delta variant, which has already put pressure on hospitals worldwide.
The uncertainty alone was enough for many people to change their plans.
In the United States, President Joe Biden´s administration resisted tightening any restrictions, but also sketched out dire scenarios for the unvaccinated in a plea for hesitant Americans to get the shot.
‘For the unvaccinated, you´re looking at a winter of severe illness and death, for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm,’ White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said Friday, echoing the president’s own comments earlier this week.
Omicron replicates in the air 70 TIMES quicker than Delta, study finds
The Omicron variant multiplies 70 times faster than Delta in the airways, according to a study.
Hong Kong University researchers also found the new variant replicates 10 times slower in the lungs than predecessors.
The finding may explain why the mutant virus is spreading at a ferocious pace, and also lends weight to the theory it is milder than the past variants, something which doctors in South Africa have been claiming for weeks.
The researchers exposed lung tissue in a laboratory to the original Covid strain that was identified in Wuhan last year, along with the two variants, to compare how the viruses behave after infection.
Omicron replicated faster in the bronchus — tubes connecting the windpipe and lungs — suggesting people with the strain may be more infectious.
Higher viral loads nearer the throat means people are more likely to breathe out viral particles.
Delta was found to duplicate much quicker in the lungs, where more of the virus can lead to the most severe illness.
The finding may be the biological clue behind why doctors insist people infected with the strain only suffer cold-like symptoms.
But Dr Michael Chan Chi-wai, a public health expert at Hong Kong University and chief investigator, warned speed of replication is only one way of measuring the severity of Covid infection and individuals can still become unwell with the virus.
And the threat from Omicron ‘is likely to be very significant’ and could lead to higher rates of severe illness and deaths at a population level than other strains by infecting many more people, he said.
The findings add to data, studies and reports from doctors on the ground that the virus spreads rapidly but causes less severe symptoms.
The new variant is already in ‘full force’ in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, with new cases hitting a one-day record of more than 8,300 on Thursday. But new hospitalizations and deaths – so far – are well below their spring 2020 peak and even where they were this time last year, city data shows.
The coronavirus also interrupted sports in the U.S. again. The NFL announced Friday that three games would be pushed from the weekend to next week because of outbreaks.
The league has not specified whether the cases came from the omicron variant.
The Radio City Rockettes called off four performances scheduled for Friday because of breakthrough COVID-19 cases in the production, and plans for upcoming shows were still being assessed.
The popular holiday program generally has four shows per day in December at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan.
Dr. Stanley Weiss, a Rutgers University epidemiology professor, said officials need to react faster, citing a willingness to redefine fully vaccinated to include booster shots, for example.
‘Everyone wants us to be through with this pandemic, but in order to get us through it, we can´t ignore the realities of what´s going on and what is needed,’ Weiss said.
Amanda Wheelock, 29, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, canceled a trip to France with her partner as cases spiked there.
Even though the surge isn´t necessarily due to omicron, the uncertainty about the new variant, and a new requirement that all U.S. travelers have to test negative before flying back to the U.S., made her worry that the trip would be more stressful than fun.
Instead, she´s traveling to the Anchorage, Alaska, area to see friends.
‘A vacation with a lot of stress is probably not a great vacation,’ said Wheelock, who is from Arvada, Colorado.
The Advantage Travel Group, which represents about 350 U.K. travel agents, said business fell by 40 percent in mid-December from a month earlier.
Those numbers, including flights, cruise bookings and package holidays, add to the travel industry’s existing slump, which had already seen business fall by two-thirds since the pandemic began, CEO Julia Lo Bue-Said.
‘Our members are dealing with customers who are really nervous about traveling now,’ she said ‘They´re really nervous about bookings for the New Year because they fear that there´s a risk that the government will make more knee-jerk reactions.’
Many in the travel and hospitality trades hoped they had put the worst behind them, nearly two years into a pandemic that has devastated those industries.
They saw this holiday season as a chance to claw back some of what was lost – until omicron cast a pall reminiscent of the early days of the crisis.
WHAT DOES THE LAB EVIDENCE SHOW ABOUT VACCINE EFFECTIVENESS AGAINST OMICRON?
1. South Africa
People vaccinated with Pfizer have 40 times less antibodies that can fight against Omicron compared to other variants, according to one lab-based study.
Researchers at the African Health Research Institute (AHRI) took blood samples from 12 people double-jabbed with Pfizer.
They examined levels of neutralising antibodies that can prevent infection from Omicron.
The researchers found there is a 40-fold decrease in antibodies that fight against the strain, compared to the number that can defend against other variants.
The study only looked at antibodies, which are just one part of the immune response that fights off the virus. Although they are normally a reliable indicator.
It is not clear that this will translate into lower protection against severe illness, hospitalisation and death among those who catch the strain.
The researchers also found that Omicron still uses the ACE2 receptor on cells to infect people.
Professor Alex Sigal, a virologist at the AHRI who led the study, said this means the variant can be managed with the vaccines we have.
A separate study by researchers in Sweden found that while there is a drop in the body’s ability to neutralise Omicron it is not seen in everyone and is a smaller drop than feared.
Scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm found there was an average seven-fold drop in neutralisation potency against Omicron.
But it varied between a 1-fold and 23-fold reduction among patients.
Researchers said almost all blood samples evaluated had some form of neutralising antibody response against Omicron.
Their findings were based on recent blood samples from 17 people in Stockholm, compared to 17 hospital workers who were previously infected with the original Wuhan strain.
Benjamin Murrell, an assistant professor in computational biology, virology and immunology and one of the researchers behind the study, said this is ‘certainly worse than Delta’ but is not ‘as extreme as we expected’.
He said the AHRI study reported a ‘much more substantial average reduction’ but noted ‘what is common is that neutralisation is not completely lost for all samples, which is positive’.
A third set of results shared by researchers in Germany found neutralising antibodies from two doses of the vaccines used in the UK are ineffective against the strain.
Dr Sandra Ciesek, a virologist at the German Center for Infection Research, tweeted laboratory findings, which have not yet been published, show that six months after two doses of Pfizer or Moderna, or a first dose of AstraZeneca and second dose of Pfizer, there was no neutralising antibodies present that could protect against Omicron.
And even three months after being boosted with the Pfizer jab, people had just 25 per cent protection from neutralising antibodies against Omicron, compared to 95 per cent protection at the same point against Delta.
Dr Ciesek said this translates into a 37-fold reduction against Omicron compared to the Delta strain.
The findings confirm that developing new vaccines that target Omicron ‘makes sense’, she said.
But Dr Ciesek noted that the results ‘cannot say anything’ about whether people are still protected from severe illness, which other parts of the immune system play a key part in warding off.
Pfizer’s results are based on a laboratory study using the blood of 20 people, who were either double-jabbed three weeks earlier or triple-jabbed one month earlier with its vaccine.
The results showed the third dose may provide a ‘more robust protection’, triggering a 25-fold jump in antibody levels.
Pfizer, which manufactured the jab with German partner firm BioNTech, said the levels equated to a ‘high efficacy’ based on data against other variants.
A booster jab offered a boost in antibody levels that are ‘comparable to those observed’ for the original Wuhan virus after two doses, the company said.
The level of neutralising antibodies against Omicron after three jabs was 154, compared to 155 against the Wuhan strain after two jabs.
But the figure was 60 per cent lower than levels seen for three doses against Delta.