Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

A winter pandemic strategy.


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This is the Coronavirus Briefing, an informed guide to the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.


Daily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.Credit…The New York Times

More Omicron cases were detected in the U.S., including a Minnesota resident who had traveled to N.Y.C.

Germany announced tough restrictions for unvaccinated people.

The E.U.’s health agency said Omicron could be the dominant variant in Europe by spring.

Get the latest updates here, as well as maps and a vaccine tracker.

Biden’s plan for winter

President Biden laid out a new pandemic strategy today as the country confronts a worrisome new variant and a potential winter surge. The plan is aimed at keeping the economy, workplaces and schools open, according to senior administration officials.

The plan includes hundreds of vaccination sites aimed at families and a campaign to push for booster shots for all adults.

There are also two new changes that may be especially important for Americans as they begin to travel and gather for the holidays: testing requirements for international travelers and insurance reimbursement for at-home coronavirus tests.

Here’s what the changes mean for you.

Travel testing requirements. The Biden administration shortened the time frame for international travelers to the U.S. to take and present a negative Covid test to 24 hours from 72 hours. The new rules apply to foreigners coming to the U.S. and Americans returning home, and are expected to take effect next week.

While the new 24-hour window adds another layer of preflight stress, results for antigen tests are normally available within a few hours, so it should be possible to take a test and get the results within the prescribed period.

The U.S. stopped short of imposing a mandatory seven-day quarantine on arrivals, and it did not upgrade its standard for an acceptable Covid test to a P.C.R. test, which can take significantly longer to produce results.

There is no testing requirement for flying domestically, although Biden did extend the current mask mandate for people on airplanes, trains and buses, and in terminals and transit hubs, through mid-March.

At-home tests. Under the plan, Americans with private insurance would be reimbursed for at-home tests. For those who lack insurance, the administration intends to distribute an additional 15 million tests to community health centers and rural clinics.

Testing is a key because experts envision a future where Americans are able to test themselves as soon as they exhibit symptoms. Then, if they are positive, they would go into quarantine and seek treatment. Early testing is important because the antiviral treatment works best just after the onset of symptoms.

It was unclear how many tests a person could be reimbursed for buying, or how the reimbursement would work. Federal agencies plan to issue guidance for insurers by Jan. 15.

Private insurers already cover the cost of coronavirus tests administered in doctor’s offices and other medical facilities. (Here are five tips for avoiding surprise coronavirus test bills.)

While the president’s plan comes a day after the first Omicron case was discovered in the country, many experts predict a surge in the U.S. over the winter, regardless of whether the new variant spreads widely. The country has been reporting an average of more than 80,000 new coronavirus cases a day over the last few weeks. Six months ago, the average was roughly 12,000 new cases a day.

Blind spots in U.S. surveillance

By the time the U.S. announced its first Omicron case, dozens of cases had already been identified in Israel, Canada and countries across Europe. So why didn’t the U.S. detect the cases sooner?

Multiple factors may be playing a role, my colleague Emily Anthes found in her reporting on the genomic surveillance system in the U.S.

The process takes time. While the U.S. sequences the genetic material from about 80,000 virus samples a week, at the C.D.C., the process typically takes about 10 days to complete. That’s not uncommon in countries that have a lot of samples.

Some states lag far behind. The Ohio Department of Health, for example, notes that, from start to finish, the process of “collecting the sample, testing it, sequencing it and reporting it can take a minimum of 3-4 weeks.”

Testing issues. Scientists can sequence samples only from cases that are detected, and the U.S. has often struggled to perform enough testing. Also, as more people take at-home tests, if they aren’t followed up with a P.C.R. test, then those cases won’t be sequenced.

Other possible reasons. Perhaps infected patients have milder symptoms and are not getting tested. (We still don’t know whether Omicron causes more severe disease.) It is also possible that there is not yet much community spread of the variant in the U.S. Travel patterns may be playing a role. Although it is not yet clear where Omicron emerged, some of the first outbreaks were reported in South Africa, where the variant is now widespread, and there are more flights from southern Africa to Europe than to the U.S.

The good news is that scientists have said they should be able to speed up the process. They know what they are looking for now and should be able to prioritize samples that seem most likely to be Omicron.

Answers to your Omicron questions

Yesterday I asked readers for their questions about the new variant, and dozens came pouring in. I took some of them to my colleague Apoorva Mandivilli, who covers science and global health for The Times, for answers. If you’d like to submit a question about Omicron, you can fill out this form here.

Is Omicron more contagious than other variants? — Eric Sanchez, Mexico City

Apoorva: There are some indications that Omicron might be as contagious as Delta or more, although we will need to wait for more information to be sure. Omicron shares some mutations with Delta that may be involved in transmissibility, and has been spreading through South Africa quite rapidly. Both of those things make it likely that the variant is highly contagious. But it’s important to note that if Omicron can evade immunity from previous infections, for example, that advantage would make it appear contagious. We’ll know more in a couple of weeks.

Since there have been no reported deaths from Omicron so far, could the variant be an indication that the virus is becoming endemic and will soon evolve into a milder virus? — Gena D., Chicago

Apoorva: Experts say the coronavirus is already endemic — meaning that it’s here to stay, and we will most likely see iterations of it for years to come. But it’s too early to conclude that Omicron has evolved into a milder virus. The majority of people infected with any variant of the coronavirus so far have had mild to no symptoms, and it’s a small proportion that go on to become severely ill and an even smaller percentage who die. In other words, a lot more people need to become infected with Omicron before the trends become apparent.

More news about Omicron:

South African scientists said reinfections with the variant appeared more common.

It has prompted scientists to reconsider the need for boosters. It may also knock the fragile global economic recovery off track.

New cases were detected in Greece, India and England. It was also detected in France, but Delta is the bigger concern there for now.

New York’s governor urged attendees at an anime conference in New York City to get tested after a connection to the variant emerged.

Residents in San Francisco, site of the first U.S. case, are preparing to hunker down.

An Israeli doctor infected with it met dozens of people. Just one tested positive.

What else we’re following

Scientists said they might have found the way AstraZeneca’s vaccine can cause rare blood clots.

Here’s how to carry your Covid data on your smartphone.

Will New Yorkers still eat outdoors when the cold arrives?

Watch the virus spread. Yesterday we provided an incorrect link to a visual look at how the virus is aerosolized. Here’s the correct link (and apologies for the mix-up).

What you’re doing

Most of my friends and family seem content to not worry about the unknowns of Omicron or the potential for things to get worse. It’s all that I can think about. I had a panic attack while riding the train back from work, thinking about how much more of my life I could miss out on (my last years of college were already ruined). I know it’s all out of our control, but I desperately wish I could do something to stop it.

— Sofia Malinn, Boston

Let us know how you’re dealing with the pandemic. Send us a response here, and we may feature it in an upcoming newsletter.

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