Health News

Number of omicron cases in US 'likely to rise,' CDC director says

ABC News

(ATLANTA) -- With the omicron variant now detected in at least 16 states in the U.S., Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the agency is "following them closely" and that the number is "likely to rise."

Walensky told This Week co-anchor Martha Raddatz that the CDC is still uncertain how transmissible the new variant is and how effective approved COVID-19 vaccines will work against it.

"We know it has many mutations, more mutations than prior variants," she said. "Many of those mutations have been associated with more transmissible variants, with evasion of some of our therapeutics, and potentially evasion of some of our immunity, and that's what we're watching really carefully."

The main concern right now, according to Walensky, is the dominant delta variant in the U.S. and the thousands of cases being diagnosed each day.

"We have about 90 to 100,000 cases a day right now in the United States, and 99.9% of them are the delta variant," she said.

But South African studies have so far shown that omicron is about twice as transmissible as delta, and when pressed by Raddatz on what that means for the next six months in the U.S., Walensky said it depends on how the public mobilizes together.

"We know from a vaccine standpoint that the more mutations a single variant has, the more immunity you really need to have in order to combat that variant, which is why right now we're really pushing to get more people vaccinated and more people boosted to really boost that immunity in every single individual," Walensky said.

She said the CDC is "hopeful" that current vaccines will work to at least prevent severe disease and keep people out of the hospital.

Moderna is currently working on an omicron-specific booster should it be needed and Stephen Hoge, president of Moderna, said it could be ready early next year.

In an exclusive interview with Raddatz last week, Hoge said that a new variant-specific vaccine would be needed if the level of efficacy dropped below 50%.

Efficacy is a "really interesting, important question, but efficacy is sort of in itself on a spectrum," Walensky said.

"Is it efficacy of preventing disease entirely? Preventing infection entirely, even if it just leads to a runny nose? Or is it efficacy of making sure people stay out of the hospital and prevent death?" Walensky questioned. "Certainly, we want to do the latter, absolutely first. And we'd really like to do the former as well."

Walensky also said that the Food and Drug Administration is already in "conversations" with vaccine makers to streamline the authorization process of an omicron-specific booster and that the CDC would be moving "swiftly" after that approval.

When Raddatz asked how the U.S. can help to get even more shots into arms around the world and whether the omicron variant would have even appeared if more people in South Africa were vaccinated, Walensky touted U.S. donation efforts.

The Biden administration has pledged to donate more than 1 billion vaccine doses. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, as of Dec. 5, over 237 million doses have been delivered, 45 million have been shipped, leaving nearly 817 million pledged doses yet to be distributed. The White House has pledged to deliver 200 million more doses in the next 100 days to countries in need.

"We're not only donating the vaccines for free and providing more vaccines to the globe than any -- than every other country combined, but we at CDC work in 60 other countries providing on the ground assistance in vaccine safety and vaccine delivery and vaccine confidence, in vaccine effectiveness studies."

Pressed by Raddatz if she fears a worst case scenario is possible with the omicron variant, Walensky said health experts are better situated to tackle the virus now than when it first appeared.

"We have so many more tools now than we did a year ago," she said. "We know so many things that work against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, regardless of the variant that we've seen before."

Walensky said getting immunity from the COVID-19 right now is "critically important" and continued to stress the importance of CDC regulations such as masking up in areas with high or substantial transmission.

The CDC director dismissed the idea of a nationwide mask mandate when Raddatz asked and said she’d "rather see people get vaccinated, boosted and follow our recommendations."

"I'd rather not have requirements in order to do so," she said. "People should do this for themselves."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


With so many unknowns about omicron, when will we have answers?

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(NEW YORK) -- The latest COVID-19 variant of concern, omicron, first reported to the World Health Organization from South Africa last week -- and now detected throughout the U.S. -- continues to worry many Americans with still much unknown about the virus.

Health authorities continue to urge calm as scientists across the globe search for answers.

"Right now, we're really in a state of knowledge acquisition," said Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Massachusetts. "We really need to know more. We need to know how pathogenic it is. We need to know how transmissible it is and we need to know whether or not it evades antibody responses induced by the vaccines."

Experts caution that answers to those questions may not come for months.

"What's going to happen is our band of confidence is going to narrow over time as opposed to saying in this amount of time we will have an answer. And that's what we have to recognize," said John Brownstein, epidemiologist and chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital. "We just need to have some patience," Brownstein added.

When will we know about omicron transmission?
Researchers, however, expect to have estimates for transmissibility "probably ahead of some of the other questions that we have," said Brownstein.

In a press conference Wednesday, WHO COVID technical lead, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, said there is some suggestion omicron may be more transmissible but it's too early to say definitively. "We expect to have more information on transmission within days, not necessarily weeks," Van Kerkhove said.

"Based on the data collected through surveillance, we have a rough estimation of the proportion of infections that relate to omicron where you can start to make basic estimates of transmissibility very quickly," said Brownstein.

During the White House COVID-19 briefing on Friday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House's chief medical adviser, said as more omicron cases are detected, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be able to model how the new variant will spread, similar to how quickly CDC predicted the delta variant would spread from the initial 3% to 4% of cases to nearly all cases.

"We really don't know what's going to happen, how well it is going to compete or not compete with delta, but we will know as more cases occur and what the doubling time of the relative percentage of omicron versus delta will be," Fauci said.

When will we know how effective current COVID-19 vaccines are on omicron?
The Food and Drug Administration said in a statement on Tuesday it is working "as quickly as possible" to evaluate the potential impact of omicron on current treatments, vaccines and tests and said it expects to have answers in the next few weeks.

If a modification to current vaccines is necessary, vaccine manufacturers say they are prepared to make those modifications quickly.

In a statement on Sunday, Pfizer and BioNTech said they have been monitoring the effectiveness of their vaccine against emerging variants and if a "vaccine-escape variant emerges" they expect to be able to make a "tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval."

Matt Barrows, Moderna's senior director of manufacturing told ABC News that the company has the capacity to produce an omicron-specific booster vaccine within a month if it becomes necessary. He said experiments testing the efficacy of their current vaccine against omicron are ongoing and will take at least two to three weeks.

“Although we haven't proven it yet, there's every reason to believe that if you get vaccinated and boosted that you would have at least some degree of cross protection, very likely against severe disease, even against the Omicron variant,” said Fauci.

When will we know if omicron causes more serious illness?
Learning if this version of the virus is deadlier could take many months, experts say.

"We don't even know if omicron will have the ability to overtake delta and we're dealing with a delta surge right now. There's a lot of ifs and a lot of open questions," said Brownstein.

Currently, the delta variant is driving nearly all cases across the U.S., with 99.9% of cases in the country from the delta variant.

Health officials are encouraged by the mild symptoms the omicron cases are experiencing so far. According to health officials, the man who tested positive for omicron in Minnesota is fully vaccinated and had been boosted in early November. The woman identified in Colorado is also reported to be experiencing only mild symptoms and was fully vaccinated, however not boosted.

Early cases identified in South Africa have also reported no severe disease according to local officials. "Right now it does not look like there's a big signal of a high degree of severity, but it's too early to tell," said Fauci, in an interview with CNN.

As of today, there are more than 400 confirmed cases of Omicron in over 30 countries across the globe, including in the US. As scientists work on getting more answers, experts are urging to not wait and get vaccinated or boosted if eligible.

"As it stands now with the information we have, you do the best with the information you have in front of you and that information says that you get an incredible advantage by getting that booster," said Brownstein.

Barouch said that the only way to stop new variants is to vaccinate people across the globe.

On Friday, the White House announced that it's shipping out 11 million more vaccines worldwide in an effort to increase vaccination around the world. The U.S. has shipped 291 million doses so far and President Joe Biden announced plans Thursday to provide 200 million more doses worldwide in the next 3 months.

"Currently, sub-Saharan Africa has less than a seven percent vaccination rate. And so it's not a surprise that new variants are emerging in that part of the world," Barouch said. "The only way to stop these variants is to have a widespread vaccination campaign that really reaches all four corners of the planet."

Esra Demirel, M.D., is an OB-GYN resident physician at Northwell Health-North Shore University Hospital & LIJ Medical Center and is a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


As delta continues to surge in Pennsylvania, hospital officials urge vaccination

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(PENNSYLVANIA) -- Omicron has been making headlines as cases of the new COVID-19 variant continue to be detected in the United States. While the strain is concerning, health officials are heeding that delta continues to fuel widespread transmission and is a problem now.

That's the current case in Pennsylvania, where the number of daily confirmed COVID-19 infections crossed 10,000 Friday for the first time since the state's winter wave.

In the past week, the number of COVID-19 cases, case rates, hospitalizations and patients on ventilators have all gone up, according to state data. Amid its latest surge, Pennsylvania has one of the highest COVID-19 hospitalization rates in the U.S.

"We continue to see a tremendous amount of COVID-19 patients," Dr. Eugene Curley, the medical director of infectious disease for WellSpan Health, which has six acute care hospitals in south-central Pennsylvania, told ABC News.

One month ago, there were about 250 COVID-19 patients total being treated across the six hospitals; on Friday, that number was 310, Curley said. The peak, during last year's winter surge, was around 430, he said.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which operates over 35 hospitals throughout Pennsylvania, has seen its second-highest number of COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began, hospital officials said. As of Friday morning, there were 779 patients with active COVID-19 infections admitted across all UPMC facilities; the peak, in December 2020, was 1,250, UPMC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Donald Yealy told ABC News.

"Across our system, we're at about two-thirds to three-quarters of what that peak is," he said. "So it is very, very brisk."

The state's current surge has been building since late summer, Yealy said. It reached a peak in late September before "there was the beginning of a pullback in activity," Yealy said.

"That pullback no longer exists and we are back on essentially an upward trajectory," he continued.

It's hard to predict if Thanksgiving gatherings will have an impact on hospitalizations; holidays are a "wild card," Curley said. But many people in the state have no protection against COVID-19, Yealy noted, which will help fuel transmission.

Statewide, around 41% of residents have still not gotten fully vaccinated, according to federal data. Within some counties, that percentage is in the 60s, state data shows.

Unvaccinated people continue to represent the vast majority of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, including those who are in intensive care units, state and hospital data shows.

For the 30 days ending Nov. 2, nearly 75% of people hospitalized due to COVID-19 were unvaccinated, according to state data.

Across WellSpan's six acute-care hospitals, over 90% of COVID-19 patients in the ICU and on ventilators since early September have been unvaccinated, the health system said this week.

"Those numbers just reinforce what we already know -- is these vaccinations are safe and effective," Curley said.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has urged people to get vaccinated if they haven't already.

"In Pennsylvania and around the country, the vaccine is still our strategy, so get your shot," the governor said last week on KDKA-AM radio, according to The Associated Press.

A renewed push for vaccination and boosters has come amid the spread of omicron, which has concerned scientists due to its large number of mutations. The variant has been detected in at least 11 states -- including Pennsylvania, where the state's first case was identified Friday in a man from northwest Philadelphia, health officials said.

For Curley, if concerns around the omicron variant encourage people to get vaccinated, that's a good thing. But he warned that delta "is here now."

"People need to get vaccinated for that reason," he said. "If you're out there and you're eligible to be vaccinated, get vaccinated now because of delta."

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, echoed that sentiment on Friday in an interview on CNN.

"We now have about 86,000 cases of COVID right now in the United States being diagnosed daily and 99.9% of them, the vast majority of them, continue to be delta," she said. "And we know what we need to do against delta. And that is get vaccinated. Get boosted if you're eligible and continue all of those prevention measures, including masking."

It is too soon to tell if omicron will overtake delta as the predominant variant in the U.S., she said. Though either way, the actions will likely remain the same, experts say.

"The truth of the matter is, both delta, which is the predominant variant now, and omicron are easily transmitted. And so the concerns are really not changed all that much, and the actions that we all need to take remain exactly the same," Yealy said. "Get vaccinated, wear a mask indoors and in crowds, keep a little distance and if you get sick, don't go out with others and get tested as quickly as possible."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Amy Coney Barrett raises adoption in abortion case hearing that poses challenge to Roe v. Wade

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(WASHINGTON) -- When the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday over a Mississippi law that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a headline-making line of questioning came from the court's newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett.

Barrett, a conservative justice appointed last year by former President Donald Trump, questioned whether adoption rather than abortion could resolve the “burdens of parenting” noted in Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the two major Supreme Court rulings on abortion that protect a woman's right to end a pregnancy before fetal viability.

Since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the Supreme Court has never allowed states to prohibit the termination of pregnancies prior to fetal viability outside the womb, roughly 24 weeks, according to medical experts.

During Wednesday's arguments, Barrett, a mom of seven with two adopted children, questioned Julie Rikelman, a Center for Reproductive Rights attorney arguing against Mississippi’s 15-week ban, about safe haven laws, which protect parents from criminal prosecution if they leave unwanted infants at designated places, like hospitals. All 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have enacted safe haven legislation, but rules and regulations vary by state, according to the Department of Health and Human Services' Children's Bureau.

"Insofar as you and many of your amici focus on the ways in which forced parenting, forced motherhood, would hinder women's access to the workplace and to equal opportunities, it's also focused on the consequences of parenting and the obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy," said Barrett. "Why don't the safe haven laws take care of that problem?"

"It seems to me that the choice more focused would be between, say, the ability to get an abortion at 23 weeks or the state requiring the woman to go 15, 16 weeks more and then terminate parental rights at the conclusion," she said. "Why -- why didn't you address the safe haven laws and why don't they matter?"

Rikelman responded by pointing out the unique risks that pregnancy alone carries, saying in court, "We don't just focus on the burdens of parenting, and neither did Roe and Casey. Instead, pregnancy itself is unique. It imposes unique physical demands and risks on women and, in fact, has impact on all of their lives, on their ability to care for other children, other family members, on their ability to work."

It is a point echoed by reproductive physicians, who say talking about adoption in place of abortion misses the realities of people's lives and the dangers of pregnancy.

If the Supreme Court were to uphold the Mississippi ban, as the conservative majority appeared headed toward, legal scholars say it could clear the way for stringent new restrictions on abortion in roughly half the country.

"'I'm unfortunately not surprised that adoption was brought up so much, because I think people feel that pregnancy is this non-issue medical condition," said Dr. Leilah Zahedi, a Tennessee-based maternal fetal medicine specialist and fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health. "It's very infuriating to be honest, because it shows their ignorance in the fact that pregnancy is not an uncomplicated condition for the majority of the United States."

"Pregnancy is probably one of the most dangerous things a woman does in her life, bar none," she said.

The U.S. is also a particularly dangerous place to give birth. It has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed countries, according to a 2020 study from the Commonwealth Fund, a healthcare policy-focused nonprofit organization.

Black women are three to four times more likely to die during childbirth or in the months after than white, Asian or Latina women, while Indigenous women are two to three times more likely, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Physicians like Dr. Nisha Verma, a board-certified OBGYN who provides abortion care, point out that abortion, on the other hand, is "incredibly safe."

"The risk of childbirth is as high as 10 times higher than the risk of abortion," said Verma, also a fellow with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. "That's a lot of risk to ask someone to take on."

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists was among 25 medical organizations who together filed an amicus brief in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health case that is now before the Supreme Court, arguing the Mississippi law is "fundamentally at odds with the provision of safe and essential health care, with scientific evidence, and with medical ethics."

Providers like Verma also point to statistics showing that restrictions on abortion impact people who are the most vulnerable to complications from pregnancy and childbirth.

Around 75% of abortion patients are low-income residents, and nearly 60% of U.S. women of reproductive age live in states where access to abortion is restricted, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights organization.

In her response to Barrett, Rikelman cited the maternal mortality statistics in Mississippi alone, saying, "It's 75 times more dangerous to give birth in Mississippi than it is to have a pre-viability abortion, and those risks are disproportionately threatening the lives of women of color."

In addition to the physical risks people face during pregnancy, there are also other factors to consider, like the lack of safeguards for pregnant people in the U.S., experts say.

The U.S. does not have universal health care and does not provide universal child care. And as the Supreme Court weighs its decision on the Mississippi law, the U.S. remains the only industrialized, modernized country in the world without federally mandated paid family leave, according to data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The House of Representatives last month passed a social spending plan that includes four weeks of paid family leave, eight weeks less than what was in the original spending package proposed this year by President Joe Biden. But that bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate, with Sen Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a critical vote, opposed to the paid leave provision.

"Abortion is not an isolated political issue," said Verma, weighing in on Justice Barrett's specific comments on adoption. "I think the way that adoption was presented as just this easy alternative to abortion completely disregards the real experiences that people are having. It's a decision that's happening in the context of people's lives."

In the majority of cases when providers talk to pregnant people about the option of abortion, they also provide them with information on the option of adoption, according to Verma. She said, in her experience, a person's decision on their own pregnancy is not one made lightly, and is not one made without considering all options.

"The decision-making process is different for every person, but it is a decision that people are making carefully and intentionally with all of the information and in the context of their own lives," she said. "It's not something that we can impose on people."

Verma continued: "I see patients all the time making decisions to have an abortion from a place of love and compassion."

There were over 620,00 legal induced abortions in the U.S. in 2019, the most recent data available, according to the CDC. At the end of the same year, 2019, there were around 122,000 children waiting to be adopted out of the U.S. foster care system, government data shows.

Overall, just over 110,000 adoptions took place in the U.S. in 2014, the most recent data available, according to the National Council for Adoption, a national advocacy organization that promotes adoption.

Ryan Hanlon, acting CEO and president of the National Council for Adoption, said the organization does not have a position on Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health.

Speaking specifically on safe haven laws, Hanlon said the goal should be to meet pregnant people and provide them with comprehensive information before they would find themselves in what he described as the "crisis" of leaving a child under the law.

"Safe haven laws can be a really wonderful thing, but by the time we've gotten to that point, we've already experienced a crisis," he said. "What I would hope for any woman who's experiencing an unplanned pregnancy is that she's getting information and support well before then, and for those women who do choose to place their child for adoption, that they are getting support before, during and after the birth."

ABC News' Devin Dwyer contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


What is known about the omicron variant that's arrived in the US

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(NEW YORK) -- As health officials expected, the United States has now confirmed several cases of the omicron variant, which was first identified in Botswana and has since been detected in at least 35 counties.

The World Health Organization declared omicron a variant of concern on Friday. Earlier this week, the agency said the overall global risk is "very high" due to the variant's large number of mutations, including on the spike protein of the virus, though there are still many unknowns, including information on its transmissibility, severity and impact on immunity.

Here's what we know so far about the variant in the U.S.:

First states to detect cases

The first three cases of the omicron variant identified in the U.S. were detected in fully vaccinated Americans with recent travel histories. All three people experienced mild symptoms, health officials said.

The first case was detected in California in an individual who had returned from South Africa on Nov. 22. The person, who was not yet eligible for a booster dose, sought COVID-19 testing a few days upon returning to San Francisco after developing symptoms, and genomic sequencing testing confirmed the case to be omicron on Wednesday, health officials said. All close contacts have been contacted and have tested negative.

Colorado confirmed a case of the omicron variant Thursday in a woman from Arapahoe County who had recently traveled to southern Africa. State epidemiologists had flagged the testing specimen for genome sequencing due to the recent travel history. The resident was eligible for a booster but had not yet received it, health officials said.

Through its regular surveillance of COVID-19 case specimens, Minnesota detected an omicron case Thursday in a Hennepin County resident who had recently traveled to New York City to attend the Anime NYC 2021 convention from Nov. 19 to 21. The man, who had received a booster dose in early November, developed mild symptoms on Nov. 22 and sought testing on Nov. 24. It seems likely that the transmission occurred at the NYC convention, but that is not certain, health officials said. His symptoms have since resolved. A close contact tested positive for COVID-19, though tests to confirm if that is also omicron have yet to be conducted, health officials said.

Thursday evening, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that at least four cases of the omicron variant had been detected in the state. They included a 67-year-old, fully vaccinated woman in Suffolk County who recently traveled from South Africa, and then three residents in New York City. A fifth case is also suspected to be omicron, Hochul said. All cases are mild.

A second California case was also announced Thursday evening, in a fully vaccinated Los Angeles County resident who had returned from South Africa on Nov. 22, health officials said. The infection "is most likely travel-related," the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said.

The detected cases illustrate the need to seek out testing based on travel history and symptoms, as well as the importance of sharing travel history with public health officials, health experts said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently advises that people who recently traveled internationally should get tested three to five days upon their return regardless of symptoms or vaccination status. NYC officials have also encouraged all attendees of the Anime NYC 2021 convention, estimated to be around 53,000, to get tested immediately and take precautions such as social distancing.

No cause for panic

Health experts have said the presence of the omicron variant in the U.S. is not surprising, and while concerning, it is not a reason to panic.

"At this point, I'm not terribly alarmed," Colorado Gov. Jared Polis told reporters Thursday during a briefing on the omicron case.

The governor said that if community transmission is occurring in Colorado, it's very small because no omicron variant has been discovered in wastewater analysis yet. Roughly 15% of all positive COVID-19 tests are sequenced in Colorado.

San Francisco Department of Public Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax told reporters during a briefing yesterday that the case was "not a cause for us to panic" and that the city "is prepared" for this.

Leaders in New York and Minnesota had similar messages.

"We're ready for it. This is not surprising," New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said during an on-camera briefing earlier Thursday.

"This news is concerning, but it is not a surprise," Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said in a statement. "We know that this virus is highly infectious and moves quickly throughout the world."

Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm echoed that sentiment during a briefing Thursday, saying omicron is something to take seriously but "not a reason to panic."

"We're at a stage where there is still a lot we need to learn about omicron," she said.

Officials in the cities and states where the variant has been detected have said they don't plan to make any changes to health orders at this time.

Impact on travelers

White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci told reporters Wednesday he doesn't think a domestic flight policy for testing or vaccination due to omicron is necessary right now but said it's always something under consideration.

"These kinds of things we always talk about and consider. But right now, I'm not so sure we need testing for air travel in this country," he said.

There are strengthened requirements for travelers coming to the U.S. amid the spread of the omicron variant. On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced that all passengers must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within one day of flying into the U.S., regardless of their vaccination status or nationality.

"This tighter testing timetable provides an added degree of protection as scientists continue to study the omicron variant," he said during a briefing.

Unvaccinated Americans already were required to show proof of a negative test within one day of traveling. The new rule, which goes into effect Monday, expands that one-day requirement to all vaccinated travelers coming into the U.S. from other countries. Unvaccinated nonresidents are currently barred from boarding a flight to the U.S.

Delta still dominant

Amid concerns about the omicron variant, health experts have stressed that delta is still a major issue in the U.S., where close to 100,00 new cases are diagnosed daily. Delta comprises 99.99% of new COVID-19 cases.

"I think omicron is another kind of wake-up call, and we needed another one," Malcolm, with the Minnesota Department of Health, said. "Even though we might feel like we're done with the pandemic, it is most certainly not done with us."

Health officials have urged people to get vaccinated and get boosters and to continue to follow COVID-19 guidelines such as wearing a mask indoors while in public, test if you have symptoms and stay home if you're sick.

ABC News' chief medical correspondent, Dr. Jennifer Ashton, told David Muir on Thursday that vaccinations remain the most important tool we have in combatting COVID-19 this winter.

"Some protection is better than none, and while we learn about the many mutations that omicron has ... we have to double down on what we know is going to be our best tool in the toolbox, and that is vaccination," Ashton said.

Regarding boosters, Fauci has urged Americans who are eligible to get the shot now.

"Right now, I would not be waiting," he said Wednesday. "People say, well, if we're going to have a booster-specific vaccine, should we wait? If you are eligible, namely six months with a double mRNA dose, or two months with the J&J, get boosted now."

"We may not need a variant-specific boost," he added.

ABC News' Matthew Fuhrman, Cheyenne Haslett and Arielle Mitropoulos contributed to this report.

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Texas law restricting access to abortion pills goes into effect: What to know

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(NEW YORK) -- As the U.S. Supreme Court continues to weigh whether to leave Texas's unprecedented six-week abortion ban, SB8, in place, a new law that also restricts abortion access is going into effect in the state.

Starting Thursday, people in Texas will have a narrower window in which they can receive abortion-inducing medication, including the two most commonly used medications, mifepristone and misoprostol.

Senate Bill 4, or SB4, cuts the window in which physicians are allowed to give the medication from 10 weeks of pregnancy to seven weeks.

The new law also prohibits mailing abortion-inducing drugs, a restriction that contrasts with a federal regulation enacted in April by the Biden administration that temporarily allows the medication to be mailed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Current Texas law already bans providers from administering medication abortion using telemedicine, according to Abigail R.A. Aiken, MD, MPH, PhD, associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and principal investigator with Project SANA, a research project focused on self-managed abortion in the U.S.

"We've seen many states be able to open up new models of care where clinic-based providers can now do medication abortion by telemedicine," said Aiken. "I think Texas is very clear that they don't want providers here to follow suit and be able to start doing those kinds of new models where you would do a phone consultation with a provider and then have the pills mailed to your house for use at home."

The bill, signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott on Sept. 24, also adds new requirements around medication abortions, including an in-person examination by a physician, a mandatory follow-up visit within 14 days and new reporting requirements for providers.

The bill also creates a state jail felony offense for "a person who intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly violates provisions relating to abortion-inducing drugs," but exempts pregnant people on whom a medication abortion is "attempted, induced or performed," according to the bill summary.

Though SB4 is being enacted in Texas, medication abortion is now a very common method used for abortions in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. In 2019, 42% of all abortions in the U.S. were early medical abortions, meaning medications were taken at nine weeks or earlier after conception, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Medication abortions were first approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2000. FDA guidelines advise that abortion-inducing pills are safe to use up to 70 days, or 10 weeks, after conception, though evidence shows it can be safe even later in pregnancy, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

In most cases in a medication abortion, mifepristone is taken first to stop the pregnancy from growing. Then, a second pill, misoprostol, is then taken to empty the uterus.

Of the two medications, mifepristone is more restricted by the FDA. Since 2011, the agency has applied a risk evaluation and mitigation strategy to mifepristone, preventing it from being distributed at pharmacies or delivered by mail like other prescription drugs.

It must be ordered, prescribed and dispensed by a health care provider who meets certain qualifications, and may only be distributed in clinics, medical offices, and hospitals by a certified health care provider, according to FDA guidelines.

The FDA's rules, combined with state restrictions like the one in Texas, have the effect of not only limiting when, where and how people can get abortions, but also potentially misguiding people on the safety of medication abortion, according to Dr. Bhavik Kumar, a staff physician at Planned Parenthood Center for Choice in Houston.

"What's important to note is that the medication used in medication abortion has been used in this country for 21 years and it is extremely safe," said Kumar. "We've learned a lot since it was first introduced and can use it in different ways that are more patient-centered, more evidence-informed and really optimizes science and medicine so that patients get the care that they need."

Speaking of the new law now in effect in Texas, he added, "What Senate Bill 4 is doing is inserting itself squarely into my relationship with my patients and telling me how to practice medicine, and it's not in the best interest of my patients. It's actually causing more harm to my patients and it's taking options away from them."

Abortion rights advocates say SB4 also has the likelihood of signaling to other states that further restrictions on medication abortion can be put in place.

In South Dakota in September -- the same month SB4 was signed into law in Texas -- Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, issued an executive order directing the state's Department of Health to establish rules requiring that abortion-inducing drugs only be prescribed and dispensed by a state-licensed physician after an in-person examination. Noem said she also plans to pass legislation next year that makes "these and other protocols permanent."

Across the country, more than 30 states require clinicians who administer medication abortion to be physicians, while 19 states require the clinician providing a medication abortion to be physically present when the medication is administered, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

"I think we have to see this is another continuation of the trajectory of trying to really make abortion a right on paper only in the United States," said Aiken. "It's another way of placing barriers in the way of people."

She continued, speaking of restrictive abortion laws in some states, "I think what it's doing in reality is creating this really uneven picture where you have some states that are moving in the direction of more and more and more accessible care, but the reality in other states is completely the reverse, so we're looking at that uneven picture where your access really depends on your zip code."

Both Aiken and Kumar mentioned the affect laws like SB4 in Texas have on the most vulnerable populations.

Around 75% of abortion patients are low-income residents, and nearly 60% of U.S. women of reproductive age live in states where access to abortion is restricted, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights organization.

"It has been the case in Texas now for decades that we have seen low-income people and communities of color just bear this disproportionate brunt of negative impacts of these laws," said Aiken. "So this is an equity issue and it's a justice issue as well as a health care issue."

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What's behind the 'dire' COVID-19 surge in Michigan?

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(OKEMOS, Mich.) -- Michigan is in the midst of its fourth COVID-19 wave -- and there is no end in sight, hospital officials said.

Cases and hospitalizations are rivaling levels seen in earlier parts of the pandemic, when vaccines weren't widely available. The surge also comes at a time when non-COVID-19-related patients are being admitted, flu cases are emerging and health systems are understaffed, Brian Peters, CEO of the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, told ABC News.

Unvaccinated people continue to make up the majority of those infected with COVID-19, including severe cases of the infection. Roughly around three-quarters of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths were in unvaccinated people from Oct. 21 to Nov. 19, according to state data.

Around 45% of the state remains unvaccinated, according to federal data.

"The situation right here in Michigan is as dire as it has ever been since the start of this pandemic," Peters said.

Michigan reported a nearly 20% positivity rate in the past week, and every county is currently at the state's highest risk level for transmission.

Michigan is not alone in seeing COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations increase due to the delta variant, especially as colder weather has approached, people have gathered indoors more and pandemic fatigue has long set in. Though the duration of this surge, and the speed with which cases have "skyrocketed" in the past three weeks, is alarming, Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan, which operates 14 hospitals, told ABC News.

"If you look at most other states, and all the surges we've had, usually you start at a low point and you go up really quickly, and then you come down pretty quickly," he said. "What happened for us is we went up gradually enough, but we went up high enough, with [positivity rates] in the teens, that when we shot up, we shot up from that baseline."

"This has far surpassed anything we've seen before -- both in how long it's been going on, and now its seemingly never-ending peak," he added. "We just don't know when the end will be, and we're very worried it will have a very long tail."

Michigan reported its second-highest number of COVID-19 cases and case rates in the past week, according to the state's latest weekly coronavirus report, released Tuesday. That follows records set in both cases and case rates the previous week. Hospitalized COVID-19 patients also increased 13% during the past week, the report found.

"I felt like probably the surge we had last fall was going to be the worst we've ever seen. I never would have guessed that we would be in yet another surge and that it would be the worst surge yet," Sandra Gilman, a nurse and hospital supervisor for Spectrum Health, told ABC News.

At Spectrum Health West Michigan, unvaccinated COVID-19 patients are generally about nine years younger and only have two comorbidities, as opposed to four, when compared to vaccinated patients, "meaning that they're younger and healthier when they're coming in," Elmouchi said.

"That tells us the importance of being vaccinated," he said. "And that's what's so heartbreaking for our teams, is that they see all these people that are so sick, being on the ventilator and even dying, and they know it's preventable. It's heart-wrenching."

Due to a mix of early nursing retirements, pandemic burnout and a "rising tide of violence" against health care staff, Michigan hospitals are treating the latest surge in COVID-19 patients amid a staffing shortage, according to Peters. There are approximately 875 fewer staffed hospital beds in Michigan than in November 2020, he said.

"That is incredibly concerning, because there's not a rapid or easy solution to that problem," Peters said.

Amid the staffing strain, this week, the Department of Defense temporarily deployed nearly four dozen medical personnel, including registered nurses, doctors and respiratory therapists, to two hospital systems in the state.

The help is welcome, though more is needed, Peters said, especially as the pandemic only worsened an existing health care workforce shortage. Among other measures, his organization is advocating for a $650 million special appropriation in the state legislature that would provide payments to health care staff to encourage them to stay in their jobs, as well as offer incentives for training programs to increase the number of workers in the pipeline, he said.

For now, hospital capacity remains a concern throughout the state, where every region, from urban to rural, is a "hotspot," Peters said.

At Spectrum Health West Michigan, the intensive care units are operating at 147% of their traditional capacity, Elmouchi said.

Statewide, hospitals are operating at almost 85% occupancy, according to state data.

In recent weeks, some hospitals have had to divert patients to other hospitals and delay elective procedures, Peters said.

"That doesn't necessarily create a quality-of-care problem as much as it can be a convenience problem," he said. "But what we're very fearful of, is that if these COVID numbers don't level off and decline, you're going to start seeing real access challenges, where literally there's no more capacity to care for patients, COVID or otherwise, in certain communities."

"We're doing everything we possibly can to avoid that outcome, but without the public's help, that's our future," he added.

Health officials are urging residents to get vaccinated and receive booster shots and to mask up indoors in public settings to help alleviate the surge -- especially amid concerns and questions around the transmissibility and mutations of the new omicron variant, which was first detected in the U.S. Wednesday in California.

"Ensuring that as many Michiganders as possible are vaccinated remains the best protection we have against COVID-19 -- including variants of concern," Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan's chief medical executive, said in a statement this week.

Peters said he has been encouraged by the continued increase in vaccinations in the state, including among newly eligible pediatric populations, but "those numbers aren't growing rapidly enough."

"[Omicron] is yet another reason for the public to get vaccinated now without waiting any longer," he said. "I fear that there are so many Michiganders, and I'm sure it's true outside of Michigan as well, but who believe that the pandemic is largely over. And nothing could be further from the truth."

ABC News' Arielle Mitropoulos contributed to this report.

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How your ZIP code determines your lung health

Darren Riley, 29, is the CEO and Co-founder of JustAir, which uses small sensors to map air quality on a neighborhood level. - JP Keenen/ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- This is the fourth and final episode of ABC News Digital's four-part series "Green New Future," which highlights innovators and environmental solutions.

While climate change and poor air quality are global issues concerning all people, 29-year-old Darren Riley has found that the ZIP code people are born into can disproportionately put them in harm's way.

Riley's father ended up in a coma in the ICU due to asthma-related illnesses in 2014, Riley told ABC News. It was his father's words from seven years before that made him realize the connection between a person and where they live.

"I was a product of my environment," Riley's father had told him.

Riley, who also developed asthma himself, said he set out to find a way to alleviate systemic issues and allow people from all areas an equal opportunity in quality of life. He is now the CEO and co-founder of JustAir Solutions, a company that creates air quality monitoring networks to provide cities and individuals data on their breathing environment.

"I think air quality is a sliver of all of many injustices that we see in the world that we can really focus on," Riley told ABC News.

The disproportionate impact of pollution is one example of a host of systemic issues that people of color, lower wealth communities and indigenous populations are facing, advocates say.

These issues are "fueled by environmental racism," Mustafa Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, told ABC News.

Through discriminatory practices such as redlining, cities in the U.S. have been divided and designed with toxic industries disproportionately running through areas inhabited by communities of color, according to Ali.

This affects the quality of the air people breathe, which research has found can determine the long-term health of their lungs and subsequently, their life expectancy.

"We have 100,000 people who die prematurely from air pollution in our country," Ali said.

This issue came to the forefront over 50 years ago when Congress passed the Clean Air Act, which set out to control and reduce air pollution across the nation by keeping track of the quality of air that citizens were inhaling.

The U.S Environmental Protection Agency mandates that cities track their air quality levels using a monitor that tracks dust, metals and other matter that could affect the lungs.

The EPA regulations state there must be a minimum of one monitor per city, but community advocates argue there must be more. Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Riley piloted his project, has just one monitor that reports on the city's air quality level.

Data from that monitor is used to approximate the air quality level for the entire city and its suburbs, Jim Meeks, the chairman of JustAir, told ABC News.

But Riley was curious about the difference in air quality levels across neighborhoods, which the lone monitor set up by the EPA could not capture. He deployed 11 sensors across Grands Rapids -- five in the downtown area, five in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood and one adjacent to the EPA monitor.

When comparing data from his sensors in the metro downtown area of Grand Rapids versus Roosevelt Park, the neighborhood with the highest non-white population, Riley found stark differences in the air quality levels.

The Roosevelt Park sensors recorded far more unhealthy days than the one near the EPA monitor, Riley said.

"There are disparities between sensors within a city," Riley told ABC News. "And one sensor doesn't detect that."

JustAir's sensors are currently only used in Grand Rapids, but Riley hopes to expand his company to other cities such as Detroit and Chicago, believing that the data could inform governments and individuals to take action.

He said he hopes his company will bring change to the nation's struggle with poor air quality and its health impacts.

The key to fighting air pollution-related health disparities lies in the re-prioritization of resources and budgets and breaking through the existing political polarization, according to Ronda Chapman, equity director at The Trust for Public Land.

"This is a non-partisan concern when we're talking about the health and well-being of individuals," Chapman told ABC News. "And so when we have the data to back it up, that's how we're able to better make the case for investing in green infrastructure, investing in neighborhoods and investing in communities."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Strangers donate breast milk after mom of newborn dies of COVID-19

Courtesy Brittany Eppenauer

(OAK GROVE, Mo.) -- Megan Richards, a mom of six, had planned to provide breast milk for her youngest child, 5-month-old Myles, through his first birthday.

Richards died last month due to complications from COVID-19, and now her family is trying to fulfill her wish by collecting donations of breast milk.

"It was one of the things that she wanted the most for the baby, and it was important to her, so it was important to me," said Megan's husband, Michael Richards. "Even when she got sick and I was trying to keep her in bed, and just try to get her to rest, I talked to her about it maybe being time to stop pumping -- she'd been pumping to be able to feed him with a bottle -- and she refused."

The Oak Grove, Missouri, family has so far received about 400 ounces of donated breast milk, as well as a donated freezer to store it.

They estimate they will need around 10,000 ounces to reach Myles's first birthday next July, according to Brittany Eppenauer, Megan Richards's sister.

Eppenauer is leading the drive for breast milk donations and said she's received nearly 300 emails from women who want to donate.

"The first donation that we received came from a woman named Megan," she said. "It's overwhelming to know that other moms care that much, to make sure that we can fulfill my sister's wishes."

Megan Richards was 32 when she died Nov. 15. She was the mother of five biological children and shared a step-child with her husband, with whom she would have celebrated her second wedding anniversary on Nov. 30.

"She was a perfect mother. Everything she did was for the kids," Michael Richards said of his late wife. "We put off vacations and dates for ourselves so we could spend more time with the kids. Everything was about them."

Michael Richards said he and his wife and all six children contracted COVID-19 in mid-November, with most of them suffering only mild symptoms.

Myles had to be treated at the hospital for dehydration, but recovered quickly. Megan Richards, who was not vaccinated against COVID, began suffering worsening symptoms and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance on Nov. 14, according to Michael Richards.

"I stepped outside to call 911, and when I got back inside Megan was laying on the living room floor," he said. "Our oldest said she stood up and said she didn't feel right and passed out."

At the hospital, she was treated for dehydration and diagnosed with COVID pneumonia, but was expected to recover quickly, according to Michael Richards.

The next day, he said he received a call from the hospital that his wife's condition had worsened. When Michael Richards arrived at the hospital, doctors were performing CPR on Megan, who had fluid buildup around her heart. She died later that day.

Both Michael Richards and Eppenauer said they're now trying to fill the void left by Megan Richards, described by Eppenauer as "one of the best mommas around."

"My niece's birthday was on Dec. 1st, and it took eight adults to do what she could have done as one person in putting on a birthday party," Eppenauer said. "We don't know how we'll fill her shoes, but we're going to try."

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Amid spread of omicron variant, CDC expected to require negative COVID-19 test 1 day before flying to US

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(WASHINGTON) -- The Biden administration is preparing to implement new travel guidelines that would require proof of a negative COVID-19 test within one day of flying into the U.S., including for vaccinated people, a spokesperson from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed.

The expected change comes as the country beefs up surveillance for the omicron variant, the first case of which in the U.S. has been identified in California, the California and San Francisco Departments of Public Health said Wednesday. The CDC said the person traveled from South Africa on Nov. 22.

Omicron has been deemed a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization and had been detected in over 20 countries as of Tuesday.

"CDC is working to modify the current global testing order for travel as we learn more about the omicron variant; a revised order would shorten the timeline for required testing for all international air travelers to one day before departure to the United States," CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund said Tuesday night. "This strengthens already robust protocols in place for international travel, including requirements for foreign travelers to be fully vaccinated."

Under the current guidelines, people from other countries who are not fully vaccinated cannot travel to the U.S., while people who are fully vaccinated can as long as they provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within three days of traveling. For unvaccinated Americans, the guidelines already required proof of a negative test within one day of traveling. The potential new rule would expand that one-day requirement to all vaccinated travelers coming into the U.S. from other countries.

For post-travel recommendations, the CDC also suggests vaccinated travelers get tested three to five days after arriving in the U.S. and that unvaccinated travelers stay home to self-quarantine for a full seven days, even if they test negative during that timeframe.

Earlier on Tuesday, the White House confirmed it was considering updates around testing requirements and said policy discussions were ongoing across the government as more is learned about the omicron variant.

More updates on the country's response to the variant are expected Thursday.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky outlined some of the expected changes at the White House COVID-19 briefing on Tuesday morning. She said the CDC is analyzing 80,000 COVID-positive tests per week -- or about one in seven tests -- looking for the omicron variant. The delta variant continues to account for 99.9% of all tests analyzed, Walensky said.

Asked if she was confident in the CDC's surveillance system given how many other countries had detected the variant before the U.S., Walensky said the system is "robust."

The director also said the CDC is working on expanding a surveillance program in the nation's four busiest international airports, John F. Kennedy International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which would allow for more COVID-19 tests on international arrivals -- though there was no indication that testing would be mandatory for arriving travelers or which arriving planes would be offered the tests.

In the meantime, experts are calling on all Americans to get vaccinated if they haven't yet and to get boosted if they're over 18 and were fully vaccinated over six months ago. Of those eligible for a booster, 100 million Americans haven't gotten one yet, the White House said on Tuesday, while just about 20% of fully vaccinated Americans have, the CDC's vaccine data shows.

Though the data on how transmissible and severe the omicron variant is will not be available for a few more weeks, as scientists around the globe work to gather it, experts believe it's unlikely it will completely chip away at the protection from vaccines and boosters, particularly when it comes to hospitalization and death.

"Remember, as with other variants, although partial immune escape may occur, vaccines and particularly boosters give a level of antibody that even with variants like delta, give you a degree of protection, particularly against severe disease," Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the White House, said on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Pfizer BioNTech asked the Food and Drug Administration to consider expanding the booster recommendation to include 16- and 17-year-olds. The agency is expected to review the request in the coming weeks.

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What to know about new COVID-19 variant omicron

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(NEW YORK) -- Global health authorities said they're monitoring a new COVID-19 variant first identified in southern Africa, with the World Health Organization saying Friday the new strain, called omicron, is a variant of concern.

On Monday, the WHO said the overall global risk is assessed as "very high" due to the variant's mutations although there are still many unknowns.

The WHO urged countries to step up monitoring and surveillance. The global health agency said it's still not clear whether the variant is more transmissible or causes more serious illness, or if it affects vaccines. Such studies will take time.

The first confirmed case in the U.S. was identified in California on Wednesday in a vaccinated individual, but the person's symptoms were mild, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. The person had traveled to South Africa in late November.

"As all of you know -- because we've been discussing this -- we knew that it was just a matter of time before the first case of omicron would be detected in the United States," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House's chief medical adviser, said Wednesday.

As of Wednesday, there were more than 370 confirmed cases in nearly 30 countries across the globe, with most in South Africa but seven cases in Canada and a few dozen in the U.K.

"We don't know very much about this yet," Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's COVID-19 technical lead, said Nov. 25. But concern about this variant stems from its "large number of mutations," Kerkhove added, which could "have an impact on how the virus behaves."

Concerns about this variant already have prompted several countries, including the U.S., to impose travel restrictions from countries in southern Africa. The WHO is urging calm, saying it's premature to close borders.

There are thousands of COVID-19 variants, with new ones emerging all the time. Usually new variants disappear quickly because they're overrun by a more dominant strain.

The now-dominant delta variant is so highly transmissible that most of the new variants that have cropped up in recent months have been unable to gain a foothold. In the United States, the delta variant comprises an estimated 99.9% of all new cases.

"There's obviously this tension between crying wolf and exacerbating concerns about the variants, but also being caught flat-footed and not responding swiftly enough," said Dr. John Brownstein, chief innovation office at Boston Children's Hospital and an ABC News contributor. "This is where we have to cautiously respond without inciting panic, because this could easily turn out to be a variant similar to others that have never really panned out to be global concerns."

Scientists across the globe constantly monitor all newly emerged variants to see if they're spreading in a meaningful way and global health authorities have said they're monitoring this new variant closely.

Vaccine companies, meanwhile, are making plans to tweak vaccines to address new variants if it becomes necessary.

Current COVID-19 vaccines, which rely on genetic technology, could be easily updated to better combat emerging variants -- though so far that hasn't been necessary.

Pfizer/BioNtech said that if a "vaccine-escape variant emerges," it expects "to be able to develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval."

Moderna also said it is "rapidly advancing" an omicron-specific variant, while Johnson & Johnson also said it will move forward with an omicron-specific vaccine as needed.

Nine variants are currently being monitored by the WHO, which designates particularly worrisome strains as variants of "interest" or "concern." When they no longer pose a significant public health threat, the variants are reclassified -- so far during the pandemic, 13 have been removed from the WHO's list.

But public health experts said the emergence of variants underscores the urgent need to vaccinate everyone on the planet.

"It gives us a lens into why as epidemiologists we've been so concerned about global vaccine equity," Brownstein added. "It's a recognition that with not enough people around the globe immunized, it creates more opportunities for variants to emerge, and this is a very good example of that."

ABC News' Guy Davies, Josh Hoyos, Aicha El Hammar, Zoe Chevalier, Liezl Thom and Zoe Magee contributed to this report.

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As concerns over omicron variant grow, experts say don't wait to get a booster

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(NEW YORK) -- Amid a renewed surge of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations across the country, and concerns surrounding the newly discovered omicron variant, health experts are again pleading with Americans to get vaccinated, and if fully vaccinated and eligible, to get a booster.

"Do not wait. Go get your booster if it's time for you to do so," President Joe Biden said earlier this week during an address at the White House. "If you are not vaccinated, now is the time to go get vaccinated and to bring your children to go get vaccinated."

Although it is still unclear whether the omicron variant is more transmissible, if it causes more serious illness or impacts vaccine effectiveness, the World Health Organization said on Monday that the overall global risk is assessed as "very high," due to the variant's mutations.

In light of the global whirlwind of concern, vaccine makers are currently testing the shots' effectiveness, and announced plans this week to tweak vaccines in order to address the new variant, if deemed necessary, leaving some Americans wondering whether they should rush to get a shot now or wait to see if the vaccines are readjusted.

"I would strongly suggest you get boosted now, and not wait for the next iteration of it, which we might not even need," Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the White House, told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos Monday on "Good Morning America," adding that he would "not at all" recommend waiting. "We'll find out reasonably soon whether higher levels of antibody against the original vaccine that we've used, whether or not that can spill over in protection against this."

'We may not have time to wait'

Many experts have echoed Fauci's sentiment, urging Americans to get the shots as soon as possible, given all of the uncertainties about omicron.

"We don't have all the answers we want as of yet. In a few weeks, we will know a lot more," Dr. Colleen Kelley, an associate professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, told ABC News.

With prior variants, she said, as long as the levels of antibody were high enough, a variant-specific booster did not seem necessary.

"We hope that this will also be the case with omicron and that high levels of antibodies will maintain some level of protection, but don't know for sure yet. So, my recommendation is to get boosted now," Kelley said.

If omicron proves to be as highly transmissible as delta, "we may not have time to wait for the omicron-specific booster to protect people," Kelley added.

As of Tuesday, there have been no confirmed cases of the omicron variant in the U.S., though experts say the variant is likely already circulating within communities.

"People should not wait for the vaccine to be tweaked to adapt to the new variant as it would be many months until that new vaccine is released. They should get a primary vaccine now or a booster, and then when the updated vaccines are available we may well need additional doses of the vaccine then," Dr. Camille Kotton, clinical director in the Infectious Diseases Division at Massachusetts General Hospital, told ABC News.

According to the White House, the process of introducing a variant-specific vaccine would take approximately three months, and would include necessary sign off from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.

"The companies currently estimate that it would take a few months to prototype and manufacture a modified vaccine or booster and that does include, to your question, the time for FDA and CDC to do their evaluation, so the estimate of a few months is all inclusive," White House COVID coordinator Jeff Zients said Tuesday during a press briefing.

In light of the omicron's potential threat, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky announced that the agency would be strengthening its recommendation for all adults to get a booster shot six months after their Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or two months after the Johnson & Johnson shot.

"The recent emergence of the Omicron variant further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters, and prevention efforts needed to protect against COVID-19," Walensky wrote in a statement on Monday.

Additionally, on Tuesday, Pfizer announced it has officially asked the FDA to authorize COVID-19 booster shots for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Vaccines will likely still provide 'good' protection against variants

Several experts stressed that even if the vaccines were found to be less effective against the omicron variant, the current vaccines still present "good" protection.

"Even if omicron has some immune evasive properties, boosters are likely to still provide good protection based on some mutational experiments researchers have performed with viruses containing the same mutations as omicron," Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan, told ABC News.

Other experts urge caution, given how little scientists know about omicron.

Although "it is prudent to get your boosters, we have a lot to learn about omicron," said Dr. Jennifer Lighter, a hospital epidemiologist for NYU Langone Health. If it is indeed more contagious, she said, it could lead to more breakthrough cases, and therefore, boosters would increase antibody levels and convey an extra layer of protection from breakthroughs.

However, Lighter said she does not believe that it would make much difference to get the booster now, or in a few weeks, stressing the fact that the immune response after vaccination is quite broad.

"Your immune response knows that there will be mutations. And the immune response is actually much wider, and not only specific for what someone was vaccinated against," Lighter told ABC News.

Hence, with vaccination, there is protection against severe disease, and if omicron is indeed more contagious, breakthrough infections will likely "predominantly be mild in most people."

Data has consistently shown that vaccinated individuals have fared much better than unvaccinated.

Unvaccinated individuals had a 5.8 times greater risk of testing positive for COVID-19 and a 14 times greater risk of dying from it, as compared to vaccinated individuals, according to federal data compiled in September 2021.

At this time, approximately 100 million Americans remain completely unvaccinated, about 80 million of whom are currently over the age of 5, and thus are eligible to get the shot.

"We still have less than 60% of the United States population fully vaccinated. So I think it's important to first stress that the unvaccinated people will eventually get COVID. It will come to them sooner or later," warned Lighter.

"We should definitely take this opportunity to protect ourselves, thus protecting our loved ones, our communities, our country and the world," added Kotton.

ABC News' Cheyenne Haslett contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


World AIDS Day: A time for remembrance, a time for hope

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(NEW YORK) -- World AIDS Day, celebrated every Dec. 1, is a day to raise awareness of and mourn the more than 32 million people who've lost their lives to the virus.

But HIV researchers also say it's a day to celebrate hope: Since the discovery of the virus in 1983, significant scientific headway has been made in diagnosis and treatments.

"We've made a lot of progress in this area over the past 10 to 15 years," said Dr. Paul Sax, director of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital, "with the proportion of undiagnosed people with HIV dropping from around 30% to 15% today. This has been accomplished by making HIV testing a routine part of preventive care for most adults, which destigmatized HIV testing dramatically."

There's still no cure for HIV, but by taking HIV medications, called antiretroviral therapy, or ART, which help reduce the load of the virus within one's body, people with HIV can live a healthy, normal lifespan.

"Current treatment is staggeringly good," Sax added. "Most patients are taking one or two pills daily, and have viral suppression. In addition, this treatment quite miraculously makes them not only healthy from the HIV perspective, but makes them non-contagious to others."

Even with such progress, HIV has lingered in the U.S., with more than 1 million people living with the virus at the end of 2019, and new people diagnosed every day, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. The virus is transmitted by direct contact with certain body fluids from an affected person. Once infected, a person has the virus for life, so testing and prevention is very important, experts said.

HIV can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, although certain groups are at greater risk because of socioeconomic status, limited access to health care or because of higher infection rates in certain communities.

African Americans are the most affected, accounting for 42% of all new HIV diagnoses in 2019, according to the CDC. Young gay and bisexual men are especially affected, and in 2019 composed 83% of all new HIV diagnoses in people aged 13 to 24.

Recent CDC data also highlights disparities in fighting HIV -- not all racial and ethnic groups have equally benefited from advances in prevention and treatment. Over the past decade, new infections have dropped among White gay and bisexual men, but remained flat among Black and Hispanic/Latino gay and bisexual men.

The stigma surrounding HIV and negative attitudes about people living with the virus may be contributing to these disparities, said experts, adding that it helps to ease stigmas when celebrities open up about their statuses. This year, Billy Porter and Jonathan Van Ness publicly disclosed their HIV-positive status.

"Engaging in open discussions so others feel comfortable talking about HIV vs. making it a taboo topic" is crucial, said Dr. Simone Wildes, an infectious disease specialist at South Shore Health in Massachusetts, adding that "social media, faith-based organizations, trusted messengers in the community, focus groups, community health centers or health fairs" can be very helpful.

Health experts agree the work is far from done. In the global quest to end HIV, health authorities have set a target for 2030 that 95% of people living with HIV should be taking medication and have achieved durable "viral suppression."

In a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers at Kirby Institute of the University of New South Wales in Sydney found that, globally, we are far behind this target, particularly among adolescents and children.

The study estimates that 79% of adults achieved viral suppression within one year of starting medication, but that figure decreased to 65% after three years. For adolescents and children, the picture was worse: Only 64% achieved viral suppression one year after starting treatment and only 59% had after three years. Researchers found people stop taking their medication for a wide range of reasons, including not having access to health care.

"World AIDS day is reminder of the great progress we have made over the past three decades understanding HIV," Wildes said. "We don't have all the answers yet, but everyone should be encouraged to get tested, as many treatment options are available to help individuals to have rewarding and fulfilling lives even if they are infected."

Esra Demirel, M.D., an OB-GYN resident physician at Northwell Health-North Shore University Hospital & LIJ Medical Center, is a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Breaking the stigma of painful periods: 'They should not be debilitating'

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(NEW YORK) -- Period pain is a fact of life for many women, yet many don't know that what they are experiencing might not be normal.

"When it comes to period pain, a lot of people just don't know what they don't know," Dr. Nita Landry, a Los Angeles-based OBGYN, said. "Which makes sense, because the only period that you've ever had is your period."

In some cases, people may expect their period to be painful based on what they've seen on social media or heard repeated in pop culture -- that experiencing pain is just part of having a period.

In other cases, it may be because their mom or grandmother or aunt told them that painful periods "are just the way it is" for women in the family, according to Landry.

"It could be that everybody is experiencing period pain that was never properly diagnosed, and it was never properly treated," Landry said. "So then everybody ends up suffering unnecessarily."

More than half of women who menstruate have some pain for one to two days of their cycle, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

For most women, the pain is mild, but for others it can be debilitating, which is a sign it's time to seek help, Landry said.

"Periods are not fun, that's not really a secret," she said. "But, they are not supposed to make you miserable either. They should not be debilitating."

Here are five facts to know about periods and pain:

1. There are different types of period pain.

The technical term for period pain is dysmenorrhea.

Primary dysmenorrhea is the most common type of dysmenorrhea and is caused by natural chemicals in the uterus lining. It is the cramping pain that comes before or during a period, according to ACOG.

Secondary dysmenorrhea is also a recurrent, cramping pain, but it is the result of an underlying medical issue in the reproductive organ.

"For example, if a person has endometriosis, which is where tissue that's similar to the inside lining of the uterus gets outside of the uterus, or if someone has uterine fibroids, which are benign growths in the wall of the uterus, then those conditions can lead to secondary dysmenorrhea," Landry said.

With secondary dysmenorrhea, the pain often lasts longer than normal period cramps and can worsen over time.

"When you think about pain with periods and what's normal, pain can start about a day or so before a woman's menstrual period starts, but it typically tapers off within two or three days," Landry said. "If you find that your pain is extending beyond your menstrual period, then that's not normal."

2. Period pain is caused by a hormone-like chemical called prostaglandins.

Women experience pain during their periods because of a natural, hormone-like chemical called prostaglandins.

During a menstrual cycle, prostaglandins cause the uterine muscle to contract, which compresses some of the blood vessels that pump blood into the uterus.

"Blood is going to carry oxygen, so when you decrease blood flow to the uterus, you're going to have a lower level of oxygenation, and, as a general rule, your body does not like to be deprived of oxygen," she explained. "Whenever you are deprived of oxygen, you can experience pain."

"So when we think about pain with periods, you have the uterine contractions, the contractions will decrease blood flow, less blood flow means less oxygen and less oxygen translates as pain," she said.

Some people may naturally produce larger amounts of prostaglandins, which means they will likely experience more pain during their periods, and some people may be more susceptible to pain, according to Landry.

And just because a person has a light period flow does not mean they can't experience painful cramps during their cycle, she noted.

"Please don't make the assumption that, 'My periods hurt, but my flow is not that heavy so it's not a big deal,'" Landry said. "It's still a big deal because pain is pain, and who wants to live with period pain if there's something that can treat you effectively?"

3. Lifestyle habits can make period pain better or worse.

If you do not have an underlying issue, factors like what you eat and how you handle stress can also have an impact on the pain you experience, according to Landry.

"Being under a lot of stress actually makes your period worse," she said, and, "Fatty foods increase the production of prostaglandins, and that's going to increase period cramps."

Smoking can also make period pain worse, because it constricts blood vessels, which decreases blood flow to the uterus, Landry said.

On the other hand, she said, exercise is a lifestyle habit that is helpful in lessening pain during the menstrual cycle, as is getting good sleep.

"A lot of things can come into play when it comes to determining why some people have more painful periods compared to others or even why the same person may experience different levels of pain during their periods from menstrual cycle to menstrual cycle," Landry said.

4. These are red flags to look for when it comes to period pain.

The biggest warning to look for when it comes to period pain, according to Landry, is how it is impacting your life.

"If you are missing school or if you are missing work or you're just missing life in general, that's a red flag," she said. "That's not how your period is supposed to be."

Other red flags include period pain that gets progressively worse or that continues past your menstrual cycle or changes with age.

"If you didn't have period pain before, but you're 25 or older and you start to experience a different type of pain, that's also a red flag," she said. "Because that could indicate that there's an underlying issue that developed more recently that needs to be addressed."

Landry said the most important thing is for women to talk to their health care provider about their period pain.

"If your health care provider tells you that period pain is normal even though you're missing school, you're missing work, you're missing out on life, then talk to another health care provider," she said, "I don't want you to suffer unnecessarily."

5. Period pain can be treated.

For mild period pain, Landry recommends adjusting lifestyle habits such as diet, exercise and stress management and using natural remedies like a warm bath or a heating pad.

Women can also take over-the-counter pain relievers, called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), in the first one to two days of their period to reduce the production of prostaglandins.

Women with bleeding disorders, asthma, aspirin allergies, liver damage, stomach disorders or ulcers should not take NSAIDs, according to ACOG.

Hormonal therapies, like birth control, are also frequently used to treat period pain.

Landry said there is also research to support the idea that some vitamins, including vitamins B and E as well as magnesium and Omega 3 fatty acids, may be helpful when it comes to easing period pain.

Some women also find alternative remedies such as acupuncture and acupressure helpful, too, according to Landry.

"There are so many different treatment options that your doctor can talk to you about," she said. "Make sure you give them a chance to tell you about all of them before you decide to grin and bear [the pain]."

GoodMorningAmerica.com is tackling a different taboo women's health topic each month, breaking down stigmas on everything from mental health to infertility, STDs, orgasms and alcoholism.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Vaccine makers optimistic about producing omicron-specific shots if needed

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(NEW YORK) -- Vaccine makers say they are in the midst of testing their shots' effectiveness against the newly discovered omicron coronavirus variant, and they remain optimistic that a new variant-specific vaccine could be produced and rolled out quickly if needed.

When asked about the new omicron variant that was first detected in southern Africa, Paul Burton, Moderna's chief medical officer, told ABC News' "Good Morning America" on Monday that vaccine manufacturers around the world, including Moderna, "are testing samples from people who have received our vaccines against the strains."

Burton said that while the company thinks "vaccine effectiveness may come down, based on the mutation seen in this in this virus," he added that with booster shots of the existing version of the vaccine, "We should be able to get antibody levels up, so that's a very important initial line of defense."

Burton said that researchers will know just how effective the vaccines are against this variant "in the next couple of weeks." If manufacturers need to make an omicron variant-specific vaccine, it should take approximately "two to three months" to test and manufacture it, he said.

Fellow coronavirus vaccine maker Pfizer similarly expressed confidence that it could produce a new vaccine quickly if needed. Pfizer's CEO Albert Bourla told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Monday that he is very optimistic the company will be able to speedily switch production to a new vaccine, if the research merits, without losing any volume.

Johnson & Johnson also said in a statement Monday that it is evaluating its current COVID-19 vaccine against the omicron variant.

"In addition, the company is pursuing an omicron-specific variant vaccine and will progress it as needed," it said.

Scientists suspect the omicron variant could partially chip away protection from current vaccines due to its mutations, but they are still waiting on testing to learn if, and to what extent, that could be the case.

Vaccine experts have told ABC News that the current COVID-19 vaccines, which rely on genetic technology, could easily be updated to better combat emerging variants. This has not been necessary so far, as the original vaccines have been effective against the dominant variants that have spread in the past, but companies are preparing to tweak vaccines to respond to the omicron variant just in case.

The good news is that these novel vaccines employing genetic technology mean updates can be made to the vaccines easily -- unlike vaccines based on older technology, which used a piece of the virus or a killed virus to mimic infection.

The new vaccines, which use the genetic technology, introduces an instruction manual of sorts into your body. This introduction manual tells your cells to start churning out a protein normally found on the outside of the virus, and your body activates an immune response when your body senses that viral protein.

In remarks on Monday, President Joe Biden assured Americans that the omicron variant "is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic."

"We have the best vaccine in the world. The best medicines, the best scientists, and we're learning more every single day," the president said. "And we'll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed. Not chaos and confusion."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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