A cell infected with SARS-CoV-2. NIH photo.

According to data released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday, the Omicron variant of the coronavirus now makes up 73 percent of current sequenced cases. That's compared to just under 13 percent of cases at the start of last week, so Holy Exponential Growth, Batman.

We decided against trying to make 73 percent of the stories in today's Rona Roundup about Omicron, however, if only because by they time we finish typing the new variant will make up 130 percent of COVID cases and at least a third of the members of the nation's state legislatures. It's just that nasty.

Omicron has displaced the previously dominant delta variant, which the CDC says is now an estimated 26.6% of sequenced cases for the week ending December 18. Just one week earlier, delta made up 87% of cases to omicron’s 12.6%, the data shows.

And in some parts of the country, the rates of omicron are even higher, CNBC reports: "The CDC estimates it makes up more than 90% of cases in portions of the Northwest, South, Southeast, and Northeast."

While it's clear that the Omicron variant is far more contagious than Delta, which was already more transmissible than earlier variants, scientists have yet to determine whether it causes more serious cases of illness or more deaths. [CNBC]

Also, CNN reports that the country's first confirmed death from Omicron was an unvaccinated man in Texas. [CNN]


New York Getting Whomped Again

New York City is experiencing a big spike in new infections, with cases more than doubling for the week ending December 17, according to a separate CNBC story. But Mayor Bill de Blasio says the wave is expected to crest quickly in coming weeks and then decline:

“It’s going to be a very challenging few weeks. But the good news is based on what our healthcare leadership understands, at this moment, we are talking about a matter of weeks,” De Blasio told the public during a Covid update on Monday. [...]

New York is reporting a seven-day average of more than 7,200 cases per day, up from about 3,200 the week prior, a 127% increase.

De Blasio said that so far, most people in New York who've been infected with Omicron have had mild symptoms, although there again, there's still no certainty that will remain the case, so staying cautious, masking up indoors, and making sure people get vaccinated and boosted are paramount. The state of New York has reimposed a mask mandate indoors, except for places that already require proof of vaccination to enter. De Blasio also said that his own vaccine mandate for private businesses in the city will be a key measure in preventing the kinds of wide shutdowns the city saw in 2020. Roughly 80 percent of New York City residents have had at least one shot, while 71 percent are fully vaccinated.


Boosters Work Against Omicron, So Get Boosted, You

The evidence keeps getting stronger that booster shots of either MRNA vaccine — the ones from Pfizer/BioNTech or from Moderna — provide extra protection against the Omicron variant, compared to just the original two-shot dose. So far, lab studies show that boosters of both vaccines can sharply increase protection against the virus, but the degree to which the boosters prevent infection altogether is still yet to be determined. Pfizer announced last week that its booster increased antibodies against the virus 25-fold.

Also, Moderna reported yesterday that the standard 50-microgram booster dose of its vaccine increased antibodies 37-fold, while a 100-microgram dose increased antibodies more than 80-fold. Moderna's booster dose of 50 micrograms is half the amount of the first two shots, and the company only sought US approval of that dose for boosters, since it provided antibody levels that "are comfortably above" those likely to risk a breakthrough infection, according to Moderna president Stephen Hoge. Hoge added that the company is not currently requesting approval for the higher booster dose. Hoge said that any decision to recommend a 100-microgram dose was up to public heath officials, and Reuters notes that the company says that the larger dose "was generally safe and well tolerated, although there was a trend toward slightly more frequent adverse reactions."

All these results are from experiments in petri dishes, and haven't yet been subject to peer review, so keep that disclaimer in mind. Preliminary results, kids! [NYT / NBC Chicago / Reuters]

Also too, a separate Reuters story reports that while Moderna is focusing right now on shipping booster doses, it also plans to begin clinical trials of a new vaccine specifically tailored to protect against Omicron in a few weeks. [Reuters]


Biden Administration To Send 500 Million Free Home Test Kits To Americans In January

President Joe Biden will be giving a speech today announcing his administration's new steps to deal with the Omicron variant. One measure will involve sending out 500 million free at-home coronavirus test kits beginning in January. In a difference from how free test kit distribution is going in Europe, the first batch of rapid tests will be mailed to Americans who request them, through a website that will launch in January. As of yet, the number of test kits to be available per household hasn't been announced.

The announcement comes after Press Secretary Jen Psaki seemed to scoff two weeks ago at the idea of the government sending out test kits, in response to a reporter's question on December 6.

Should we just send one to every American? [...]

Then what happens if every American has one test? How much does that cost, and then what happens after that?

Apparently the White House has figured out some details on how that would work, so good!


Is It Safe To Travel?

Nothing is risk-free, which is why we had our snow tires put on last week and got a booster shot yesterday (so far, no serious side effects, though we can now see through time and space). Vox has a good piece here in which six epidemiologists discuss their own plans for Sacred Baby Festival; one doc suggests that driving for a short trip is probably safer than flying, since less exposure to others; if you do fly, wear an N95 or KN 95 mask (check the list of manufacturers) and try to build in time for at least a rapid test between your arrival and your gathering, and make sure everyone is vaxxed. If you can get a test kit.

It's all bout risk-benefit analysis, and beyond the obvious — unvaccinated Uncle Bill who's taken to drinking magic dirt water is not welcome — the risks of socializing if everyone is vaxxed and boosted are probably low enough for most of us, said U of Washington epidemiology prof Janet Baseman:

If I knew everyone in my holiday gathering were fully vaccinated and boosted, I wouldn’t be terribly concerned, unless a member of my party were older and had a health condition that put them at elevated risk of more severe disease, in which case I would have some concerns for their health.

The absolutely safest trip is the one you don't take at all, but that applies to driving to the grocery store, too. As philosopher and noted traveler Bilbo Baggins said, "It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door." Be as safe as you're able, and for Crom's sake, if you're sick, stay home. [Vox / CDC holiday guidelines]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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