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By Tara Law
Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2021

Today will be the last TIME Coronavirus Brief for 2021. The TIME health and Coronavirus Brief team will be taking a short break, starting tomorrow, in order to take a breath, be with our loved ones, and generally mull over our work the past year and the year to come. We realize this remains an especially difficult time for many, and hope that all of our readers are able to find some modicum of respite during the winter holidays, even if they aren't exactly as you'd hoped they'd be. We wish you all a safe and and serene week, and will be with you again the first week of 2022.

—Elijah Wolfson, Editorial Director of health, science and climate, and the rest of the team.


With 2022 Fast Approaching, It’s Time to Rethink COVID-19 Restrictions

BY JEFFREY KLUGER

Tracking COVID-19 case counts has been a little like stock-market watching in reverse: every sharp spike leads to despair, every deep dip to irrational enthusiasm. The enthusiasm part might feel good, but it can mean overconfidence and risk-taking, which only fuels transmission. Meantime, our alarm over every surge impels us to take sudden and more substantive action, with doors slamming, schools and businesses shuttering, and more mask and vaccine mandates being imposed.

Such emergency precautions seem to make sense, but, argue Dr. Jeanne Noble, associate professor of emergency medicine at the UCSF Parnassus Emergency Department; and Dr. Monica Gandhi, professor of medicine at UCSF, it may be time to rethink that approach—moving away from a zero-tolerance COVID-19 policy and toward one of harm reduction. It is a hard epidemiological fact that the Omicron variant is exceedingly contagious and helping to drive the latest surge in cases both in the U.S. and overseas. But it is a hard fact too that in the developed world at least, vaccinations mean that many people—the ones who have gotten their booster shots especially—who do contract the virus will develop only mild symptoms or none at all. That kind of high-transmissibility, relatively low-impact combination is part of what defines a disease not as a pandemic, but as endemic —something we can learn to live with, while we focus less on scrambling for herd immunity than on protecting the most vulnerable members of the population.

The very fact of such mild breakthrough infections, Noble and Gandhi argue, is not a sign of the failure of vaccines, but of their effectiveness in their most pressing job, which is preventing severe disease and death. For that reason, they argue, the U.S. should develop and implement a new approach to fighting the pandemic in 2022.

First, the U.S. should decouple case counts from measures like re-closing schools and businesses or even imposing stricter social distancing rules, and follow the lead of Singapore, which bases its lockdown policies on hospitalizations instead. “​​With this sharper focus,” they write, “our time can be better spent on vaccinating the unvaccinated and boosting as soon as possible the most vulnerable, such as residents of nursing homes, persons over age 65, and those with chronic health issues.”

Second, masking policies need to be rethought, say Gandhi and Noble. In a population with high vaccination rates, blanket mask mandates should be replaced by policies encouraging masking among select, high-risk populations. School children —who are at lower risk of severe disease to begin with—are subjected to all-day masking when it might instead be made optional for students who are old enough to be eligible for vaccines.

Third, rather than focusing first on mass boosting of all people over 16, we should be paying closer attention to getting booster shots to people in nursing homes and those with chronic diseases. What’s more, giving third shots to people in wealthy countries while populations of poorer ones have yet to receive even a single jab works against everyone, encouraging the emergence of new variants like Omicron. Better to spread the vaccine wealth worldwide than to hoard it at home.

Finally, say Gandhi and Noble, it might also be time to reconsider travel bans. Locking the door to countries with high infection rates only punishes them for their candor in sharing data when local cases spike. That kind of action left South Africans fuming in the wake of Omicron travel bans, and even World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom weighed in, lamenting the fact that countries that report surges are “penalized by others for doing the right thing.” In the future, those same countries might think twice before sharing the news of local outbreaks with the world. As 2022 dawns, the virus and its variants are here to stay. Facing that fact and managing its implications is our route out of the pandemic.

Read more here.


TODAY'S CORONAVIRUS OUTLOOK

More than 609 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been shipped to various U.S. states as of early this morning, of which more than 499 million doses have been administered, according to TIME's vaccine tracker. About 61.7% of Americans have been fully vaccinated.

More than 277.1 million people around the world had been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of 12 a.m. E.T. today, and nearly 5.4 million people have died. On Dec. 22, there were 884,133 new cases and 8,036 new deaths confirmed globally.

Here's how the world as a whole is currently trending:

Here's where daily cases have risen or fallen over the last 14 days, shown in confirmed cases per 100,000 residents:

And here's every country that has reported over 5 million cases:

The U.S. had recorded more than 51.5 million coronavirus cases as of 12 a.m. E.T. today. More than 812,000 people have died. On Dec. 22, there were 238,378 new cases and 2,024 new deaths confirmed in the U.S.

Here's how the country as a whole is currently trending:

Here's where daily cases have risen or fallen over the last 14 days, shown in confirmed cases per 100,000 residents:

All numbers unless otherwise specified are from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, and are accurate as of Dec. 23, 12 a.m. E.T. To see larger, interactive versions of these maps and charts, click here.


WHAT ELSE YOU SHOULD KNOW

Two new studies out of the U.K. show that the Omicron variant is less likely to lead to hospitalization than Delta, despite the fact that Omicron spreads faster, reports the Associated Press. One of the two studies, conducted by researchers at Imperial College London, found that people with Omicron were 20% less likely to go to the hospital at all and 40% less likely to have to remain for a night or more. The other, from the University of Edinburgh, showed that the risk of being hospitalized was two-thirds lower with Omicron than with Delta.

In more cautiously encouraging news from the U.K., an Oxford University study (which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal) has found that a three-dose course of the AstraZeneca vaccine is effective in stopping the Omicron variant.

The U.S. economy is feeling the drag of Omicron, with restaurants and hotels in particular suffering, as consumers hunker down at home, reports the Wall Street Journal. The total number of restaurant diners was down 15% for the week ending Dec. 22 compared to the same period in 2019. Hotel occupancy rate fell to 53.8% between the week ending Dec. 11, 2021, and the one ending Dec. 18. Consumer spending was also off in November, compared to October, according to results released today by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Some of that, the Journal reports, might be due to holiday shoppers buying early in order to get ahead of inflation and supply chain problems.

The U.S. Supreme Court announced yesterday that it will hold a special hearing on January 7 to determine the legality of two Biden Administration vaccine mandates, reports The New York Times. One of the measures, directing businesses with 100 or more employees to either require vaccinations or regularly test employees, would affect 84 million people. The other, less sweeping rule requires employees at hospitals that receive federal money to be vaccinated. The court has slapped down a Biden White House pandemic measure before, in November ruling against the Administration’s extension of a moratorium of evictions.

China is moving swiftly to snuff a local COVID-19 outbreak, imposing a strict lockdown today on the city of Xi’an and its 13 million residents in response to the detection of 206 new cases since Dec. 9, reports CNN. The action comes as the Feb. 1 lunar new year travel rush approaches, which will be followed quickly by the Feb. 4 opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. The Xi’an outbreak is being blamed on a Dec. 4 inbound flight from Pakistan on which six passengers were found to have been infected with the Delta variant. Residents of Xi’an are barred from leaving their homes except to purchase medicine and other necessities, businesses have been shuttered and travel to and from the city has been banned except for exceptional or emergency cases.


Thanks for reading. We hope you find the Coronavirus Brief newsletter to be a helpful tool to navigate this very complex situation, and welcome feedback at coronavirus.brief@time.com. If you have specific questions you'd like us to answer, please send them to covidquestions@time.com.

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Today's newsletter was written by Jeffrey Kluger and edited by Elijah Wolfson.

 
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