Vaccine Demand in the U.S. Rises as Omicron Fears Grow
By Vimal Patel
Many vaccination clinics and local officials are reporting long lines and delays in booking vaccination appointments recently, the product of expanded eligibility on booster shots and fears of the Omicron variant, experts said.
The stresses on the U.S. vaccination program are also worsened by the broader labor shortage that is affecting many sectors, including health care.
“What the public needs to keep in mind is that we’ve got a stressed and strained health care delivery system,” said Mitchel Rothholz, the lead for immunization policy at the American Pharmacists Association.
Vaccine demand has more than doubled since the beginning of October, especially for boosters and first doses, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mr. Rothholz said that he has noticed that pharmacies are moving more to an appointment-based model with the uptick in demand, similar to when vaccines were first rolled out and there was a crush to get them. This means that people wanting a vaccine may need to plan ahead of time and could have to wait a few more days.
“We’ve got to go to a system where we can manage expectations,” he said.
The Biden administration is trying to make getting vaccinated easier. In announcing actions Thursday to protect against Delta and Omicron, President Biden said the government would create hundreds of family-vaccination clinics, one-stop shops for first shots to boosters. Partners in a federal pharmacy program, including major chains like CVS and Rite Aid, will also make “family-based scheduling” available in the months ahead, according to the White House.
Since the emergence of the Omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that everyone ages 18 and older should get a booster shot, six months after a Pfizer or Moderna series or two months after a Johnson & Johnson shot.
Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, said there are some pockets of the country where vaccines are expiring because demand is low and others where lines are longer than a month ago because of greater demand.
But, she said, demand will likely ease in a few weeks.
“Whenever there is a new recommendation, there are the early adopters who are extremely eager to want to get that booster right now,” she said, adding that “supply and demand will equilibrate in short order.”
New reported doses administered by day
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention | Note: Line shows a seven-day average. Data not updated on some weekends and holidays. Includes the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as of March 5. The C.D.C., in collaboration with the states, sometimes revises data or reports a single-day large increase in vaccinations from previous dates, which can cause an irregular pattern in the daily reported figures.
Some states and counties have hosted mass-vaccination clinics to alleviate the burden on pharmacies and meet demand from residents.
Richard Clark, the director of emergency management for Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque, said the county had been running vaccination clinics that would attract about 300 or 400 people each time. Mr. Clark said he kept hearing comments about people driving from counties an hour away to get their vaccine, because they were worried about the upcoming holidays and virus variants.
“We decided, let’s just do a large one,” he said, “and our 1,000 slots were filled within probably a day and a half.”
Gov. Charlie Baker, of Massachusetts, said this week that demand for vaccines skyrocketed after boosters became widely available.
“We are doing over 50,000 shots per day,” Mr. Baker said, according to a Boston 25 News story published on Tuesday, “and if we can find a way to work with our local colleagues in local government, we will come up with ways to put more shots on the table.”
As the number of confirmed cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant rose to 160 in Britain, the government on Saturday announced further tightening of travel restrictions to combat its spread.
Beginning Tuesday, travelers will be required to take a coronavirus test within 48 hours of traveling to Britain regardless of their vaccination status. Britain will also impose restrictions on travelers from Nigeria, the country’s health secretary said in a statement. Nigeria announced on Wednesday that it had detected the variant in three travelers who arrived from South Africa in November, according to Dr. Ifedayo Adetifa, the director general of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control.
The two additional measures being imposed by Britain are the latest to come after a week of heightened concern led to the introduction of a number of restrictions intended to slow the incursion of the Omicron variant.
At the moment, travelers are required to self-isolate and take a coronavirus test on the second day after arriving. If that test is negative, they can end their isolation. If not, they are expected to remain in self-isolation until they do get a negative result.
There are now 160 confirmed cases of the Omicron variant across Britain, Britain’s Health Security Agency confirmed on Saturday, up from 134 cases reported by the agency on Friday. Britain is considered a leader in genomic sequencing and testing, with a well-run national program to track coronavirus mutations, so it has an advantage in tracking the variant’s spread.
“We’ve kept the data under review over the last week or so since we learned about Omicron,” Sajid Javid, the country’s health secretary, said during a news briefing. “And we’re seeing an increasing number of cases linked to travel.”
He stressed that the new containment measures are temporary, but he added that “before we learn more about Omicron, it’s right that we have these measures in place.”
Mr. Javid was also clear that the government was advising the British public to continue with life as usual while adhering to coronavirus guidelines.
“People should carry on with their plans, and make plans to enjoy Christmas as usual,” he said.
About 15 people who attended an anime convention in New York last month with a Minnesota man who later was found to have the Omicron variant have also tested positive for the coronavirus, the man has told health officials in his state. It is uncertain whether any of those cases involved the Omicron variant.
The man said that his friends — a group of about 30 people — had come from all over the country for the event, which ran Nov. 19-21. About half of them also later tested positive for the virus, he told the officials.
The man, officials said, was fully vaccinated and had gotten a booster just weeks before the convention. He has recovered from mild symptoms that began shortly after the convention ended, and has provided names and contact information of several in his group to health officials. Since the friends live in other states, their names were forwarded to those states’ health departments. Details of their cases are not known.
The Minnesota man’s case was among the first reports of Omicron in the United States, and it presented a worrisome possibility for health officials: Might the anime convention, which drew tens of thousands of people to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center for three days, have been a vector for spreading the new variant, which scientists fear may be able to spread more quickly than any other variant?
After learning that the man had attended a large convention in New York, Kathy Como-Sabetti, manager of the Covid epidemiology section for the Minnesota Department of Public Health, said: “I kind of went, ‘Wow, well, this changes our story.’ ”
At the Anime NYC conference, focused around a popular animation style that originated in Japan, attendees were fairly compliant about wearing masks, the man told officials. But some rooms were very crowded, at capacity, with crowds standing shoulder to shoulder, he said.
Convention attendees were required to provide proof that they had received at least one vaccine shot and they had to wear masks, according to the convention website. The rules allowed entry “immediately after” a first dose. People are seen as having full vaccination protection two weeks after a second dose of a two-dose vaccine.
“Time will tell how large it becomes,” Ms. Como-Sabetti said. “It’s hard to say that it is a super spreader. Certainly we’re concerned about that.”
Officials cautioned that much remains unknown: The man and his friends could have been infected in other venues — at restaurants, hotels or other locations during their trips, or at another time.
Still, the prospect of a cluster of cases raised new questions about the nation’s virus detection capabilities and the limits of its contact-tracing efforts, which have been disparate and limited since the start of the pandemic.
Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said that he was concerned about the contact-tracing ability of health departments across the country, given their strained resources and the public’s general lack of cooperation with investigators. Also worrisome, he said, is the small number of cases that are being tested for the Omicron variant.
“Very quickly we’re going to see a number of Omicron cases around the country in many locations, just as we’ve seen in Minnesota,” he said.
After Minnesota officials learned that the convention attendee had the Omicron variant, they informed the New York City Health Department. City health officials said that they had begun sending text messages and emails to tens of thousands of the anime convention’s attendees, urging them to get tested.
Dr. Ted Long, who oversees the city’s contact tracing program, said that he was aware of five positive cases so far among New York City residents who attended the anime convention. But he said it was not yet known if those people had been infected by Omicron or Delta, nor was the convention known to be the site where they had gotten sick.
“We haven’t found evidence of widespread transmission at the convention,” Adam Shrier, a spokesman for New York City’s contact tracing program, Test and Trace Corps, wrote in an email.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is assisting the Minnesota and New York City health departments in tracking any cases, a spokeswoman said.
Infectious disease specialists said that the first Omicron case to be linked to the anime convention was likely identified in Minnesota because that state’s health department has a robust genomic sequencing system, and not necessarily because the patient was the original index case.
Organizers of the convention stressed that it was uncertain where the man had contracted the virus.
“He was just one person who was at our event,” said Kelly Comboni, president of LeftField Media, which organized the convention. “There have been no other mass cases reported from our event, and we are now way past two weeks” since the convention’s end.
The highly mutated Omicron variant of the coronavirus had been reported in at least 15 states by Saturday, with Washington state reporting three new cases.
Many of the cases appeared to be people who had traveled to South Africa recently, including the first case reported Saturday in Wisconsin by the state’s department of health. Some, however, seemed to be examples of community spread, including an infected person in Hawaii who had not traveled outside of his state, and a man in Minnesota who attended an anime convention in New York City. Regardless, health officials were bracing for the inevitable community spread of the variant.
None of the Omicron cases reported so far in the United States have resulted in serious illness, hospitalization or death.
The Washington State Department of Health said three adults from three different counties – Thurston, Pierce and King – had tested positive for Omicron. They were being informed, and their conditions were unknown.
Even as concerns about the Omicron variant intensified, top federal health officials said that for now the Delta variant remained a greater threat to Americans.
“I know the news is focused on Omicron, but we should remember that 99.9 percent of cases in the country right now are from the Delta variant,” Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a press briefing on Friday. “Delta continues to drive cases across the country, especially in those that are unvaccinated.”
About 104,000 cases were being reported in the United States every day, compared with about 12,000 per day six months ago. States in the Midwest are recording some of the biggest spikes, while New Hampshire, Michigan and Minnesota lead the country in recent cases per capita.
On Friday, state health officials confirmed three cases in Maryland, all in the Baltimore area. Two of the cases are from the same household and include a vaccinated individual who had recently traveled to South Africa and an unvaccinated person who was deemed a close contact. The third case is unrelated, and the patient, who was vaccinated, has no known recent travel history.
Officials in Philadelphia said that they had found one case, a man in his 30s. The sole case identified in Utah was a vaccinated individual who had just returned from South Africa. In Missouri, officials identified a case linked to domestic travel.
Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey said that a fully vaccinated woman who had recently traveled to South Africa tested positive for the Omicron variant after being treated at an emergency department in northern New Jersey. She was in isolation with mild symptoms, officials said.
On Thursday, officials in New York State announced that they had confirmed five cases of the variant: a 67-year-old woman in Suffolk County who returned from South Africa; two residents of Queens; one resident of Brooklyn; and another person in New York City who had traveled recently. The vaccination status of most of the individuals remained unknown.
A vaccinated Colorado resident who had recently returned from southern Africa was that state’s first confirmed case.
California reported several cases — the first being in San Francisco on Wednesday. In Alameda County, health officials confirmed five new cases of the Omicron variant that were “mildly symptomatic,” part of a cluster of 12 local coronavirus cases linked to people who attended a wedding in Wisconsin on Nov. 27. One of the individuals at the wedding had recently traveled internationally, the Alameda County Public Health Department said. Guests who tested positive had all had been vaccinated and none had been hospitalized. Genomic sequencing to detect the variant had not been completed on all 12 cases.
The authorities in Nebraska on Friday said that of the six cases involving the Omicron variant found there, only one was in a vaccinated person. One of the infected people had returned from Nigeria on Nov. 23, they said, and the other five were likely exposed through household contact. None had required hospitalization.
An Oahu resident with no history of travel is the first Omicron case in Hawaii.
“This is a case of community spread,” the state’s department of health said in a news release. The individual had previously been infected with the coronavirus but was never vaccinated.
In a final video address before stepping down after 16 years as Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel called the coronavirus “treacherous” and its toll “bitter,” and she pleaded with the unvaccinated to get the shots.
“I once again emphatically ask you to take this treacherous virus seriously,” Ms. Merkel said in the last of more than 600 episodes of a video podcast series she began in 2006. “Get vaccinated, whether it’s a first vaccination or a booster. Every shot helps.”
So far, 72 percent of the population in Germany have received one dose of the vaccine, and 69 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the Our World in Data project at Oxford University — a far lower share than many of its neighbors in Western Europe.
Ms. Merkel’s plea followed her announcement on Thursday of a partial lockdown targeted to the unvaccinated. The measures are being implemented as Germany’s cases have shot up and deaths have risen amid a Europe-wide surge, and as nations around the world begin confronting the discovery of the new Omicron variant within their borders.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Vienna on Saturday, the second weekend of mass protesting over the Austrian government’s decision to impose a tough new lockdown and plan a sweeping nationwide vaccine mandate in the fight against a sharp surge in coronavirus cases and rising deaths.
The crowd was over 40,000 strong, the Vienna police said in a tweet, and around 1,500 people staged counterprotests. The demonstration was largely peaceful, but the police reported that some protesters had thrown pyrotechnic objects. There were some arrests, and the police said they used pepper spray to try to disperse the crowds.
The far-right Freedom Party, the third-largest group in Parliament, has led the opposition to the new pandemic measures. The party has amplified conspiracy theories about the vaccines, spreading doubt about their effectiveness, while promoting ivermectin, a drug typically used to deworm animals that has repeatedly failed against the coronavirus in clinical trials. People carried signs that read, “I will decide for myself,” and “Make Austria Great Again,” according to Reuters.
Protesters gathered elsewhere in Europe on Saturday, notably in the Netherlands. Several thousand people gathered in the central Dutch town of Utrecht, 30 miles south of Amsterdam, to protest against new coronavirus restrictions on businesses that will be in place until Dec. 19. Two weeks earlier, Dutch marches turned violent over the government’s plan to ban most unvaccinated people from bars, restaurants and other public places.
Cases have fallen sharply in Austria since Nov. 22, when it became the first country in Western Europe to reimpose a lockdown, allowing people to leave home only to go to work or to procure groceries or medicine. A surge that began in the summer had quickly escalated, giving Austria its highest caseload of the pandemic and rising deaths. The lockdown is set to last until mid-December.
The moves come after months of struggling attempts to halt the contagion through widespread testing and partial restrictions. Austria had originally placed a lockdown on only those who were unvaccinated.
Austria has also announced that vaccination would become compulsory as of Feb. 1, making it the first Western country to take that step, and one of only a handful around the world. Some critics, including the editorial board of The Financial Times, have said the plan exacts too high a price in terms of individual freedom and see it a sign of political failure.
On Saturday, Austria was averaging more than 9,000 new cases daily, and average daily Covid deaths had reached more than 58, after falling to near zero during the summer, according to the Our World in Data project at Oxford University. About 67 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, a lower level than many of its Western European neighbors, but higher than many in the former Eastern bloc.
Switzerland on Saturday dialed back pandemic travel rules announced just a week ago, removing the obligation for some foreign visitors to quarantine for 10 days upon arrival, a requirement that created havoc in the country’s crucial tourism industry.
The turnaround comes after travel operators from countries such as Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada reported mass cancellations from people who had booked trips to Switzerland over the Christmas vacation season. The Swiss quarantine was ordered in response to concerns over the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which has been detected in a handful of cases in the country, according to Reuters.
In eliminating the compulsory quarantine, however, the Swiss government is tightening other measures. All visitors will now have to be tested for the coronavirus both before entering the country and between four and seven days after their arrival in Switzerland. The Swiss are also requiring all visitors from regions that it considers to be of high risk to be fully vaccinated. Earlier this week, Switzerland banned all direct flights from southern Africa, where the variant was first identified.
The Swiss are also expanding a requirement for wearing face masks to all indoor public events, concert halls and sports venues, and for having to show a Covid-19 vaccination passport to enter public establishments like restaurants or museums.
The latest changes in Switzerland’s rules come after more than 60 percent of Swiss voters last Sunday approved their government’s Covid policies in a referendum, including the requirement to show the vaccination passport. The referendum had been called by opponents of lockdown measures who consider them a violation of individual rights.
By Víctor Manuel Ramos
The former Dutch queen, Princess Beatrix, tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a statement Saturday from the royal information service RVD.
The 83-year-old royal, who held the throne of the Netherlands from 1980 to 2013 and is the mother of King Willem-Alexander, was tested after experiencing “mild cold symptoms,” according to the official statement. The government also said that people who have been in contact with the princess “have been informed.”
The statement said, “The princess is at home in isolation and adheres to the rules of life for people who have tested positive.”
The Netherlands is among western countries that reported early cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, with Dutch health officials saying they were linked to recent travel from South Africa. The kingdom has also been experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases, with a 16 percent increase in new infections over the two-week period ending Dec. 3, with the daily average of infections reaching just over 21,000.
Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.
Princess Beatrix had visited last week the Caribbean island of Curaçao, which is part of the Netherlands, according to The Associated Press. At the time, she told reporters that she had received her Covid-19 booster shot.
First identified in Botswana and South Africa, this new iteration of the coronavirus has prompted concern among scientists and public health officials because of an unusually high number of mutations that have the potential to make the virus more transmissible and less susceptible to existing vaccines.
Here is a look at what we know — and don’t know — about the variant so far:
What is Omicron?
The World Health Organization has called Omicron a “variant of concern” and warned that the global risks posed by it were “very high,” despite what officials described as a multitude of uncertainties. Cases have been identified in dozens of countries and on every continent except Antarctica.
What do we know about Omicron’s presence in the U.S.?
It’s too early to say how widespread the variant will become in the United States. As of Dec. 4, cases had been identified in more than a dozen states, but experts say that number is likely to increase in the coming days and weeks. The first person to have tested positive for the variant returned to San Francisco from South Africa on Nov. 22 and tested positive on Nov. 29, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Should we be worried?
Omicron’s discovery has prompted considerable panic across the globe, with a number of countries banning flights from southern Africa, or — like Israel, Japan and Morocco — barring entry of foreign travelers altogether.
But public health experts have urged caution, noting that there is as yet no firm evidence that Omicron is more dangerous than previous variants like Delta, which quickly overtook its predecessors in the United States and other countries.
Omicron’s emergence is so recent that it may be a while before experts know whether it causes more severe illness. Covid hospitalizations lag new infections by two weeks or more.
Do vaccines protect against Omicron?
Scientists expect to learn much more in the coming weeks. At the moment, they say there is no reason to believe Omicron is impervious to existing vaccines, although they may turn out to be less protective to some unknown degree.
There’s another reason to remain calm: Vaccine makers have expressed confidence they can tweak existing formulations to make the shots more effective against new variants.
Also reassuring: Omicron’s distinctive mutations make it easy to quickly identify with a nasal swab and lab test.