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Omicron spreads across U.S., dashing holiday hopes, putting NHL on pause

The coronavirus is resurgent.

The omicron variant is spreading rapidly across the United States, shattering hopes of a return to relative normalcy in the final days of the year and harkening back to the anxiety of the early months of the Covid-19 crisis.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the variant is “just raging through the world.”

The national mood seemed to shift dramatically in the span of a few days. In cities and towns across the U.S., cases are rising, employers are postponing return-to-office plans, and school systems are weighing the costs of closing their doors and moving back to remote classes.

The lines for Covid tests seem to be growing longer by the day as many scramble to book booster shot appointments or cancel Christmas travel plans.

Dec. 19, 202113:10

And yet, as Fauci said Sunday morning, “we have so many people in this country who are eligible to be vaccinated who have not yet been vaccinated.”

However, public health experts say the more drastic moves seen in earlier chapters of the pandemic — lockdowns, business shutdowns — remain unlikely in the U.S., at least for the time being.

Here are significant developments over the last few days:

  • The omicron variant has overtaken delta as the dominant coronavirus variant in the United States, according to CDC data posted Monday. As of Friday, more than 73 percent of new cases in the country were caused by omicron.
  • President Joe Biden plans to address the nation Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted. He will be “issuing a stark warning of what the winter will look like for Americans that choose to remain unvaccinated,” she said.
  • Covid cases are rising sharply across half the U.S., particularly in the Northeast. New York has seen a 76 percent increase in the last two weeks, according to data compiled by NBC News. Connecticut and Maine are dealing with dramatic increases, too.
  • The seven-day average of Covid cases reached 133,243 as of Sunday — the first time the national average climbed above 130,000 since late September.
  • Eight states set hospitalization records Sunday, including Ohio and Wisconsin, according to an NBC News analysis of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., have tested positive for Covid. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan tweeted Monday that he received a positive rapid test.
  • Moderna announced Monday that its Covid booster shot appears to provide protection against the new variant, adding that it would continue to develop an omicron-specific booster.
  • Companies are revising return-to-office guidance. Apple said last week it was indefinitely postponing its plan for employees to return to offices. CNN said over the weekend it would close its offices to nonessential workers.
  • Big sports leagues are rethinking their calendars. The NHL said that after Tuesday’s two games, the league will enter a holiday break early. That means five games on the schedule for Thursday will be postponed. The NBA has postponed several games.
  • Broadway shows such as “Moulin Rouge!” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” are nixing performances, while the Radio City Rockettes are hanging up their shoes for the holiday season. The actor Paul Rudd hosted “Saturday Night Live” without a studio audience.

The sharp rise in cases combined with mounting uncertainty prompted some experts to criticize federal officials for being slow to respond to the variant.

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Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, questioned why Biden was waiting until Tuesday to address the nation.

“We can’t wait 48 hours to hear what his plan may be and then react to it,” he wrote Sunday in his newsletter, Inside Medicine. “In omicron time, Tuesday is millennia from now.”

Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, also criticized Biden for not doing more last week. Hanage called out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Twitter for the agency’s lack of messaging and guidance on omicron.

“The CDC is full of amazing people, but the silence now is not just deafening, it’s frightening,” he tweeted.

Denise Chow and Joe Murphy contributed.

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