COVID-19 fears dash hopes for the holiday season — again

Morning In America

WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — Lines again stretch around blocks at some COVID-19 testing sites. Refrigerated mobile morgues are on order, and parts of Europe are re-tightening borders amid a winter spike in coronavirus infections.

This year’s holiday season was supposed to be a do-over for last year’s subdued celebrations. Instead, it’s turning into a redux of restrictions, cancellations and rising angst over the never-ending pandemic.

As Christmas and New Year’s approach, a pall lingers over the season. Infections are soaring worldwide, and the quickly spreading omicron variant has triggered new restrictions on travel and public gatherings reminiscent of the dark days of 2020.

The accelerating cancellations seem “to have thrown us back into that sort of zombie world of the first week of March of the pandemic last year,” said Jonathan Neame, the chief executive of Shepherd Neame, Britain’s oldest brewery and chain of pubs.

Some scientists predict the omicron variant will surge in the U.S. the third week of January, shortly after the holidays. Other experts think that will happen closer to spring.

But even before that wave of omicron hits, the U.S is currently experiencing an increase in the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths compared to a month ago, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

The number of cases the U.S. is averaging each day is up 40%, hospitalizations are 40% higher and deaths have increased 12% over that time, per Johns Hopkins data.

Experts haven’t released definitive information on the severity of omicron. However, it is believed to be a milder variant; it’s also believed to be much more transmissible than the delta variant.

Because of that, Dr. Anthony Fauci believes that omicron will be the dominant variant in the country very soon.

President Joe Biden sent a direct message to both the unvaccinated and those fully vaccinated and boosted after a briefing with his COVID-19 Response Team Thursday.

“Omicron is here, it’s going to start to spread much more rapidly in the beginning of the year, and the only real protection is to get your shots,” Biden said. “If you’re at a point where you have everything, including your booster, you’re in really good shape.”

In the U.S., 57 million people have gotten booster shots. Biden is urging shots to protect the economic recovery, saying it’s what will keep schools and businesses open even as omicron spreads.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday that the city would “watch very carefully” whether to press ahead with plans to welcome a fully vaccinated crowd back to Times Square on New Year’s Eve, a celebration that was canceled last year. It’s a go, for now, the mayor said.

Multiple Broadway shows, including “Hamilton,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” called off performances in recent days because of virus cases in their all-vaccinated casts and crews. California and New York brought back indoor mask mandates.

In Philadelphia, Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole urged residents not to go to indoor holiday parties, calling them “just too dangerous.” She ruefully advised against even getting together with other households for Christmas.

“It’s hard, and it feels impossible, and it feels unfair,” she acknowledged, but “I have to say it.”

The world has been on edge over the omicron variant, which could become the dominant strain of coronavirus in weeks in many nations. Adding to that anxiety is the fact that hospitals in many U.S. states are already slammed with patients infected with the delta variant. As a result, the military and the National Guard have been enlisted to help at hospitals.

Refrigerated mobile morgues, a grim symbol of the early pandemic, are making a comeback. In Arizona, one county voted this week to spend $65,000 on a mobile morgue because virus deaths have far exceeded capacity. In Akron, Ohio, a hospital brought in a trailer to more than triple its morgue space, Cleveland television station WKYC reported.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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