The Biden administration is under pressure from Americans as many wait hours to be tested for COVID – while the US broke a world record for daily cases with 488,988 reported on Wednesday.
As the Omicron variant continues sweeping the nation, the country also topped a record for its seven-day average of new cases for the second day, hitting 301,000, after already breaking the record Tuesday with 264,546 cases, according to a DailyMail.com analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.
The country’s previous record was about 247,503 average daily cases, reported on January 11. Coronavirus deaths have also climbed over the past two weeks from an average of 1,200 per day to around 1,500.
Americans are waiting in droves to be testes for COVID in cities across the country, demanding Biden fulfill his promise to have 500 million COVID at-home tests available after announcing Wednesday that the contracts for the order won’t be finished until ‘late next week.’
Americans are still waiting hours in lines to be tested for COVID-19 as the Omicron variant sweeps the nation. Every US state is currently listed by the CDC as having a high level of community transmission of COVID, as seen in the above map
The US broke a world record for daily cases, reporting 488,988 on Wednesday. The above chart shows the steady rise in cases over the last three weeks
Jeff Zients, the COVID response coordinator for President Joe Biden, said on Wednesday the contracts to order the kits won’t be finished until early January.
He did claim the first deliveries will come in January but didn’t have specific details on how that will happen and precisely when. Zients simply said the White House is ‘actively working to finalize’ the distribution mechanism.
‘Companies are already submitting information, and we expect the contract to be completed late next week,’ Zients said at the COVID press briefing.
‘That means that the first deliveries for manufacturers will start January. We’ll set up a free and easy system, including a new website to get these tests out to Americans. We’re actively working to finalize that distribution mechanism, which includes a website where people will be able to order tests for free. And we’ll share more details in the weeks ahead — days and weeks ahead,’ he added.
But specific details have been scant about how the at-home test distribution will work and how long it will take for the tests to arrive once ordered. The questions come as long lines of Americans continue to form as people seek to get tested around the holidays.
Aravindh Shankar, 24, flew to San Jose, California, on Christmas from West Lafayette, Indiana, to be with family. Though he felt fine, he decided to get tested Wednesday just to play it safe, since he had been on an airplane.
He and his family spent almost an entire day searching for a testing appointment for him before he went to a site in a parking lot next to the San Jose airport.
‘It was actually surprisingly hard,’ Shankar said about trying to find a test. ‘Some people have it harder for sure.’
Americans are waiting in lines for hours in cities across the country to get their COVID test. Above is one of those lines, seen in Times Square on Wednesday
People are lining a street in Washington, D.C., to get a COVID-19 test on Wednesday
People stood in the pouring rain for hours on Wednesday in Los Angeles waiting for a COVID test at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Medical Center Campus
President Biden and his staff have pushed back against criticism of the lack of testing kits available during the holiday rush. With demand high and shelves emptying out of stock, some retailers have placed limits on how many at-home testing kits can be purchased at a time. CVS has a limit of six test kits per purchase both in stores and online while Walgreens limits it to four kits.
The administration bragged on Wednesday it has brought two more at-home tests on the market
‘The Biden-Harris Administration has brought two new over-the-counter, at-home COVID-19 tests to the U.S. market. The tests, one manufactured by SD Biosensor and distributed by Roche and the other manufactured by Siemens, have received emergency use authorization (EUA) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA),’ the Department of Health and Human Services noted in a release.
‘Combined, it is estimated the companies can produce tens of millions of tests per month for use in the U.S.,’ the agency noted.
Again, it remains unclear when these tests will be in the hands of Americans.
The White House has emphasized officials are working on the problem over the holidays and pushed out the numbers behind their work.
‘There are now 20,000 free testing sites across the U.S., four times as many at-home tests available to Americans than were available this summer, and free at-home tests are already being made available at key community sites, such as community health centers and rural clinics,’ HHS said.
Biden told reporters on Tuesday he spent the day working the phones and said his administration had made ‘a bit of progress’ in getting more COVID testing kits distributed but he did not offer details.
Meanwhile, White House press secretary Jen Psaki downplayed questions about the unsigned contracts to deliver the promised testing kits, calling it a ‘part of the process.’
‘We have no concern about the contract being finalized. We’re just working to finalize the contracts. We just announced this two days ago. But there’s no — we don’t see any issue or any halt to getting that done and to finalizing that. That’s a natural part of the process,’ she said at her press briefing on Thursday.
She also argued that the president has boosted testing capacity and pointed out it wasn’t until October that five versions of at-home tests were available.
‘The president knew that we needed to increase testing capacity. That’s why he used the Defense Production Act to expand the supply of at-home tests. Without that, we wouldn’t have the supply in the market,’ she said.
President Biden announced last Tuesday his plan to distribute 500 million at-home COVID tests.
But he told ABC News the next day that ‘I wish I had thought about ordering a half a billion [tests] two months ago, before COVID hit here.’
The White House, however, has not be able to offer many details on how the tests will be distributed and how many kits households can order.
Psaki said Tuesday there would be a website people can use to order their testing kits.
‘We will make the website available as soon as these tests are available. They will start to be available in January,’ she said. ‘And in terms of the numbers that different families can order: We are working through all those very important details right now.’
But when drilled on details – how long it would take to get a test after one was ordered, how would they be delivered – Psaki had no answers.
‘Again, really good questions. And we, of course, want people to be able to rapidly receive the tests and people have certainty to know they can get a test, they can feel safe, go into their workplace, seeing their family members, sending their kids to school. That’s our objective. The details of how it will be distributed and the mechanisms will all be coming soon,’ she said.
Despite the surge in people testing positive for the virus, it’s highly unlikely that hospitalization numbers will ever rise to their previous peak, said Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School Public Health.
Vaccines and treatments developed since last year have made it easier to curb the spread of the virus and minimize serious effects among people with breakthrough infections.
‘Its going to take some time for people to get attuned to the fact that cases don’t matter the same way they did in the past,’ Adalja said. ‘We have a lot of defense against it.’
But even with fewer people hospitalized compared with past surges, the virus can wreak havoc on hospitals and health care workers, he added.
‘In a way, those hospitalizations are worse because they’re all preventable,’ he said.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admitted a serious error in calculating the prevalence of the variant, overblowing the figure recorded in mid-December by as much as 50 percentage points and sowing confusion as the nation breaks records for new cases.
The agency released a revised chart on Tuesday showing that the new variant accounted for 23 percent of all COVID-19 cases for the week ending on December 18, as opposed to the 73 percent it originally reported.
The chart showed that the Omicron variant accounted for 59 percent of all new cases for the week ending on December 25, meaning the Delta variant has been accounting for far more infections than the agency initially thought, though Omicron is gaining ground quickly.
‘There’s no way around it, it is a huge swing that makes it seem like something went really wrong,’ Dr. Shruti Gohil, the associate medical director for epidemiology and infection prevention at UC Irvine’s School of Medicine, told NPR.
Despite the CDC’s astonishing error, data from the UK suggest that Omicron will soon account for nearly all new cases in the US.
President Biden caught heat Wednesday after announcing that contracts won’t be finished ‘until next week’ for the 500 million at-home tests he promised. Above, he was seen on Tuesday walking his dog through Rehoboth Beach in Delaware when he spoke to reporters and said that his administration has made ‘a bit of progress’ on getting more COVID testing kits but had no details
Jeff Zients said on Wednesday the contracts will only be finalized ‘late next week’ – above Zients is seen with President Joe Biden at Monday’s virtual meeting with governors
In England, which is several weeks ahead of the US in the Omicron wave, the new variant went from zero to 92 percent of all new cases in the four weeks leading up to December 27, according to data from the UK Health Security Agency.
The CDC corrected its error, to the confusion of many, on the same day that the nation broke its record for the most daily COVID-19 cases. On Monday, 512,553 new cases were reported in the US, marking the country’s largest single-day tally since the beginning of the pandemic. The record-breaking figure was in part the product of a multi-day build up of unreported cases over the Christmas holiday on Saturday, which finally were logged to start the week.
In the UK, the Health Security Agency bosses logged 183,037 positive tests on Wednesday, up by almost three-quarters on last week’s tally.
The count — which eclipses yesterday’s previous record by more than 45,000 — is skewed upwards because it includes five days’ worth of backlogged data from Northern Ireland, which didn’t feed officials its numbers over the Christmas break.
Statistics for England-only — which were kept up-to-date through the festive period — were also their highest on record, jumping by 45 per cent in a week.
Anthony Fauci again echoed on Wednesday that he ‘strongly recommends’ against going to large New Year’s Eve gatherings this year as the highly contagious Omicron variant causes massive case surges nationwide.
‘If your plans are to go to a 40 to 50-person New Year’s Eve party with all the bells and whistles and everybody hugging and kissing,’ Fauci said during the White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing, ‘I would strongly recommend that this year, we do not do that.’
He claimed that smaller gatherings with everyone fully vaccinated and boosted against coronavirus is low risk, despite the massive number of breakthrough cases with the Omicron variant’s emergence.
The nation’s top infectious disease expert also had a sobering message about COVID on Wednesday – COVID likely isn’t ever going away.
‘We’re never going to stop counting, tests – but we’re looking forward, as everyone I think feels is appropriate, that ultimately we’re going to have to live with something that will not be eradicated and very likely would not be eliminated,’ he said.
Meanwhile, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, in a round of television interviews on Wednesday morning, said she was watching the nation’s case load and its potential impact on health care providers.
While there was some data from other countries that showed less severe illness with Omicron, it was too early to say what the impact might be across the United States, particularly given its uneven vaccination rates, Walensky told MSNBC.
‘We may have many, many more cases and so we may still very well see a lot of severe disease in the hospitals,’ Walensky said.
‘What I am focused on now is making sure that we can get through this Omicron surge, that we do so with minimal amount of hospitalization and severe disease,’ she added, pointing to vaccines and booster shots as top tools to curb infections.
‘We are seeing and expecting even more cases of this Omicron variant,’ even if many are mild, she said separately on CNN.
Walensky also defended the CDC’s move to slash the quarantine period for asymptomatic cases in half, to five days from 10, without any negative testing requirement.
The CDC director said that PCR tests are too sensitive and could return a positive even after someone is no longer contagious, and that rapid antigen tests could be unreliable in later stages of infection.
‘We know it performs really well during that period where you’re initially infected, but the FDA has not at all looked at whether … your positive antigen really does correlate with whether you’re transmissible or not,’ she told CBS Mornings.
Walensky explained that even if someone tests negative with an antigen test after five days of isolation, the CDC would still urge them to wear a mask to prevent possible spread.
‘Since it wasn’t going to make a difference in our recommendations, we did not recommend an antigen at that period of time,’ Walensky said.
‘What we do know is about 85% to 90% of viral transmission happens in those first five days, which is why we really want people to stay home during that period of time,’ Walensky said. ‘And then mask for the rest of the time to capture that last 10% to 15%.’
States showing the highest daily infection numbers on Tuesday included New York, which reported as many as 40,780 cases, and California, which reported over 30,000. Texas reported more than 17,000 cases and Ohio over 15,000.
Global COVID-19 infections hit a record high over the past seven-day period, according to new data Wednesday.
Almost 900,000 cases were detected on average each day around the world between December 22 and 28, with myriad countries posting new all-time highs over the past 24 hours, including the United States, Australia and many European nations.
The simultaneous circulation of the Delta and Omicron variants of the coronavirus is creating a ‘tsunami of cases’, World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters.
‘Delta and Omicrom are now twin threats driving up cases to record numbers, leading to spikes in hospitalisation and deaths,’ said Tedros.
‘I am highly concerned that Omicron, being highly transmissible and spreading at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases.’
Tedros repeated his call for countries to share vaccines more equity and warned that the emphasis on boosters in richer countries could leave poorer nations short of jabs.
He said the WHO was campaigning for every country to hit a target of 70% vaccine coverage by the middle of 2022, which would help end the acute phase of the pandemic.
New Year’s Eve will mark the second anniversary of China alerting the WHO to 27 cases of ‘viral pneumonia’ of unknown origin in the city of Wuhan.
More than 281 million people have since been reported to be infected by the novel coronavirus globally and more than 5 million have died.
The CDC’s new data on the prevalence of the Omicron variant shows that the Delta variant, which appears more severe but less contagious than Omicron, still has a hold on the country and is one driving factor behind the most current surge in cases.
It also raises the question of how the CDC could have recorded such a drastic difference in the strain’s prevalence than what was the reality.
Jasmine Reed, a spokesperson for the CDC, recognized the ‘wide predictive interval posted in last week’s chart,’ referring to the huge gap in the data for the week ending on December 18, and attributed it to the ‘speed at which Omicron was increasing.’
‘CDC’s models have a range, and… we’re still seeing steady increase in the proportion of Omicron,’ she told Fox News.
Gohil noted that there is ‘always a delay in the testing information that comes in, and that’s what the public should take away.’
She added that health professionals were finally understanding the Delta variant more and figuring out how to test for it efficiently when the Omicron variant swept through the country.
‘The way in which we test and the way in which we have certitude about the numbers was all in flux right at that moment. Then along comes this new variant and now here you are trying to project something when you don’t have all of the mechanisms in place,’ Gohil said.
The scant rate of testing in the US may be contributing to uncertainty in the data. The UK is performing 22.3 COVID tests per 1,000 people every day, five times more than the US rate of 4.5, according to figures from Our World in Data.
Moreover, only a tiny fraction of the positive tests are actually sequenced to determine the variant strain, leaving huge potential gaps in the surveillance effort.
Dr. Jerome Adams, the former surgeon general for the Trump Administration, also pointed to testing as a reason for the false Omicron numbers. He referred to something called the ‘S gene dropout,’ in which one of the three target genes is not detected – a signifier of the Omicron variant.
‘A lot of people were seeing this S dropout on the tests even before they got the follow-up genetic testing, and so those samples were disproportionately more likely to be sent in for sequencing,’ he told Fox News.
‘It’s also important for people to understand that in the grand scheme of things, they really were probably just a week or two ahead of what we’re going to see anyway, because omicron is spreading so quickly that it is going to be 73 percent by the time you look at this week’s or next week’s numbers,’ Dr. Adams told the news outlet.
While the CDC reported that the Delta variant accounted for 41 percent of cases in the week ending on December 25, that number could be as high as 58 percent given the agency’s margin of error, NPR reported.
Regardless, Gohil said, ‘The implication is that we have a lot of delta going on and that requires a lot more attention. People are thinking, ‘Oh, well, omicron’s not that bad.’ But it’s actually still too early to really know even that. Besides, Delta is the beast that you should be worried about.’
The CDC’s latest data will also put a burden on hospitals that will have to adjust their treatment methods to account for the vast different in Omicron and Delta cases, as different strains require different antibodies and medications.
‘The bottom line is, don’t take your masks off just yet and get vaccinated, vaccinated, vaccinated, vaccinated — and boosted,’ Gohil told NPR.
COVID-19 cases in the U.S. also doubled over the past two weeks. Over the past week, 235,269 Americans have been testing positive for the virus every day – a 98 percent increase from two weeks ago and approaching the prior record of 247,503 set last January, according to a DailyMail.com analysis of Johns Hopkins data.
Though Omicron is thought to be less severe than Delta, hospitalizations have also been rising, up 6 percent nationwide over the past two weeks, to 71,381.