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Global risk of omicron variant is ‘very high;’ Biden urges vaccinations, masks: Latest COVID-19 updates – USA TODAY

The omicron variant first discovered in South Africa last week is likely to quickly spread around the globe and could result in “severe consequences,” the World Health Organization warned Monday.

“There could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences depending on a number of factors including where surges may take place,” the WHO said in a technical brief. “The overall global risk related to the (omicron variant) is assessed as very high.”

The WHO said there is currently no information to suggest symptoms associated with omicron differ from those associated with other variants. No deaths linked to the omicron variant have been reported, the WHO added.

President Joe Biden addressed the latest threat Monday, once again urging Americans to get vaccinated, obtain a booster shot and wear masks in public places.

“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden said. “We have more tools to fight the variant than we have ever had before.”

The U.S. will need about two weeks to learn more definitive information about the omicron variant’s transmissibility and severity, Dr. Anthony Fauci said. 

The variant already has been identified in countries across the world, including France, Canada, Australia and Hong Kong. Fauci told Biden that he believes “existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID.”

Also in the news:

►Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy was placed in the NFL’s COVID-19 protocol on Monday and will miss Thursday night’s game in New Orleans after testing positive

►”Vaccine” is Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2021: “The biggest science story of our time quickly became the biggest debate in our country, and the word at the center of both stories is vaccine.”

►Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general, said it’s “unacceptable” for some countries to vaccinate groups at very low risk of severe disease and give boosters to healthy adults while just 1 in 4 African health workers has been vaccinated. 

►The Virginia Department of Health will be monitoring sewage in an effort to predict future outbreaks of COVID-19. Infected people shed the virus in bodily waste, even if they’re not showing symptoms. The goal is to provide warnings before a surge begins.

►Scotland’s Health Secretary, Humza Yousaf, said Monday that six cases of the omicron variant have been detected there. “Enhanced” contact tracing was underway.

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 48 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 776,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 261 million cases and nearly 5.1 million deaths. More than 196 million Americans — roughly 59.1% of the population — are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

📘What we’re reading: Omicron, how do you even pronounce it? The latest variant’s name comes from the Greek alphabet. Here’s what it means.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY’s Coronavirus Watch free newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group

Biden says vaccines, not lockdowns, the right tool against omicron variant

President Joe Biden vowed there would be no new lockdowns imposed in response to the new variant of the coronavirus — named omicron — instead encouraging Americans to get vaccinated and wear masks indoors in public places as the best tools to fight off COVID-19. 

“The best protection against this variant or any of the variants out there … is getting fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot,” Biden said in a White House news briefing Monday. “Most Americans are fully vaccinated but not yet boosted.”

During a meeting with the COVID-19 response team Sunday, presidential adviser Dr.  Anthony Fauci told Biden existing vaccines – particularly those augmented with booster shots – will provide protection against severe cases of COVID-19.

Biden plans to outline Thursday a “detailed strategy” on how the administration will combat COVID-19 in the coming winter.

“Not with shutdowns or lockdowns,” he said. “But with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more.” He also urged Americans to wear masks when indoors at public venues. Read more here.

Biden says travel restrictions provide time to combat omicron variant

The WHO urged countries not to impose flight bans on southern African nations, saying in a statement that “South Africa should be thanked for detecting, sequencing and reporting this variant, not penalized.”

The U.S., however, on Monday began restricting travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. Biden said the restrictions are to provide time for public health officials to learn more about omicron – and for more Americans to get vaccinated and obtain booster shots. 

“Sooner or later we will see cases of this new variant in the United States,” Biden acknowledged.

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‘Omicron’ variant of COVID-19 called a ‘variant of concern’

Scientists don’t know how contagious the new COVID-19 variant is yet.

Staff Video, USA TODAY

WHO gathers for special session on new rules for outbreaks

The WHO’s World Health Assembly began a special session Monday to discuss a new global treaty for responding to future pandemics. The special session, just the second in the history of the WHO, will last until Wednesday. 

The session is geared toward establishing a process to draft agreements “on pandemic preparedness and response,” according to a news release from the organization. Tedros told the gathering the international response to the pandemic has been slow and uncoordinated.

“Omicron’s very emergence is another reminder that, although many of us might think we are done with COVID-19, it is not done with us,” Tedros said. “We are living through a cycle of panic and neglect. Hard-won gains could vanish in an instant.”

Omicron variant identified in more countries across the globe

Cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus popped up in countries on opposite sides of the world Sunday as many governments rushed to close their borders.

Japan announced it would suspend entry of all foreign visitors hours after Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners. Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday — among a growing raft of travel curbs being imposed by nations around the world as they scrambled to slow the variant’s spread.

Scientists in several places, from Hong Kong to Europe, have confirmed its presence since South Africa announced its presence last week. 

“This time the world showed it is learning,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, singling out South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for praise. “South Africa’s analytic work and transparency and sharing its results was indispensable in allowing a swift global response. It no doubt saved many lives.”

Canada’s health minister said the country’s first two cases of omicron were found in Ontario after two individuals who had recently traveled from Nigeria tested positive.

Contributing: Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

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