President Joe Biden said it’s “probably premature” for states to drop their indoor face-mask requirements, as Nevada became the latest to scrap it at most places including its casinos.
In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt on “Nightly News,” Biden acknowledged that it’s tricky to judge whether states announcing in recent days that they’re taking that step, most of them run by Democratic governors, are moving too fast.
“It’s hard to say whether they are wrong. They set a time limit, and I assume it has something to do with whether the omicron variant continues to dive,” he said.
New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Oregon, Rhode Island, California and Massachusetts have all announced varying timetables for their plans, putting them at odds with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC head Dr. Rochelle Walensky said this week her agency would stick with its recommendation for face masks for now.
“Now is not the moment” to end mandates, she said at a White House briefing.
But governors are eager to restore a semblance of normalcy after two years in a pandemic. Biden said he understands that the emergence of omicron in November and consequent surge of cases has had a “profound impact on the psyche of the American people.”
The U.S. is averaging 205,115 new cases a day, according to a New York Times tracker, down 65% from two weeks ago and well below the peak numbers seen in January. Hospitalizations are down 32% to average 103,455 a day, the tracker shows.
But deaths, which lag cases and hospitalizations, are up 2% at an average of 2,575 a day, the most since last winter — before vaccines were widely available.
Omicron is highly infectious, but it is still proving less lethal than other variants. And while it reduces the effectiveness of vaccines and has caused many breakthrough infections in vaccinated people and even those with booster shots, those cases have almost all been mild or asymptomatic. That means vaccinated and boosted individuals have a high level of protection against severe disease and death.
For unvaccinated people, however, omicron continues to pose a significant risk of dying a preventable death. The World Health Organization said this week that about half a million people around the world have died of COVID since omicron was first detected.
Other COVID-19 news you should know about:
• The Biden administration urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government Thursday to use its federal powers to end the truck blockade by Canadians protesting the country’s COVID-19 restrictions, as the bumper-to-bumper demonstration forced auto plants on both sides of the border to shut down or scale back production, the Associated Press reported. For the fourth straight day, scores of truckers taking part in what they dubbed the Freedom Convoy blocked the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit, disrupting the flow of auto parts and other products between the two countries. In the U.S., authorities braced for the possibility of similar truck-based protests, and authorities in Paris and Belgium banned road blockades to head off disruptions there, too.
• German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that the country is reaching a peak of omicron infections and that it would soon ease strict curbs as the wave ebbs, the Local reported. “The scientific forecasts show that the high point of the wave is in sight,” Scholz told the upper house of the German parliament. “That will allow us to look at the first steps at reopening during a meeting next week between the federal government and the states, and then further steps for spring,” he said.
• New York could fire up to 3,000 unvaccinated city workers on Friday, the New York Times reported. That is less than 1% of the city’s overall workforce but would still represent the most drastic cut tied to a coronavirus vaccine mandate. Mayor Eric Adams has said he would prefer not to make the move, but he observed that, by remaining unvaccinated, workers are “quitting.”
• Novavax NVAX, +3.35% said its experimental COVID-19 vaccine had an 80% efficacy rate in teens. The results stem from a Phase 3 clinical trial that occurred when delta was the most dominant strain of the virus. The Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing the company’s request to authorize its protein-based vaccine in adults; the shots have already been authorized in the U.K. and in Europe. The vaccine candidate is a well-established type of vaccine that is also used for hepatitis B shots and pneumococcal polysaccharide shots, according to GAVI. Novavax said it plans to begin submitting regulatory filings for authorization of its shot in teens between the ages of 12 and 17 in the first quarter.
• Gilead Sciences GILD, +1.19% said Veklury, its COVID-19 drug, demonstrated in vitro activity against omicron and nine other variants. The research, which was announced in a news release on Friday morning, was published Thursday as a preprint. Gilead said the study has also been submitted for peer review. “These results provide evidence of the consistent and durable antiviral activity of remdesivir across known variants that have emerged throughout the pandemic, including omicron,” Gilead executive Tomas Cihlar said in the release. Veklury generated $5.5 billion in sales in 2022; however, the drug maker said it expects only $2 billion in sales in 2022 if omicron is the only major surge. The treatment has been primarily used in hospitalized COVID-19 patients, but it recently received Food and Drug Administration approval to be used in people who have not yet been hospitalized with COVID-19 but are at high risk of severe disease.
Here’s what the numbers say
The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose above 406.6 million on Friday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, while the death toll climbed above 5.79 million.
The U.S. leads the world with 77.4 million cases and 915,620 deaths.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows that 213.4 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 64.3% of the population. But just 90.8 million are boosted, equal to 42.6% of the vaccinated population.