Americans ushered in 2022 with exploding COVID-19 cases,thousands of canceled flights and quickly-filling hospital beds once again as the pandemic dragged into another calendar year.
Some of the year's most notable achievements against COVID-19 – vaccines and other treatments – weren't enough to stop the rapid spread of the omicron variant. While more transmissible, leading to record-breaking infections and the reemergence of mask mandates in some states, omicron is also less severe, according to early studies.
The U.S. reported more than 2.7 million cases in the week ending Friday, up 105% from a week earlier, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins data. Friday's report of nearly half a million cases was the third-highest on record. The five highest days of the entire pandemic for cases are all the last five days, and, in the last six days, the U.S. reported more cases than it did in all of November.
But a sense of hopefulness persists with many around the world saying they no longer feel the same sense of dread that marked the start of the pandemic.
At Expo 2020, the sprawling world’s fair outside Dubai, 26-year-old tourist Lujain Orfi prepared to throw caution to the wind on New Year’s Eve. "If you don’t celebrate, life will pass you by," she said. "I’m healthy and took two (vaccine) doses. We just have to enjoy."
The virus, which has been circulating for over two years, has now impacted four separate calendar years as 2022 begins – starting back in 2019, the year denoted by the name COVID-19.
Also in the news:
► A year after New Year's Day passed without a Rose Parade due to the coronavirus pandemic, the floral spectacle celebrating the arrival of 2022 proceeded Saturday in Pasadena, California.
► Hawaii reported another day of near-record cases, ending the year with a surging infection rate and hospitals on edge. There were 3,290 new cases on Friday. The state more than doubled a previous delta variant record Thursday after reporting nearly 3,500 new cases.
📈Today's numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 54 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 825,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 288 million cases and 5.4 million deaths. More than 205 million Americans – 62% – are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
📘 What we're reading: 2020 was awful. 2021 wasn't much better. What's lurking around the corner in 2022? Read the full story.
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About 4,000 US flights already canceled or delayed amid omicron surge
For air travelers, the new year picked up where the old one left off – with lots of frustration. About 4,000 flights entering, leaving or flying within the U.S. have been canceled or delayed so far Saturday.
By midmorning Saturday on the East Coast, more than 2,400 U.S. flights had been canceled, according to tracking service FlightAware. That’s the highest single-day toll yet since airlines began blaming staffing shortages on increasing COVID-19 infections among crews just before Christmas.
Saturday’s disruptions weren’t just due to the virus, however. Wintry weather made Chicago the worst place in the country for travelers, with 800 flights scrubbed at O’Hare Airport and more than 250 at Midway Airport.
Skeptics doubted vaccines long before COVID, despite health gains
Even in the days of smallpox, some people objected to vaccinations. Benjamin Franklin apparently "long regretted" his decision not to inoculate his oldest son, who died of smallpox at age 4 in 1736.
Yet skepticism over the vaccine persisted, even into the early 20th century when it was routinely required. By then, the virus had mutated to become less severe. Some argued the vaccine was no longer necessary and would create more risk than it resolved. Yet vaccination requirements continued, and smallpox remains the only disease ever eradicated from earth.
Public skepticism has always been a part of vaccine history, even as doctors and other officials praise the shots' safety, effectiveness and importance. "The idea that there was less resistance to vaccination in the past is really misleading," said Elena Conis, a historian of medicine at the University of California, Berkeley. Read more here.
– Karen Weintraub
Pope: 'We are still living in uncertain and difficult times'
In his New Year's wishes to the world, Pope Francis encouraged people Saturday to focus on the good which unites them while acknowledging that the coronavirus pandemic has left many scared and struggling amid economic inequality.
"We are still living in uncertain and difficult times due to the pandemic," Francis said. "Many are frightened about the future and burdened by social problems, personal problems, dangers stemming from the ecological crisis, injustices and by global economic imbalances."
Thousands of Rome residents and tourists, wearing face masks as protection against the spread of the coronavirus, gathered in St. Peter's Square on a sunny, mild day to hear Francis lay out his recipe for world peace, cheering his appearance.
Francis, who is 85 and vaccinated against the coronavirus, wore a surgical mask during a New Year’s Eve prayer service which a Vatican cardinal presided over at the basilica. It was a rare departure from his shunning of masks during public ceremonies throughout the pandemic.
Omicron has Native American tribes 'back in crisis mode'
Native American tribes have been especially vigilant in encouraging COVID-19 vaccines and enacting stringent safety protocols.
The next challenge for these communities that have been hit particularly hard during the pandemic: The omicron variant. Tribes and the federal Indian Health Service are reporting huge case spikes in the days after Christmas, reflecting the situation across much of the country.
The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin since Monday have reported daily case increases at least five times higher than before Christmas. The federal Indian Health Service reports positivity rates going from 9.1% before Christmas to 13.7% after the holiday, according to data from 356 medical facilities.
"We feel like we're back in crisis mode again," said Dr. Amy Slagle, clinical director of the Menominee Tribal Clinic, which postponed an early New Year's closing to remain open Thursday. "It looks like omicron may have arrived." Read more here.
– Bill Keveney and Trevor Hughes
US children hospitalized with COVID in record numbers
The omicron-fueled surge that is sending COVID-19 cases rocketing in the U.S. is putting children in the hospital in record numbers, and experts lament that most of the youngsters are not vaccinated.
"It's just so heartbreaking," said Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious-disease expert at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "It was hard enough last year, but now you know that you have a way to prevent all this."
During the week of Dec. 22-28, an average of 378 children 17 and under were admitted per day to hospitals with the coronavirus, a 66% increase from the week before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday. The previous high over the course of the pandemic was in early September, when child hospitalizations averaged 342 per day, the CDC said.
On a more hopeful note, children continue to represent a small percentage of those being hospitalized with COVID-19: An average of nearly 10,200 people of all ages were admitted per day during the same week in December. And many doctors say the youngsters seem less sick than those who came in during the delta surge over the summer.
Two months after vaccinations were approved for 5- to 11-year-olds, about 14% are fully protected, CDC data shows. The rate is higher for 12- to 17-year-olds, at about 53%.
Some Georgia schools going virtual due to COVID-19 spike
Some of Georgia’s largest school districts will start the new year virtually amid the state’s surge in COVID-19 cases.
Fulton County and Dekalb County schools said Friday students will learn remotely when they resume classes next week and then return for in-person instruction on Jan. 10. Clayton County Public Schools and Rockdale County Public Schools previously announced the same plan.
All four districts are in the Atlanta area. Clayton is Georgia’s fifth-largest school system. It serves more than 50,000 students. Fulton and DeKalb are even larger.
RAPID TESTS, LOTS OF RAPID TESTS:How US schools plan to reopen amid omicron-fueled COVID surge
Georgia has hit new records for COVID infections, with state officials reporting a staggering 25,265 confirmed cases Thursday. The number stayed high on Friday, with more than 24,000 infections reported.
Six health care systems that serve metro Atlanta said in a combined statement this week they have experienced 100-200% increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations in eight days, with the vast majority of patients unvaccinated.
Tested positive for COVID during the holidays? Here's what to do.
Testing positive for COVID-19 starts a confusing, disruptive and at times frightening process – one that millions of Americans will likely go through in the coming weeks.
First, you need to isolate. That’s a more intense version of quarantining – it means cutting off contact with other people as much as possible so you reduce the chance of infecting them. This also means forgoing travel, not going to work and even limiting contact with people in your own household who aren't infected. The CDC says isolating is a necessary step whether you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated, and whether you have symptoms or feel fine.
Everyone who tests positive for COVID-19 should monitor their symptoms. And people who are unvaccinated or at high risk for severe disease should be extra-vigilant for symptoms that might require emergency care. Call your doctor for early treatment options.
The CDC in late December shortened the time it recommends people isolate, saying "People with COVID-19 should isolate for 5 days and if they are asymptomatic or their symptoms are resolving (without fever for 24 hours), follow that by 5 days of wearing a mask when around others." Read the CDC's full guidance on isolating and quarantining.
Contributing: Joel Shannon and Mike Stucka, USA TODAY; The Associated Press