Global infections spiked sharply in November; US braces for pandemic winter: Latest COVID-19 updates – USA TODAY

Reported COVID-19 cases around the world rose an alarming 33% last month as variants and sparse access to vaccination in some regions fueled the surge.

Global case counts hovered around 3 million per week through most of October, then started rising in November and surpassed 4 million last week. The U.S. climb was far less severe – 2.55 million compared to 2.5 million in October, according to Johns Hopkins University data. But on Wednesday, the first U.S. case of the omicron variant was identified in California. 

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden is expected to reveal a comprehensive plan today to combat the pandemic this winter. The president has said the plan will not entail shutdowns or lockdowns, but officials say it will include travel restrictions. 

Unlike the struggle for access to vaccine in much of the developing world, there’s plenty of doses to vaccinate and boost all eligible Americans. But access may become an issue, again, said Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer and a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Michigan.

“When we had these mass vaccination events, it seemed very easy to drive in and get a vaccine and go,” she said. “That’s become harder right now.”

Also in the news:

►A new study, which involved NBA players, their families and staff, found that people with breakthrough COVID-19 cases stopped producing the virus two days sooner than the unvaccinated.

►Vaccines have suddenly become scarce in some parts of Oregon after months of vaccine surplus in the state and across that nation, officials said.

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 48.6 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 782,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 263.6 million cases and 5.2 million deaths. More than 197 million Americans – roughly 59.4% of the population – are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

📘 What we’re reading: The first case of the coronavirus omicron variant in the United States was confirmed on Wednesday. How did scientists find it?

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Biden to unveil plan pandemic winter battle plan

Tighter travel rules, free at-home tests and booster shots are key elements of President Joe Biden’s latest strategy to combat the rapidly evolving coronavirus. Biden is scheduled to promote his plan during a visit to the National Institutes of Health on Thursday as people begin hunkering down for winter and gathering for the holidays. Some plan highlights:

  • Requiring travelers entering the country by air to test negative for COVID within a day of departure, regardless of vaccination status or nationality, instead of within three days.
  • Extending through March 18 the requirement that masks be worn on airplanes, trains and public transportation.
  • Requiring private health insurance companies cover 100% of the cost of at-home tests for the coronavirus. 
  • Launching a public education campaign to encourage 100 million adults to get boosters, with a special focus on seniors.

Maureen Groppe

South Africa, some European nations see sharp rise in new infections

Global case counts are again exceeding 4 million per week, after spending most of October around 3 million per week. One of the biggest increases is in South Africa, where cases are being reported about 11 times faster than they were a month earlier. The country was the first to identify the omicron variant, which some experts worry could spread quickly.

Parts of Europe have also seen a strong resurgence of the virus, from relatively low rates before. Spain reported about 8,900 cases in the week ending Nov. 1, but nearly 63,000 cases in the week ending Dec. 1. France went from about 42,000 per week to 243,000. Germany’s case count tripled, to about 400,000 per week.

Limited access to testing in many developing countries means the global numbers are likely significantly undercounted and may hide regional trends.

Mike Stucka

Tennessee signed $75M contact tracing deal with firm lacking epidemiology experience

With virtually no legislative oversight and largely shielded from the public’s eye, Tennessee state officials agreed to pay a medical billing company $20 million last summer to conduct the state’s contact tracing efforts. The price tag of that contract has now more than tripled to a total of $75 million, according to multiple amendments hashed out between the firm and the state Department of Health.

The extension of the no-bid contract with Hendersonville company Xtend Healthcare – first reported by The Tennessee Lookout – has raised eyebrows among lawmakers from both parties. Workers at the company have called into question how well Xtend Healthcare – a medical billing company with no previous experience in epidemiology – has managed contact tracing in Tennessee. Several Xtend Healthcare workers told WPLN they experienced significant case backups, with some reaching infected patients after the point where they had to quarantine.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has defended the state’s emergency purchasing process, arguing state officials had to make decisions quickly to secure supplies such as personal protective equipment and other services during the pandemic.

– Yue Stella Yu, Nashville Tennessean

Indiana reports more than 6,000 new COVID-19 cases

Indiana reported 6,164 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, the highest number of new cases added to the state’s dashboard in a single day since early January. Holiday weekends, like the long Thanksgiving weekend, can wreak havoc on COVID-19 numbers, thanks to delays in testing. So, in part, the cases confirmed Tuesday could be an artifact of testing being less available over the weekend.

Suggesting that this could be part of a new disturbing trend, Indiana reported more than 4,000 new cases on Tuesday and by Wednesday the seven-day average for new cases reached 3,245, the highest number since September.

– Shari Rudavsky, Indianapolis Star

Contributing: Mike Stucka, Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY; The Associated Press