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Jan. 27, 2022, 2:45 p.m. EST

U.S. daily COVID case tally now falling and hospitalizations seem to be peaking, as Moderna launches trial of omicron-specific booster

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By Ciara Linnane

The U.S. average daily new case tally from COVID-19 is falling fast, and hospitalizations appear to be close to a peak, bolstering hopes that the highly infectious omicron variant is losing its grip on the nation.

Cases are down 21% from two weeks ago at 618,231 a day, according to a New York Times tracker. And while that remains undesirably high, it’s an improvement from late December and early January when healthcare systems were being overwhelmed with many workers succumbing to the virus even as they provided care to growing numbers of patients.

Hospitalizations are averaging just above 150,000, down from about 160,000 a week ago. But deaths, which lag cases and hospitalizations, are still rising to an average of 2,466 a day, up 34% from two weeks ago.

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, numbers vary around the country. States in the Northeast that were hit first by a wave of omicron cases are showing the steepest declines. But cases remain at or near record levels in Alabama, North Dakota and Kansas, the tracker shows.

See: 400 million free N95 masks are starting to hit pharmacies — here’s how to extend their use, and recycle them

Most of the hospitalizations and deaths are in unvaccinated people, who remain at high risk of developing severe disease from omicron. And while the variant has caused many breakthrough cases in vaccinated people and those with a booster dose, those have mostly been mild cases or even asymptomatic.

Thursday marks the deadline for unvaccinated workers in roughly half of the United States to get a first vaccine dose, as part of a federal mandate. The mandate will be implemented in stages and will affect about 10 million workers in 76,000 hospitals, nursing homes and healthcare centers that use Medicaid and Medicare, according to the New York Times.

The states impacted on Thursday: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming, according to guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

In medical news, Moderna /zigman2/quotes/205619834/composite MRNA -4.97%  has begun testing an omicron-specific COVID-19 booster in healthy adults, the Associated Press reported. The news comes after Pfizer with German partner BioNTech /zigman2/quotes/214419716/composite BNTX -2.90% earlier this week said they had begun a similar study of its own reformulated shots.

See also:   Walmart, Costco and other big box stores in Canada begin enforcing vaccine mandates, and some shoppers aren’t buying it

Moderna noted a small study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday that showed antibodies able to target omicron persisted for six months after a booster dose, although the levels were dropping.

Moderna’s new study will enroll about 600 people who already have received either two doses of the company’s original shots or two plus a booster dose. All the volunteers will receive a dose of the experimental omicron-matched version.

Other COVID-19 news you should know:

• The European Union’s drug regulator on Thursday approved Pfizer’s /zigman2/quotes/202877789/composite PFE +3.59% antiviral COVID-19 pill, Reuters reported. The U.S. approved the pill branded Paxlovid, as well as Merck’s /zigman2/quotes/209956077/composite MRK +1.59% antiviral called molnupiravir in December, adding a treatment to the toolbox that patients can take at home. Merck’s pill is also under review in the EU, but is taking longer to approve because the company revised its trial data in November saying the drug was significantly less effective than previously thought.

• England has lifted most of its coronavirus restrictions, including mandatory face masks, after Britain’s government said its booster rollout successfully reduced serious illness and COVID-19 hospitalizations, the Associated Press reported. Face coverings are no longer required by law anywhere in England, and a legal requirement for COVID passes for entry into nightclubs and other large venues has been scrapped. The government last week dropped its advice for people to work from home as well as guidance for face coverings in classrooms.

• Germany set a grim record Thursday of more than 200,000 new COVID cases, the most since the start of the pandemic, Reuters reported. Health authorities estimate that currently more than 1.6 million people are sick with COVID-19, which is an all-time high for the country. Russia set a record for a seventh straight day of 88,816 new cases, and Poland counted a record of 57,659 cases.

• A group of German-speaking immigrants is seeking to set up a settlement in Paraguay to escape mandatory vaccinations, as well as “5G, chemtrails and fluoridated water,” the Guardian reported. Caazapá, a rural region dominated by cattle ranching in the heart of eastern Paraguay, saw a jump from four new German residents in 2019 to 101 in 2021, according to official figures. Other anti-vaxxers have been reported settling in other areas of Paraguay.

Read: World could see end to ‘acute phase’ of pandemic this year if countries pull together to get vaccines to all, bolster testing and sequencing, says WHO head

Here’s what the numbers say

The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose above 363.1 million, and the death toll is now more than 5.62 million,  according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. leads the world with 72.9 million cases and 876,078 fatalities.

The  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker  is showing that almost 211 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 63.5% of the total population.

Some 85 million have received a booster, equal to 40.4% of the fully vaccinated.

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