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N.Y.C. Mayor Warns of Intense but ‘Temporary’ Surge From Omicron

Predicting a short but sharp rise in coronavirus cases from the Omicron variant, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York urged vaccinations and called on the federal government to aid the city with its response to the virus.

We expect Omicron to be a fast and temporary phenomenon. We expect these next weeks to see a very, very big surge in the number of cases, more than we’ve seen previously. And then we expect, after a period of time, that it will dissipate. We can weather that storm if more and more people get vaccinated, more and more people go get those boosters. This temporary reality demands an urgent, immediate step, which is to maximize vaccination. We need help now because it’s not just about vaccination. Treatment matters, of course. And we need a surge of support in terms of monoclonal antibody treatments. We need more made available for New York City. We need the authorization of the Pfizer antiviral pill to be accelerated. We need — given the amount that’s needed in terms of test kits and vaccine, again would urge that the president invoked the Defense Production Act and use every tool that the private sector has and the public sector has to continue to provide supplies here and around the country. We have been through this before and we beat Covid back and now we must do it again. I know many of you are tired. You want to return to normalcy. You want the city you love back. And so do I. But the only way we get our city back is to find our resolve once again and face this crisis head on.

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Predicting a short but sharp rise in coronavirus cases from the Omicron variant, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York urged vaccinations and called on the federal government to aid the city with its response to the virus. Credit Credit... Desiree Rios for The New York Times

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city was weighing whether the annual New Year’s Eve ball-drop celebration in Times Square would be held as planned amid the Omicron virus variant’s rapid spread through New York City.

Mr. de Blasio said Sunday that he was in talks with the sponsors of the gathering, but noted that the event was outside and required proof of vaccination. He promised to have a decision one way or the other before Christmas.

Over the past week, New York has reported record-breaking levels of cases. On Sunday, New York State reported 22,478 new cases for more than 60,000 over the past three days, each a record. While the numbers are exceeding the city’s first brutal wave, the true toll of the pandemic’s early days will never be known because tests were in such short supply then.

The mayor announced 5,731 new cases in New York City on Sunday. By comparison, the city was averaging fewer than 1,000 daily cases in early November.

The surge in coronavirus cases has caused a cascade of cancellations of holiday gatherings and return-to-office plans. Several Broadway shows have had to cancel at the last minute after cast members tested positive. Today the mayor canceled an annual holiday reception at Gracie Mansion for the City Hall press corps — the last of his administration.

The Omicron variant will produce a short but intense spike in coronavirus infections in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio predicted, suggesting that it would last “a matter of weeks.”

“We expect Omicron to be a fast and temporary phenomenon,” the mayor said at a news conference that included Mayor-elect Eric Adams. “We expect these next weeks to see a very, very big surge in the number of cases, more than we’ve seen previously, then we expect after a period of time, that it will dissipate.”

7–day average

73,815

Source: State and local health agencies. Daily cases are the number of new cases reported each day. The seven-day average is the average of the most recent seven days of data.

Mr. de Blasio said that New York was in a strong position to fight this new wave, but stressed that vaccination and testing would remain paramount. As a part of its effort to expand testing, the city says it is distributing at-home tests at city-run test sites and through community organizations. Officials also said they would add 17 new mobile testing sites, bringing the total of those sites to more than 90 by Tuesday.

“This is a brand-new reality, but the good news is the city has been through so many versions of Covid challenges that we can adjust rapidly,” Mr. de Blasio said, adding that the city was not having any issues budgeting for its Covid response.

Still, the mayor appealed to the federal government for assistance, asking the Biden administration to invoke the Defense Production Act to expand the stock of test kits and vaccine supplies.

He also pressed for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to make additional supplies of monoclonal antibodies available, and for the Food and Drug Administration to expedite approval of a new Pfizer antiviral medication.

In an effort to expand booster rates among vulnerable older people, Dr. Dave Chokshi, the city health commissioner, said that the city would help coordinate access for nursing home residents and staff, deploying vaccination teams if necessary. He said a new program to encourage vaccination among children would allow pediatricians to be reimbursed by Medicaid for vaccine consultations with young children and their parents.

Mayor-elect Adams struck an empathetic note in addressing New Yorkers exhausted by nearly two years of pandemic.

“I know many of you are tired. You want to return to normalcy. You want the city you love back,” he said. “So do I. But the only way we get our city back is to find our resolve once again and face this crisis head on.”

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Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks to Senator Cory Booker at the U.S. Capitol in Washington in June.
Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks to Senator Cory Booker at the U.S. Capitol in Washington in June. Credit... Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Two prominent Democratic senators, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey, announced separately on Sunday that they had tested positive with a breakthrough case of the coronavirus.

Both senators disclosed their cases on Sunday, and said they were experiencing mild symptoms after being vaccinated and receiving a booster shot. Ms. Warren said she received the positive result Sunday, while Mr. Booker said his test result came back after he began experiencing symptoms Saturday.

News of the cases came barely a day after the Senate left Washington for the year and ahead of a planned address by President Biden to the nation on Tuesday to respond to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

Both senators called on the public to get vaccinated.

“I urge everyone who has not already done so to get the vaccine and the booster as soon as possible — together, we can save lives,” Ms. Warren wrote on Twitter, adding that she had received both a vaccine and a booster shot.

I regularly test for COVID while I tested negative earlier this week, today I tested positive with a breakthrough case. Thankfully, I am only experiencing mild symptoms am grateful for the protection provided against serious illness that comes from being vaccinated boosted.

— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) December 19, 2021

“I’m certain that without them I would be doing much worse,” Mr. Booker said in a statement. “I encourage everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated and boosted.”

I learned today that I tested positive for COVID-19 after first feeling symptoms on Saturday. My symptoms are relatively mild. I’m beyond grateful to have received two doses of vaccine and, more recently, a booster – I’m certain that without them I would be doing much worse.

— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBooker) December 20, 2021

President Biden will address Americans on Tuesday as his administration faces questions about how it will respond to the challenges of a pandemic that has persisted well beyond the administration’s expectations.

Mr. Biden “will announce new steps the Administration is taking to help communities in need of assistance,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, wrote on Twitter on Saturday, “while also issuing a stark warning of what the winter will look like for Americans that choose to remain unvaccinated.”

Mr. Biden has both sounded an alarm over Omicron this month while also expressing optimism that the fast-spreading variant would not set back the progress the country has made.

For the unvaccinated, the president said on Thursday, “we are looking at a winter of severe illness and death — if you’re unvaccinated — for themselves, their families, and the hospitals they’ll soon overwhelm. But there’s good news: If you’re vaccinated and you had your booster shot, you’re protected from severe illness and death — period.”

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Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, warning of the extraordinarily contagious Omicron variant.
Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, warning of the extraordinarily contagious Omicron variant. Credit... Doug Mills/The New York Times

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned on Sunday that the extraordinarily contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus was raging worldwide and that it was likely to cause another major surge in the United States, especially among the unvaccinated.

“This virus is extraordinary,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” referring to the new variant.

But as Americans wrestle this week with whether to curtail holiday gatherings and travel plans, Dr. Fauci said that adhering to the available preventive tools should protect most.

“If you’re vaccinated and you’re boosted, and you take care when you go into congregate settings like airports to make sure you continually wear your mask, you should be OK,” Dr. Fauci said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He urged air travelers to remain masked during flights.

Christmas 2021 need not be a replay of Christmas 2020, he said. He encouraged even boosted people to get tested if they plan to attend celebrations indoors and to try to avoid gatherings if they were unsure that whether all the guests were vaccinated.

“We are doing better if you look now compared to where we were a year ago,” Dr. Fauci said on CNN. “We now have multiple at-home tests available, and we virtually had none a year ago. But we do need to do better.”

While at-home tests are more widespread, they have been scarce in certain areas that are struggling to keep up with demand.

Still, with 50 million eligible Americans unvaccinated against Covid, the coming six to eight weeks of winter seem poised to bring an uptick in cases, deaths, overwhelmed hospitals and commensurately exhausted health care workers, particularly in regions where vaccination rates are low, he said.

He made a fervent plea for people who had received two doses of a Covid vaccine to get a booster as soon as they are eligible, which would substantially strengthen their resistance to the Omicron variant.

He also said that breakthrough infections among the vaccinated would continue to occur.

Dr. Francis Collins, who was in his final day as director of the National Institutes of Health, expressed exasperation with those who claim that breakthrough infections indicate that the vaccines don’t work.

Vaccines are not perfect, he said on Fox News Sunday. But if people get Covid after being vaccinated, he said: “The chances are you’re going to have a pretty mild case. You’ll have the sniffles, maybe are sick for a day or two with a fever, but you won’t be in the I.C.U. The vaccinations are really good at protecting against severe disease.”

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The Brooklyn Nets played Orlando Magic on Saturday. Two Nets games were postponed on Sunday.
The Brooklyn Nets played Orlando Magic on Saturday. Two Nets games were postponed on Sunday. Credit... Brad Penner/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

The N.B.A. postponed two Nets games on Sunday in a new wave of schedule changes as a coronavirus outbreak swept through the league.

The Nets’ home games against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday and the Washington Wizards on Tuesday were postponed, as were Sunday’s games for Cleveland at Atlanta and New Orleans at Philadelphia. A Monday game between Orlando and Toronto was also postponed, bringing to seven the total number of coronavirus-related postponements this season.

The N.B.A. has not said when the games will be made up. Last season, more than 30 games were postponed at least in part because of the virus.

Dozens of players have entered the N.B.A.’s health and safety protocols over the past two weeks, meaning they have tested positive for the coronavirus or been exposed to someone who has. Generally, players must isolate for 10 days or return two negative tests 24 hours apart to return to play. The league and players’ union plan to increase testing after Christmas Day in response to the outbreak, but have not indicated that they are considering pausing the season. More than 95 percent of N.B.A. players have been vaccinated, according to the league and players’ union.

Also on Sunday, the N.H.L. announced that “due to the concern about cross-border travel and, given the fluid nature of federal travel restrictions,” it would postpone 21 games slated for Monday through Dec. 23 and which pitted Canadian against U.S.-based teams. Those games are scheduled to resume on Dec. 27.

And the N.F.L. and N.F.L. Players Association on Saturday made a change to its testing protocols, the fourth such adjustment in a week.

The N.B.A.’s current outbreak has affected stars and teams across the league, including some scheduled to play during the league’s marquee slate of five games on Christmas. A Nets-Lakers matchup is a part of that slate, but nine Nets players — including Kevin Durant and James Harden — are being held out of games and practices for virus reasons.

Shauntel Lowe

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Administering a dose of the Pfizer vaccine in Sheffield, England, last week.
Administering a dose of the Pfizer vaccine in Sheffield, England, last week. Credit... Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A growing body of preliminary research suggests that the Covid-19 vaccines used in most of the world offer almost no defense against becoming infected by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

All vaccines approved in the United States still seem to provide a significant degree of protection against serious illness from Omicron, which is the most crucial goal. But only the Pfizer and Moderna shots, when reinforced by a booster, appear to have success at stopping infections, and these vaccines are unavailable in most of the world.

The other shots — including those from AstraZeneca, Johnson Johnson and vaccines manufactured in China and Russia — do little to nothing to stop the spread of Omicron, early research shows. And because most countries have built their inoculation programs around these vaccines, the gap could have a profound impact on the course of the pandemic.

A global surge of infections in a world where billions of people remain unvaccinated not only threatens the health of vulnerable individuals but also increases the opportunity for the emergence of yet more variants. The disparity in the ability of countries to weather the pandemic will almost certainly deepen. And the news about limited vaccine efficacy against Omicron infection could depress demand for vaccination throughout the developing world, where many people are already hesitant or preoccupied with other health problems.

Most evidence so far is based on laboratory experiments, which do not capture the full range of the body’s immune response, and not from tracking the effect on real-world populations. The results are striking, however.

The Pfizer and Moderna shots use the new mRNA technology, which has consistently offered the best protection against infection with every variant. All of the other vaccines are based on older methods of triggering an immune response.

The Chinese vaccines Sinopharm and Sinovac — which make up almost half of all shots delivered globally — offer almost zero protection from Omicron infection. The great majority of people in China have received these shots, which are also widely used in low-and middle-income countries such as Mexico and Brazil.

A preliminary effectiveness study in Britain found that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine showed no ability to stop Omicron infection six months after vaccination. Ninety percent of vaccinated people in India received this shot, under the brand name Covishield; it has also been widely used across much of sub-Saharan Africa, where Covax, the global Covid vaccine program, has distributed 67 million doses of it to 44 countries.

Researchers predict that Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, which is also being used in Africa and Latin America, will show similarly dismal rates of protection against Omicron.

Demand for the Johnson Johnson vaccine had been surging in Africa, because its single-shot delivery regimen makes it easy to deliver in low-resource settings. But it too has shown a negligible ability to block Omicron infection.

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A subway station in Midtown Manhattan on Friday. Masks are required on public transportation in New York and inside all public spaces that do not require vaccinations.
A subway station in Midtown Manhattan on Friday. Masks are required on public transportation in New York and inside all public spaces that do not require vaccinations. Credit... Gabby Jones for The New York Times

Indoor mask mandates. Remote classes. Canceled Broadway shows.

Across the country, local governments and private institutions threatened by the spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus and the prospect of a holiday season surge have increasingly been putting in place pandemic measures that feel like a blast from the past.

The resurgence of policies used months ago and last year serve as a harsh reminder to Americans, young and old, that the anxieties of Covid-19 are far from over.

7–day average

737,415

Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.

Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York emphasized that point this week when responding to her state’s one-day record for new cases, which topped 21,000 on Friday and then nearly reached 22,000 on Saturday.

The surge in cases “is a reminder that the pandemic is not over yet and we must take extra care to keep ourselves and each other safe,” the governor said on Friday. The spike in cases was one reason Governor Hochul ordered that masks be worn inside all public spaces that do not require vaccinations.

Universities are responding, too. On Saturday, Harvard, in response to a rise in positive cases, said that it would move to remote learning the first three weeks of January. Middlebury College in Vermont, DePaul University in Chicago and Southern New Hampshire University all announced similar moves this month, and Cornell canceled a ceremony for December graduates and closed libraries.

On Friday, after canceling all four of that day’s performances because of breakthrough cases within its ranks, the producers of the famed Christmas show starring the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall announced that they would end the show’s season entirely.

Broadway productions had to go dark at times, too, with a series of shows announcing cancellations recently because of Covid outbreaks, despite an industrywide vaccine mandate for audiences and workers.

Sports leagues have struggled with their schedules as well. The N.H.L. announced on Saturday that neither the Boston Bruins nor the Nashville Predators would play for at least a week, and that games this weekend involving the Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks would be postponed.

Esha Ray

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Restaurants and bars in Ireland will be required to close at 8 p.m. starting on Monday.
Restaurants and bars in Ireland will be required to close at 8 p.m. starting on Monday. Credit... Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Bars and restaurants in Ireland will be required to close early in the week leading up to Christmas, usually their busiest time of the year, as governments around Europe battle a new wave of Covid infections driven by the Omicron variant.

Restaurants, bars and public venues must reduce their hours and close at 8 p.m., beginning on Monday. Prime Minister Micheál Martin said that cases of the Omicron variant in Ireland were doubling every few days and that, for Ireland, the worst of the pandemic could be ahead.

“I’m apprehensive in terms of what this might mean in terms of the sheer scale of infection,” Mr. Martin told RTE, Ireland’s state broadcaster. “Which is why we can’t take risks — the great unknown being, how severe is this in terms of requiring hospitalizations and I.C.U.s, and just damaging people in terms of health?”

On Saturday, health authorities announced 7,333 new cases — double the number of the day before. Health authorities said that 35 percent of positive swab tests taken last Wednesday indicated the Omicron variant, suggesting that it would become the dominant variant in Ireland within days.

7–day average

18,887

Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.

The new restrictions have been sharply criticized by trade bodies for bar owners and restaurateurs, and also by some lawmakers representing parties in Mr. Martin’s coalition government.

The Licensed Vintners Association, representing bar operators in the Dublin area, said that many of its members, already weakened by previous lockdowns, saw the new measures as “closure by camouflage.”

The Restaurants Association of Ireland called for the reintroduction of emergency payments to businesses that were forced to close completely in previous lockdowns. The government said it is considering such measures this week.

For Mr. Martin and his deputy prime minister, Leo Varadkar, the difficult choice between business needs and public health echoes their painful experience this time last year, when they gave in to calls to ease tight restrictions on socializing and entertainment so that Ireland could enjoy a “meaningful Christmas.”

Emergency restrictions were reintroduced on Christmas Eve last year, followed by a January lockdown, which further damaged the retail economy.

Jane Suiter, a politics and communications professor at Dublin City University, said that government policy is to contain overall levels of infection while keeping schools open. Ireland’s entertainment businesses, famously convivial at this time of year, seem to be an “easy target.”

“It’s hardest on people aged 18 to 30, who’ve already given so much,” she said. “My life isn’t really impacted at all, but my students’ lives are very deeply impacted.”

In neighboring Britain, the government is leaving open the possibility of imposing another round of restrictions, the country’s health secretary said on Sunday.

Scientific advisers have warned lawmakers that more action is needed, because the country’s surge is threatening to overwhelm its health system, even after the government announced a long-resisted coronavirus contingency plan earlier this month, urging people to work from home if possible and extending a face-mask mandate.

Over the weekend, Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, declared a “major incident” — an emergency status that frees up resources — in the capital, and speculation has been swirling over the possibility of a short-term nationwide lockdown.

Britain’s deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, said on Times Radio on Monday that 12 people in the country had died from Omicron. He did not rule out a further tightening of restrictions.

Ed O’Loughlin

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Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado said he would not impose a mask mandate.
Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado said he would not impose a mask mandate. Credit... David Zalubowski/Associated Press

As Omicron cases began to surge in several U.S. states, state leaders were calculating their approaches for a fatigued public.

Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, whose state is facing a surge that has led him to expand hospital capacity and limit elective surgeries, won’t enforce any lockdowns or mandates. Mr. Hogan, a Republican, said on the program “Fox News Sunday” that the state is “trying to do everything we can” to get the remainder of its state vaccinated — except for more mandates. “We are not anticipating any lockdowns at all,” he said. “We are not considering them.”

But the state’s uptick is troubling, Mr. Hogan said: “I would say, in the next couple of days, Omicron is going to be the dominant variant in our state.”

7–day average

3,497

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The seven-day average is the average of a day and the previous six days of data. Currently hospitalized is the most recent number of patients with Covid-19 reported by hospitals in the state for the four days prior. Dips and spikes could be due to inconsistent reporting by hospitals. Hospitalization numbers early in the pandemic are undercounts due to incomplete reporting by hospitals to the federal government.

“We are anticipating, over the next three to five weeks, probably the worst surge we’ve seen in our hospitals throughout the entire crisis,” he added.

Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey is also battling spiking coronavirus cases and overwhelmed hospitals, still from the Delta variant.

“Every time you think you got it figured out, it takes a turn you don’t expect,” Mr. Murphy said on the program “Fox News Sunday.” He added, “This is unrelenting. There’s an enormous amount of fatigue out there, as it relates to this virus.”

And while a lockdown isn’t likely, it hasn’t been completely ruled out, he said. “You have to leave it on the table, but I don’t see it,” he said, citing the state’s highly vaccinated population, including residents who have gotten a booster shot. “As fatigued as they are, they are largely accepting of what you need to do to push back at this — and for the time being, at least, we think that’s going to work for us.”

7–day average

6,067

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The seven-day average is the average of a day and the previous six days of data. Currently hospitalized is the most recent number of patients with Covid-19 reported by hospitals in the state for the four days prior. Dips and spikes could be due to inconsistent reporting by hospitals. Hospitalization numbers early in the pandemic are undercounts due to incomplete reporting by hospitals to the federal government.

At least 70 percent of New Jersey residents are fully vaccinated, according to a Times database, putting it in the top states for inoculations. Cases have been doubling in recent weeks, with New Jersey reporting a rolling seven-day average of about 5,500 daily cases. Mr. Murphy did not follow New York’s governor, Kathy Hochul, in implementing a recent mask mandate. But he said it would remain an option.

Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado on Sunday voiced cautious optimism about his state’s coronavirus numbers, citing a free at-home testing program and vaccinations.

Colorado’s numbers have fallen since November. Mr. Polis maintained that he would not impose a mask mandate, something he has said should be up to local officials.

“We have a lot less hospitalizations than we did a few weeks ago,” Mr. Polis said on the NBC program “Meet the Press.”

7–day average

1,491

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The seven-day average is the average of a day and the previous six days of data. Currently hospitalized is the most recent number of patients with Covid-19 reported by hospitals in the state for the four days prior. Dips and spikes could be due to inconsistent reporting by hospitals. Hospitalization numbers early in the pandemic are undercounts due to incomplete reporting by hospitals to the federal government.

He cited pandemic fatigue as a reason to avoid more restrictive measures for now and said that vaccinations would be enough to keep the variant at bay. “People just don’t react well to this ongoing environment of fear for two years,” Mr. Polis said. He added, “Getting three doses of the vaccine is highly effective and all but negates any risk that you face.”

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CNN is closing its offices to all employees who are able to work remotely.
CNN is closing its offices to all employees who are able to work remotely. Credit... Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

CNN is closing its U.S. offices to all employees who are able to work remotely, according to an internal memo sent to staff on Saturday evening.

“If your job does not REQUIRE you to be in the office in order to do it, please work from elsewhere,” the network’s president, Jeff Zucker, wrote to staff, citing a surge of Covid cases around the country and within the teams at CNN.

“We are doing this out of an abundance of caution,” the memo read. “And it will also protect those who will be in the office by minimizing the number of people who are there.”

Masks will be required at all times, “unless you are eating, drinking or in a room by yourself,” Mr. Zucker told staff.

Like other major media companies, CNN is making changes due to the new Covid surge. CNN offices are closing "to all employees who do not have to be in the office to do their jobs," per internal memo tonight. Back to 2020 protocols, essentially.

— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) December 19, 2021

CNN’s announcement is part of a wave of large companies hitting the brakes on returning to the office, for many triggering uneasy feelings of déjà vu of the early pandemic.

Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, announced on Wednesday that the company was delaying the return to physical offices indefinitely. JP Morgan Chase told its workers on Friday they could work remotely until the end of the year. Lyft is not requiring workers to return to offices until at least 2023.

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Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said on Fox News Sunday, “The virus is the true enemy.”
Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said on Fox News Sunday, “The virus is the true enemy.” Credit... Graeme Jennings/Pool via REUTER

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, turns 81 on Christmas Eve, as the world faces the start of the third year of the pandemic.

Jonathan Karl, a co-anchor of the ABC Sunday morning show “This Week,” gently probed the confluence of Dr. Fauci’s age with the surging Omicron variant and a job that continues to render him, as Mr. Karl put it, “one of the hardest-working human beings in America.”

Did Dr. Fauci intend to stay in his position?

“There’s no way I’m going to walk away from this until we get this under control,” Dr. Fauci said, adding: “It’s kind of like we’re halfway through World War II, and you decide, ‘Well, I think I’ve had enough of this. I’m walking away.’ You can’t do that. You’ve got to finish it. And we’re going to finish this and get back to normal.”

Dr. Francis Collins, who led the National Institutes of Health for over a decade, also spoke fervently on Fox News Sunday about the need for continued vigilance about Covid-19, including vaccination and masking, saying, “I know people are sick of hearing this stuff. But the virus is not sick of us. It’s thrown us a new curveball, and we’ve got to be ready to hit it.”

In October, Dr. Collins announced he would be stepping down from his post at the end of the year to make way for new leadership. He is expected to return to laboratory research. Sunday was his last day as N.I.H. director.

In the spirit of making closing observations, he said: “We in this country have somehow gotten all fractured into a hyperpolarized, politicized view that never should have been mixed with public health. It’s been ruinous. And history will judge harshly those people who have continued to defocus the effort and focus on conspiracies and things that are demonstrably false.”

However, he added, “We could still turn this around.”

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A “Saturday Night Live” promotional clip released Thursday featured Paul Rudd, the host, with the English pop star Charli XCX, left, who decided Saturday not to appear. At right is the cast member Ego Nwodim.
A “Saturday Night Live” promotional clip released Thursday featured Paul Rudd, the host, with the English pop star Charli XCX, left, who decided Saturday not to appear. At right is the cast member Ego Nwodim. Credit... NBC

“Saturday Night Live” announced, just hours before showtime, that there would be no live audience on Saturday night “out of an abundance of caution” amid the surge of coronavirus cases in New York tied to the Omicron variant.

The show also wrote on Twitter that there would be “limited cast and crew,” but it did not say whether any of the cast members had tested positive for the virus.

“The show continues to follow all government safety guidelines in addition to a rigorous testing protocol,” it said, adding that those who had tickets to the taping at Rockefeller Center “would be getting more information soon.”

A person familiar with plans for the show said that some cast and crew either had tested positive or had been in close contact with people who had.

Saturday’s show, the last of 2021, was hosted by the actor Paul Rudd — his fifth time, which was the focus of the subdued opening. Tom Hanks, the Academy Award-winning star of “Forrest Gump,” took the stage and explained that though they had planned a special Christmas show, “Covid came early this year, so in the interest of safety, we do not have an audience and we sent home our cast and most of our crew.”

Tina Fey, a former cast member, and Kenan Thompson, a current cast member, then joined him to induct Mr. Rudd into the so-called Five-Timers Club for hosts. They closed the opening by explaining that the impromptu show would consist of new sketches taped earlier in the week and personal favorites from previous episodes.

Mr. Rudd joked, “It’s going to be a little bit like that new Beatles documentary — a lot of old footage but enough new stuff that you’re like, ‘OK, yeah, I’ll watch that.’ ”

The show was supposed to have included a musical performance by the English pop artist Charli XCX. She ended up canceling, explaining that she could not perform with so few crew members. “I am devastated and heartbroken,” she said in a statement of her own, adding: “It can’t happen this time but I’ll be back! I am currently safe and healthy but of course very sad.”

“Please look after yourselves out there and make sure you get vaccinated if you haven’t already,” she continued.

NBC declined to comment beyond the show’s statement.

“S.N.L.” normally tapes a dress rehearsal at 8 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday, and then the live performance airs at 11:30 p.m.

Mr. Rudd closed the show by thanking the cast and crew for working so hard under stressful circumstances.

“I know it wasn’t the Christmas show you expected, but that’s the beauty of this place. Like life, it’s unpredictable,” he said, as he and four others onstage wore face masks.

He finished by cracking a joke at Mr. Hanks’s expense. “As my good friend Tom Hanks once said in a movie, life’s like a big, weird chocolate bar: sometimes it’s delicious; other sometimes it’s got that orange cream filling in it,” he said. “And it’s like, OK, it’s not what I would have chosen, but it’s better than nothing.”

Esha Ray and Dave Itzkoff

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State Senator Doug Ericksen in 2017. He represented Whatcom County in the northwestern corner of Washington State.
State Senator Doug Ericksen in 2017. He represented Whatcom County in the northwestern corner of Washington State. Credit... Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

State Senator Doug Ericksen, a Republican who had led efforts to oppose Washington State’s Covid-19 emergency orders and vaccine mandates, has died after his own battle with the illness. He was 52.

Last month, Mr. Ericksen wrote to his Republican colleagues in the Legislature, telling them he had tested positive for the coronavirus after traveling to El Salvador. He asked colleagues for help in getting monoclonal antibodies.

It’s unclear where Mr. Ericksen was when he died. Mr. Ericksen’s family said in a statement on Saturday that he passed away the day before.

“Please keep our family in your prayers and thank you for continuing to respect our privacy in this extremely difficult time,” the family wrote in a statement shared by the State Senate’s Republican caucus.

7–day average

14,022

Source: State and local health agencies. Daily cases are the number of new cases reported each day. The seven-day average is the average of the most recent seven days of data.

Mr. Ericksen, who represented much of Whatcom County, had served in the Legislature since 1999, becoming a prominent conservative voice and an early backer of Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign. Over the pandemic, he led efforts to combat Gov. Jay Inslee’s coronavirus restrictions, introducing legislation that would have prohibited vaccine mandates and calling for the governor to resign.

“Washington State is No. 1 in government coercion,” Mr. Ericksen said in a statement last month.

It’s unclear whether Mr. Ericksen had been vaccinated.

State Senator Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat, wrote in a message on Saturday that he and Mr. Ericksen had attended the same high school and then had served together for years as leaders on the State Senate committee focused on environmental, energy and technology issues.

“Our policy battles were tough and difficult, but we respected one another’s fierce devotion to serving the public and our communities,” Mr. Carlyle wrote. “Our friendship found ways to rise above political differences.”

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A positive result from a Covid-19 rapid antigen test.
A positive result from a Covid-19 rapid antigen test. Credit... Octavio Jones/Reuters

As the Omicron variant continues to spread around the country, many more people, including those who have been vaccinated, will test positive for the coronavirus.

So what should you do if you’re one of them? We spoke to physicians and infectious disease experts about the steps you should take after a positive test or if you find out you’ve been in close contact with an infected person. Here’s their advice.

I just tested positive. What do I do now?

If you’re in public or around people when you get the bad news, put on a mask immediately. Then isolate yourself as quickly as possible, even if you don’t have symptoms. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends isolating for 10 days after you test positive.

What does it mean to isolate?

If you live with roommates or family, try to separate yourself from other people (and animals) as much as possible. “You should take yourself out of society,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco. “Wall yourself up in a cocoon.”

Can I find out if I got Omicron?

No. In most cases, you won’t know which variant of coronavirus you’ve caught and your lab test typically won’t tell you. In general, the guidance on isolation, monitoring and treatment does not change based on which variant infected you.

Dani Blum and Nicole Stock

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pAmid a spike in Covid-19 cases and fears of the Omicron variant ahead of the holidays, more people are seeking out tests./p

Amid a spike in Covid-19 cases and fears of the Omicron variant ahead of the holidays, more people are seeking out tests.

Credit... Desiree Rios for The New York Times

First identified in Botswana and South Africa in November, the Omicron variant has surged around the world over the past few weeks, faster than any previously known form of the coronavirus. While there’s a lot that scientists have yet to understand about Omicron, what they know already makes it clear that the variant could cause a huge number of new cases and that it could push some hospital systems to the breaking point.

Scientists first recognized Omicron thanks to its distinctive combination of more than 50 mutations. Some of them were carried by earlier variants such as Alpha and Beta, and previous experiments had demonstrated that they could enable a coronavirus to spread quickly. Other mutations were known to help coronaviruses evade antibodies produced by vaccines.

The first clues that Omicron could evade immunity came from South Africa, where scientists estimate that at least 70 percent of people have had Covid-19 at some point in the pandemic. An unexpectedly large fraction of Omicron cases involved people who had previously been infected.

When Omicron surged in England, British researchers similarly found that many people infected with the new variant had already survived Covid. The researchers estimated that the risk of reinfection with Omicron was about five times that of other variants.

For a deeper understanding of this increased risk of reinfection, a number of teams of scientists have studied the antibodies produced by people who recover from Covid-19. If they mix those antibodies in a dish with other variants, the antibodies do a good job of preventing the viruses from infecting human cells.

But if they mix those antibodies with Omicron, it still manages to get inside the cells much of the time. That means that the mutations Omicron carries are changing the shape of its surface proteins, where antibodies lock onto the coronavirus.

This ability to evade immune defenses is probably part of the explanation as to why Omicron cases are doubling so quickly — in some places, that can happen in as little as two days, or less.

While other variants are getting knocked out by antibodies, Omicron is succeeding in infecting more cells — making it more successful at getting into more people.

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Workers at a recreational-vehicle company last year in LaGrange, Ind., where many residents are Amish.
Workers at a recreational-vehicle company last year in LaGrange, Ind., where many residents are Amish. Credit... Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images

In the United States, over 204 million people are fully vaccinated, but that’s still only 62 percent of the population, much lower than in most other wealthy countries.

At the county level, vaccination rates range from about 83 percent in places like Montgomery County, Md., a populous area just outside Washington, D.C., to around 15 percent in rural places like McPherson County in northern South Dakota.

As the Omicron variant surges, and experts say that vaccinations strongly protect against severe illness, U.S. public health officials are closely examining ways to reach the least-vaccinated areas. But the roadblocks are not the same everywhere. Some clearly have to do with politics: Republican-leaning areas have generally been vaccine laggards. But pockets of the country can have their own quirks unrelated to partisanship.

Here is a look at the challenges faced by three counties where, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, vaccination rates are among the lowest in the nation. (State figures for those counties may vary from the C.D.C. data because of differences in methodology, reporting lags and other factors.)

LaGrange County, Ind.

Resistance to vaccines is not new in LaGrange County, a rural area along Indiana’s border with Michigan. Just 22 percent of residents are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and, according to Dr. Tony Pechin, the county health officer, only 15 percent of children in the county are up-to-date on standard vaccines by the age of 2.

Dr. Pechin said that he had encountered the usual conspiracy theories about vaccines, and that even some longtime patients would not heed his advice to get the shots.

But the most important factor, he said, is that about half the county’s 40,000 residents are Amish, a group that overwhelmingly rejects the vaccines. Among non-Amish residents, he said, the vaccination rate is 45 to 48 percent.

Dr. Pechin said that a pharmacy frequented by Amish residents was among the first in LaGrange County to receive doses but had vaccinated just eight people in six months.

The state health commissioner sent a delegation to meet with Amish leaders in the spring, and the C.D.C. sent another over the summer.

“When they were done,” Dr. Pechin said of the envoys, “they called me and just said, ‘Good luck, Tony.’”

Cameron Parish, La.

When Hurricane Laura made landfall near Cameron Parish in August 2020, many residents left damaged homes behind and took refuge inland — and have yet to return.

According to the C.D.C., the vaccination rate is just 17 percent. But Louisiana health officials say that those figures do not take account of the population shift.

“Although the numbers look awful, they’re not as bad as they appear, because of an outflux of people due to the natural disasters,” said Dr. Lacey Cavanaugh, a regional health officer for the Louisiana Department of Health.

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Sifting through debris of a home damaged by Hurricane Laura in Cameron Parish, La., in August 2020.
Sifting through debris of a home damaged by Hurricane Laura in Cameron Parish, La., in August 2020. Credit... Bryan Tarnowski/Bloomberg, via Getty Images

But if the statistics were calculated to reflect the current populations of Cameron Parish and others ravaged by recent storms, she said, they would probably still show vaccination rates below national averages. Laura destroyed much of the parish’s limited health infrastructure, so for months, health officials administered vaccines in a tent in a hospital parking lot. And for residents consumed by the work of repairing homes and businesses, getting vaccinated fell low on the priority list.

State health officials have worked to bring vaccines directly to disaster recovery events, and advised residents that getting sick with Covid-19 could make the road back even harder.

“Once you’re protected” from the virus, Dr. Cavanaugh said, “that’s one less thing for you to worry about.”

Winston County, Ala.

A rural county with a history of going its own way — it refused to join Alabama in seceding from the Union during the Civil War —  faces many of the challenges that have hampered the state’s vaccine uptake.

Vaccine misinformation is still spreading on social media, said Dr. Karen Landers, a regional officer with the state’s Public Health Department, despite months of efforts with local leaders, faith-based organizations and pharmacies. The county’s vaccination rate has stalled at around 21 percent, according to the C.D.C.

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A meeting of the local Republican Party in October 2020 in Double Springs, Ala. The state hasn’t had a mask mandate since April.
A meeting of the local Republican Party in October 2020 in Double Springs, Ala. The state hasn’t had a mask mandate since April. Credit... Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images

Persuading young people that they are vulnerable to the disease and need a vaccine can be a particularly acute problem, she said. But Dr. Landerssaid she remained determined: “We know that not everyone will listen to us, but that does not alleviate our responsibility.”