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Biden defends pandemic response amid Omicron surge

CHICAGO (Reuters) – President Joe Biden and top health officials on Tuesday defended the administration’s response to the unrelenting pandemic as daily U.S. COVID-19 cases reached a new high, largely fueled by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

The Jahn School of Fine Arts lies empty after Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school district, said it would cancel classes since the teachers’ union voted in favor of a return to remote learning, in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Eric Cox

Biden, who has been accused of focusing on vaccinations at the expense of testing and support for struggling healthcare systems, told reporters on Tuesday he was “confident we’re on the right track” to fight the pandemic.

The United States reported 1.35 million new coronavirus infections on Monday, according to a Reuters tally, the highest daily total for any country in the world. Omicron was estimated to account for 98.3% of total new coronavirus cases circulating in the country as of Jan. 8, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Tuesday.

The surge in cases and hospitalizations has forced Americans to cancel travel plans, shuttered entertainment venues, and scrambled plans for students and teachers to return to school and workers to go back to the office.

A closely watched projection from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington estimates that number is far higher due to the likelihood that many more infections go undetected, either because people are without symptoms or do not have access to testing.

As a result, the IHME model suggests that the U.S. surge fueled largely by Omicron may have already hit a daily peak of more than 6 million cases, and could drop significantly from that point by the end of this month. But disruptions to health systems, schools and businesses might not resolve quickly even as infections decrease.

After nearly a month of rising COVID-19 case numbers in New York state, Governor Kathy Hochul said Tuesday that the tide might be turning.

While daily new infections remain high with 48,686 new cases reported on Monday, Hochul said the downward trajectory offered a “glimmer of hope.”

“Looks like we might be cresting over that peak,” the governor said at a news conference.

The Red Cross declared a national blood crisis, with a 10 percent decline in the number of people donating blood. It noted the pandemic has led to blood drive cancellations and staffing limitations.

“Adding to the concern is the surge of COVID-19 cases,” the Red Cross said. “The Red Cross has experienced low donor turnout ever since the Delta variant began spreading in August, and that trend continues as the Omicron variant takes over.”

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said the country has the tools needed to fight the fast-spreading variant.

“We are working quickly to adapt to it,” Walensky told the Senate Health, Labor, Education and Pensions Committee on Tuesday.

BACK TO SCHOOL

In Chicago, public school teachers reached an agreement on COVID-19 safeguards with the district, ending a walkout that canceled classes across the third largest school system in the United States for a week.

The system’s 340,000 students are due back to school on Wednesday after the Chicago Teachers Union’s House of Delegates voted on Monday night to end the weeklong walkout over COVID-19 fears. The walkout began with a union vote to reinstate virtual instruction and a push for more rigorous safety protocols, including wider testing, as the Omicron variant spread.

While most U.S. public school districts have reopened their campuses for the new year, education systems in some major cities have opted for online learning or delayed back-to-classroom plans due to staff shortages, in some cases caused by COVID illnesses.

In Chicago, where the seven-day average of cases showed indications of a decrease last week, dropping 8% since the week prior that saw 5,200 cases, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has pushed for schools to remain open.

“Switching completely back to remote learning again without a public health reason to do so would have created and amplified the social, emotional and economic turmoil that far too many of our families are facing,” she said at a news conference.

The dispute was tense. Lightfoot and the district had branded the walkout illegal and said teachers’ pay would be docked. The union had accused the mayor and school officials of “locking out” teachers by freezing their online instruction platforms.

The agreement calls for incr eased testing and contact tracing in schools, creates metrics for the district to go remote and includes a commitment to secure additional KN95 masks for staff and students, the Chicago Tribune reported.

During a news conference on Monday, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said the deal was not ideal but “it does include some important things which are going to help safeguard ourselves and our schools.”

In New York City, some students planned to walk out of their classrooms on Tuesday over COVID-19 concerns, according to social media posts.

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