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CDC director shares update on spread of omicron variant, now in 33 states

Dr. Rochelle Walensky says findings particularly indicate a faster spread of the new variant in New York and New Jersey.

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shared new data on TODAY Tuesday about the rate of spread of the omicron variant, which has already been detected in 33 states across the country and 77 nations around the world.

"New data out of the CDC today will demonstrate that we are now detecting it in our genomic surveillance here at the rate of about 3% across the nation and about 13% here in New Jersey and New York," Dr. Rochelle Walensky told Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb.

Walensky stressed that of about 120,000 cases of COVID-19 currently being reported daily in the U.S., the vast majority of them are still the delta variant, but early data from other countries has shown that omicron is spreading rapidly.

"It is more transmissible, and we’re seeing that in other countries as well, that it’s rapidly becoming the more predominant strain, but I want to emphasize that we have the tools now," she said about the omicron variant.

"The science is still evolving, it’s still early, but what we’re seeing in some of these other countries is doubling times of about every two days or so, so really rapid increase in the amount of omicron that’s out there."

A study released Tuesday by the largest health care administrator in South Africa, where the omicron variant was discovered last month, found that on average 29% fewer people were being admitted to the hospital with it than previously with the delta variant.

"We’re starting to see some early data that is demonstrating some decreased severity," Walensky said. "Shorter lengths of stay, fewer people on oxygen, fewer people in the ICU, but I also want to emphasize that if you have more and more people who have disease, even if you have fewer people that get sick from it, you still have a lot of people who are getting sick, so really we want to make sure that we keep all those prevention measures — vaccination, boosting."

The study also found that two dozes of the Pfizer vaccine gave 70% protection against hospitalization from the omicron variant, compared to 90% against the delta variant.

Pfizer said in a news release Tuesday that a clinical trial of its new oral COVID-19 pill called Paxlovid found that it was 89% effective at preventing high-risk people from being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19.

"Another great tool in our toolbox, but the first thing I want to say is the best way to protect yourself against COVID is to not get it in the first place, and that is to get vaccinated and boosted," Walensky said. "If you do think you have symptoms of COVID though, this Pfizer pill, should it move through the FDA swiftly, will be another great tool, but we need to diagnose people early, so if you have symptoms, go and get tested so that you can diagnosed potentially if we have this pill available."

Pfizer has applied to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization of the pill, but the FDA has not yet scheduled a meeting of its advisory committee to review the request.

As far as whether being fully vaccinated against the omicron variant means two initial doses of the vaccine or two doses plus a booster, Walensky said "the science is still evolving."

More than 50 million Americans have been infected with COVID-19, and the nation passed a grim milestone on Monday with more than 800,000 people having died from it.

Some states are reinstating COVID-19 restrictions, including California reimposing an indoor mask mandate regardless of vaccination status, and Philadelphia phasing in proof of vaccine for all indoor diners. Starting today, New York City will require proof of vaccination for kids 5 and up for indoor entertainment, including dining.

With cases increasing as Christmas approaches, experts are providing some tips for families looking to stay safe as they gather over the holidays.

  • Consider self-testing before joining indoor gatherings with others who are not in your household.
  • In general, you don't need to wear a mask in outdoor settings unless it's crowded or you're around unvaccinated people.
  • Avoid poorly-ventilated indoor spaces and wear a mask if the community has a high transmission rate.
  • The government recommends delaying travel until you're fully vaccinated, and if not, get tested before and after making a trip. Domestic flights don't require negative tests, but all international flights have made it a requirement within 24 hours of flying to the U.S.