Omicron appears to cause mild illness, but experts say too early to know for sure

Wednesday, December 15, 2021
Coronavirus NC: Latest updates on COVID-19 in North Carolina
Coronavirus NC: Latest updates on COVID-19 in North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Here's the latest news and information on COVID-19 and the COVID-19 vaccines.

12:50 p.m.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported 3,755 new COVID-19 cases, a 23.5% increase over the last two weeks. The percentage of positive tests also remained high at 9.1%, nearly double the average from a month ago.

Currently, 1,567 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide--an increase of 400 people in the last week.

37 more deaths have been reported in the last day.

8:55 a.m.

Early anecdotal reports indicate people infected with omicron variant seem to be experiencing mild illness -- leading some scientists to wonder if this version of the virus could be less dangerous than prior variants.

But scientists have cautioned it's too soon to know for sure.

It "looks less severe in really early data," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told ABC News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton in an interview from CDC headquarters in Atlanta. "We're certainly following and very interested in disease severity."

Omicron was dubbed a "variant of concern" due to its many mutations. As a result, scientists are scrambling to determine if these changes lead to increased transmissibility or weakened response from vaccines. The World Health Organization said several studies are underway and that more information will emerge in the following days to weeks. Preliminary studies show that the Pfizer vaccine may be less effective against the Omicron variant, but, again, more research is needed.


The number of people who have died from COVID-19 in the United States surpassed 800,000 on Tuesday, according to real-time data compiled by Johns Hopkins University's Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

The figure is greater than the approximately 700,000 Americans who have died from AIDS-related illnesses over the last four decades, and it's higher than the total number of U.S. troops who have fallen in battle since 1900.

Since last December, when the first COVID-19 vaccines were being administered, an additional 500,000 people in the U.S. have died from the virus.

Of those, some 230,000 have died since April 2021, when U.S. President Joe Biden announced COVID-19 vaccines were widely available to every American over the age of 18.

Hospitals across the United States are once again facing the pressures of caring for thousands of patients.

More than 67,000 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 nationwide, according to federal data.

Rebecca Long, lead nurse in a COVID-19 intensive care unit at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, told ABC News that she and her team "literally do not have any ICU beds" available.

"I don't want anyone else's family member or loved one to have to be in the position where we say, like, we can't help you because we don't have the resources," Long said. "As health care providers, all we want to do is help people and we can't because we physically can't."

Dr. Kyle McCarty, medical director of emergency services at both HSHS St. Mary's and HSHS St. Vincent hospitals in Green Bay, Wisconsin, told ABC News that health care workers are feeling burned out after "being asked to do more with less."


8:13 p.m.

President Joe Biden released a statement on 800,000 American deaths from COVID-19.

"As we mark the tragic milestone of 800,000 American deaths due to COVID-19, we remember each person and the lives they lived, and we pray for the loved ones left behind. I know what it's like to stare at an empty chair around the kitchen table, especially during the holiday season, and my heart aches for every family enduring this pain.

To heal, we must remember. We must also act. That's exactly what we have done over the past 11 months. We stood up a historic vaccination program, and 240 million Americans have stepped up and gotten at least one shot. As a result, we have saved over one million American lives, and spared families in every community across the country the incalculable loss that too many others have suffered.

Today, more than 200 million Americans are fully vaccinated, and each day, more people are getting boosted than ever before. As we head into the winter and confront a new variant, we must resolve to keep fighting this virus together. This means getting vaccinated and getting your booster shot, and taking other prevention measures, such as masking.

The vaccines are safe, effective, free, easy, and our best tool to prevent more loss and pain. If you were fully vaccinated before mid-June, please go get your booster shot as soon as possible. And if you haven't already - please get yourself and your school-age children vaccinated.

I urge all Americans: do your patriotic duty to keep our country safe, to protect yourself and those around you, and to honor the memory of all those we have lost. Now is the time."

3 p.m.

Gov. Roy Cooper and North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen provided an update on the state's COVID-19 key metrics and trends.

"As new variants emerge and COVID continues to circulate, getting vaccinated and then boosted is the best way to protect yourself and get us out of this pandemic," said Cooper. "Vaccines and boosters are widely available, and you can make an appointment today to give yourself this protection and more peace of mind."

North Carolina's key metrics have all been increasing, including people going to the Emergency Department with COVID-like symptoms, cases, the percent of tests that are positive, and hospitalizations. In addition, the state is once again classified as red by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating high community transmission.

With the holidays approaching and people getting together, there is greater risk of getting and spreading COVID-19.

"People who are unvaccinated are vulnerable to COVID-19. Almost all hospitalizations and deaths are in people who are not vaccinated," Secretary Cohen said. "If you haven't got vaccinatedyet, pleasetalk with a doctor, nurse or other medicalprofessional. With the holidays, colder weather and the potential of a new variant approaching, please don't wait any longer to get vaccinated."

Cooper and Cohen also highlighted changes in federal law that make obtaining health insurance more affordable. In North Carolina, as many as 116,500 uninsured people are newly eligible for lower premiums, while 112,600 more may be eligible for coverage at no cost. The funding for this is through the American Rescue Plan, which became law in March.

The deadlines to enroll and to take advantage of lower premiums are fast approaching. Those who need coverage in place by Jan. 1 must sign up by Wednesday. Open enrollment ends Jan. 15, with coverage taking effect at later dates. At, North Carolinians can compare plan benefits, costs and other features. Plans include essential health benefits and preventive care, in addition to mental health care, emergency room care and maternity coverage, not limited by caps or pre-existing conditions.

To date, North Carolina has administered over 14 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, with 69 percent of the adult population fully vaccinated. 73 percent of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, including 94 percent of North Carolinians 65 and over.

2:30 p.m.

The National Hockey League announced that, as a result of four additional Carolina Hurricanes players entering the NHL's COVID Protocols, the team's game tonight against the Minnesota Wild will be postponed.

The decision was made following consultation by the NHL's, NHLPA's and Club's medical groups. The League will provide a further update Wednesday.

The Hurricanes organization has followed, and will continue to follow, all recommended guidelines aimed at protecting the health and safety of its Players, staff and community at large as set by the NHL, local, state and national agencies, the league said.

12:15 p.m.

Gov. Roy Cooper will be joined by state health officials at 3 p.m. to speak about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The press conference comes just 11 days before Christmas, as many families in the state prepare to gather with loved ones.

Cooper and health leaders are expected to talk about mitigation efforts all families should undertake to make sure they have a fun and safe holiday.

12 p.m.

North Carolina reports first flu death of the season.

The person who died tested positive for the flu and negative for COVID-19. They were from the western part of the state.

7:30 a.m.

A new COVID-19 treatment could potentially be authorized by the end of the year, according to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla.

Bourla said the company is submitting data to the FDA on its COVID-19 pills, which likely also work against the omicron variant.


One year ago, on Dec. 14, 2020, Sandra Lindsay, an intensive care nurse from Northwell Health, became the first American to roll up her sleeve and receive a COVID-19 vaccine, following the green light from federal authorities.

"That day, when that needle pierced my arm, all I felt was this huge boulder, this weight just roll off my shoulders. I'm always optimistic, but my light got even brighter that day," Lindsay told ABC News.

Lindsay's image rapidly circulated across the country, a symbolic representation of the light at the end of the tunnel after the pandemic had forced families apart, shuttered businesses and schools and confined millions of Americans to their homes.

"I just felt hopeful for myself, for the entire country, for the world -- that yes, the day that we've waited so long for healing is coming," Lindsay said.

The country's unprecedented creation and rollout of the vaccine was once considered a nearly impossible feat, given that vaccine development is often a long and arduous process, requiring years of regulatory and manufacturing hurdles to be overcome before it can be made available to the general public.

However, leaning on years of prior research on vaccine technology and with support from the federal government, the process was expedited, allowing for emergency authorization of the shots less than a year after work began.

"When the vaccine first became available a year ago, it seemed miraculous that a vaccine could be developed, rigorously tested in large clinical trials and ready to go in less than a year after the virus was identified," Dr. Stephen Morse, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, told ABC News. "That's an amazing accomplishment considering that we really didn't have the infrastructure for a rapid national mass vaccination campaign when we started."

Nevertheless, hundreds of millions of Americans are now inoculated -- but tens of millions of others remain completely unvaccinated, an ongoing hurdle that experts say will likely result in the loss of tens of thousands of more lives.