Gov. Cooper, Cohen urge vaccinations, booster shots as omicron variant looms

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

8 p.m.
A federal judge is now blocking President Joe Biden's vaccine requirement for federal contractors in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.

It's the third time in the past few weeks that the mandate was stopped.

The judge said in his 29-page opinion that the vaccine mandate went above Biden's authority under federal law.

5 p.m.

A Wake County spokesperson said they have seen a recent increase in people signing up for COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters; it comes as concerns over a new variant strain linger and statewide metrics worsen.

The omicron variant, which was first identified in South Africa, has now been confirmed in more than a dozen countries, ranging from Canada to Australia.

"I heard about it, and I think it's really bad. I'm scared because it's really too many people have died (from COVID), and in my family too. Some people in my family have died," said Salvardor Gonzalez Martinez, who said the presence of variant was one of the reasons why he got his booster shoot.

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A Wake County spokesperson said they have seen a recent increase in people signing up for COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters; it comes as concerns over a new variant strain linger and statewide metrics worsen.



"I can't say that's why I came out. I would have came anyway. But I think even what they don't know about it, we know we do better when we have these boosters. So I'm hoping it will be helpful for the omicron as well," added Sue Falge, a retired nurse.

Researchers are continuing to look into whether omicron is more transmissible or causes a severe reaction, and what level of protection available vaccines provide against it.

"My wife played a role in me getting the booster shot," said Adrain Poole. "Because she said 'you better get that shot!' But (omicron didn't play a role), but then once I heard about it, it gave me more incentive to go ahead and get the booster shot."

Statewide, there were 1,755 new cases reported Tuesday, a 36% increase since last week. The case positivity rate was 9.4%, the highest mark since late-September, with hospitalizations increasing for the fourth straight day.

"We've never seen death like this. So, the booster shot and the shots are needed. It saves lives," said Poole.

It takes two weeks after a person receives their booster shot to gain full protection.

Reporting by ABC11's Michael Perchick

3 p.m.
In a news conference, Gov. Roy Cooper and DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen urged North Carolinians to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

"We still know this to be 100% true: getting more people vaccinated is the way out of this pandemic," Cooper said.

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Gov. Roy Cooper's opening remarks on the COVID-19 response efforts Tuesday.



Cooper said he was pleased that Thanksgiving this year felt much more normal than the past year, but emphasized that we're still not out of the woods.

Cohen and Cooper both discussed the new omicron variant, Cohen clarifying that the WHO designated it a variant of concern.

"All viruses change over time and COVID-19 is no exception," Cohen said. "There's no need for alarm, but we do need to monitor the science and data."

Going through the state's metrics, she emphasized most are leveling, though the potential for an uptick in the winter months isn't out of question. Plus, she added, it will be several weeks before analysts know whether Thanksgiving gatherings among the unvaccinated caused any outbreaks.

Cohen again emphasized that no cases of omicron have been identified in North Carolina or the U.S. yet, but said it is likely that the variant is already here.

"The time to act is now for vaccination," Cohen said.

9:08 a.m.
North Carolina's Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy K. Cohen will announce she is stepping down from her position after nearly five years on the job, ABC11 has learned.

Cohen, first appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017, has been instrumental in the state government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She has often been the public face and spokeswoman for everything from vaccinations to mask requirements in schools.

TUESDAY MORNING HEADLINES
Gov. Roy Cooper will host a news conference Tuesday afternoon to provide an update on the state's COVID-19 response. The update comes as cases and the percentage of positive tests rise after a prolonged period of improving metrics, hinting at the possibility of another winter surge.

Cooper's news conference comes as the nation stands on edge due news about the omicron variant abroad. While experts say it is likely that the variant is already in the U.S. or will be soon, no cases have been identified at this time. It is unclear at this time whether the omicron variant causes more severe disease, is more contagious than other variants or renders current vaccines less effective.

Cooper will discuss how North Carolina will prepare for any cases of omicron variant, however, experts say the best way to prepare is to get a vaccine or booster shot.

MONDAY HEADLINES


10:40 p.m.

With the Omicron variant on the minds of many and the uncertainty surrounding the latest known mutation of SARS-CoV-2, ABC11 is turning to medical experts to better understand the variant.

Dr. Myron Cohen, of the UNC School of Medicine, is the director of the Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases and helped start a lab in Malawi 30 years ago. Cohen was on the phone with colleagues in Africa on Monday and said there is a lot to understand about the variant.

First, whether the patients infected with the Omicron variant have been vaccinated or had the Delta variant. Cohen said researchers need to figure out what kind of illness it causes vs. other coronaviruses.

"I have no reason to believe people who acquire this virus will be sicker than if they had acquired the earlier variants," Cohen said.

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Dr. Myron Cohen of UNC talks to ABC11 about the Omicron variant. Josh Chapin reports.



Companies such as Moderna and Pfizer are already making vaccines to target this new variant, Cohen said, and anti-viral agents such as the COVID 19 pills should not be affected.

"On the one hand, take this seriously," Cohen said. "On the other hand, don't overreact and draw conclusions before you collect all the information appropriate to take the right actions, which we're trying to do."

Some people ABC11 spoke with are just taking it in stride.

Edrina Gore said she was able to gather with family for Thanksgiving.

"The new variant, I'm not trying to get it to scare me any more than what the COVID has already done," Gore said. "It doesn't look like it's going anywhere, so I just think it seems like we have to adapt and keep moving forward with it. This year we were able to fellowship together and eat, but my mom kept her mask on the entire time."

Reporting by ABC11's Josh Chapin

10:35 p.m.
As the nation emerges from a week of seeing family for the first time in a long time for Thanksgiving and where more of us are getting out of the house more, in general, there were reasons for joy amid the pandemic. News of the Omicron variant pushes against that.

But there are ways to cope.

Just like people, the holidays are complex. They can be happy. They can be cause for stress. The emerging variant adds another pandemic wrinkle But, Dr. Mehul Mankad, chief medical officer at Alliance Health, says it doesn't serve us well to put too much focus and worry on things that we can't control.

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Dr. Mehul Mankad, chief medical officer at Alliance Health, says it doesn't serve us well to put too much focus and worry on things that we can't control.



With so many unanswered questions about the potential severity of the variant, Mankad reminds us to get news from a trusted news source; avoid misinformation. Number two: if you have holiday travel plans, start thinking about a back-up plan.

"At least for my family and I, we've made a plan. It does involve travel. And we would really like to fulfill that," Mankad said. "But we also have a backup plan."

Concern and uncertainty over possible travel cancellations can be a huge holiday stressor.

"Uncertainty is something that can raise anxiety in anybody," Mankad said. "Increasing control over those things that you have control over, that can reduce that feeling of uncertainty."

At the White House on Monday, President Joe Biden said "This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic." Avoiding panic can be as simple as getting outside, says Mankad. He emphasized making the most of the shorter daytime hours: walks runs, exercise.

He says take care to see the holidays as one-time eating events, not a month-long gorge. Eating healthy in between has a big impact on our mood.

"Putting these three things together is important. And the fourth one is if you are struggling to reach out and talk to somebody," Mankad said.

Reporting by ABC11's Joel Brown

6 p.m.
South African scientists identified a new version of the coronavirus that they say is behind a recent spike in COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, the country's most populous province.

It's unclear where the new variant first emerged, but scientists in South Africa alerted the World Health Organization in recent days, and it has now been seen in travelers arriving in several countries, from Australia to Israel to the Netherlands.

While the new Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus has not yet been detected in the United States, it will "inevitably" arrive, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday.
Andrea Blanford has the latest on what we know right now:
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Latest on the omicron variant. What do we know? Andrea Blanford reports.



1 p.m.
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported 1,725 new COVID-19 cases Monday, about 300 hundred more cases than the average number of cases reported the last two Mondays.

Additionally, the percentage of positive tests spiked to 8.3%, much higher than the 6.3% reported last week. The percentage of positive tests has not been above 8% in nearly two months.

Currently, 1,077 people are hospitalized with COVID-19. That's a decrease from Wednesday's report, but higher than last Monday.

Since Wednesday, the state has reported 8,172 new cases and 38 deaths.

12:24 p.m.
Today is the deadline for Red Hat associates and contractors across the U.S., including in North Carolina, to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Raleigh-based company said those who aren't fully vaccinated could be fired, though exemptions will be given in certain cases.

Red Hat is one of the Triangle's largest employers.

MONDAY MORNING HEADLINES
Wake County Public School System will begin weekly pooled COVID-19 testing of students and staff in eleven schools Monday. The voluntary tests will be free to anyone who wants one.

The district is partnering with Mako Medical. Mako staff will gently swab noses, then place swabs of two to six people in one tube. Those multiple samples are run together as one. If the test comes back positive, everyone in the pool takes another test the next day to identify who has COVID-19.

Parents can register online.

This year there have been at least 478 confirmed COVID-19 cases associated with Wake County schools, according to the district's COVID-19 dashboard.
Copyright © 2022 ABC11-WTVD-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved - The Associated Press contributed to this report.