NC in region where Omicron now accounts for 90% of new cases

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

7 p.m.
President Joe Biden has been in close contact with a "mid-level staff member" who tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after their contact.

The White House follows CDC guidance on what constitutes close contact: someone who was less than 6 feet away from an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.

Biden was near this staff member for about 30 minutes on Air Force One on Friday, heading to Philadelphia from South Carolina. The staff member tested negative Friday morning, is fully vaccinated and boosted. But the staff member began having symptoms on Sunday and tested positive Monday.

The White House said Biden received an antigen test Sunday which was negative, and a PCR test on Monday morning, also negative. He will be tested again Wednesday.

"As CDC guidance does not require fully vaccinated people to quarantine after an exposure, the President will continue with his daily schedule," the statement said.

Others on Air Force One who were in close contact with the staff member are being contacted and will be advised to get tested per CDC guidance.

6 p.m.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates the highly transmissible Omicron variant is the dominant variant in the US representing 73% of cases.

In Region 4, which includes North Carolina, Omicron now accounts for 90% of new cases. Other states in that region include Alabama, Georgia Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee.

"This sharp rise in Omicron was expected and is similar to what has been seen worldwide," the CDC said in a statement. "We know layered prevention strategies can slow the spread of COVID-19."

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates the highly transmissible Omicron variant is the dominant variant in the US representing 73% of cases.



Just two weeks ago, Omicron was estimated to account for 0.4% of all new cases nationwide.

At least 47 states and Washington D.C. have reported cases of the globe's newest variant.

The good news appears to be that so far, the Omicron variant has brought with it milder symptoms than the Delta variant or the original strain of the coronavirus.

Prevention strategies include getting vaccinated, boosted, wearing a mask in public indoor spaces, regardless of your vaccination status, and taking a COVID-19 at home test prior to gathering with others over the holidays.

5:49 p.m.
Gov. Roy Cooper and state health officials on Monday warned that the Omicron variant of COVID19 will become the dominant strain in a matter of weeks and has the potential to lead to a record number of daily cases.

It was Cooper's second briefing in less than a week but it certainly conveyed more urgency ahead of Christmas.

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"This is a moment to act. We can keep people from becoming really sick and make sure there is hospital care for everyone who needs it," said NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen.



"With holiday gatherings, COVID cases beginning to rise and a new highly contagious variant on the way, it's important everyone takes steps to protect themselves and their families," Cooper said. "With every vaccine dose, we get closer to turning the tide of sickness and death brought on by this pandemic.

With people getting together to celebrate, there is a greater risk of getting and spreading COVID-19. Secretary Cohen has issued a Secretarial Advisory urging the following actions to prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death:

Vaccinate and Boost: Get vaccinated now and get a COVID-19 booster as soon as you are eligible. This is particularly critical for those over age 65, those with underlying medical conditions and healthcare workers. The Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines are the best choices for most people. Layer protection by getting a flu shot.

Test: Get a COVID-19 test before joining indoor gatherings with others who are not in your household and before and after traveling, regardless of your vaccine status. Get tested if you have any symptoms of COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Mask: Wear a face-covering indoors in public, even if you are vaccinated. If possible, wear a medical-grade mask for more protection (e.g., surgical mask, procedural mask, KN95, N95).

"This is a moment to act. We can keep people from becoming really sick and make sure there is hospital care for everyone who needs it. Early evidence shows that boosters provide a significant level of protection against Omicron," Cohen said. "I urge everyone who has been vaccinated to get your booster soon as you are eligible. Getting a booster is particularly critical for people who are 65 and over or with underlying medical conditions."

Incoming NC DHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley also shared updates on how the state is handling the logistics of an expected wave of Omicron COVID-19 cases.

"Testing before you gather can help slow the spread of Omicron," Kinsley said. "And if you test positive, quickly seeking out treatment can help reduce the risk of severe disease."

At the height of the pandemic in January 2021, North Carolina reported a high of almost 12,000 daily cases. If the Omicron variant will push that number higher, hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians will need to become aware of quarantine and isolation protocols, as well as how best to manage symptoms and treat the virus.

According to Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of NC DHHS, people who experience mild symptoms might need only rest, hydration, and over-the-counter medicines like Tylenol or Advil to manage the fever. As always, she added, consult with a physician as well and inquire about monoclonal antibodies, though evidence may suggest it won't be as effective against Omicron.

Cohen, however, was adamant in repudiating non-FDA-approved drugs such as hydroxychloroquine or Ivermectin.

NCDHHS provides specific guidance about those drugs:

Hydroxychloroquine is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as treat or prevent malaria. On June 15, 2020, the FDA revoked the emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine sulfate and chloroquine phosphate to treat COVID-19. Therefore, hydroxychloroquine is not authorized or approved by the FDA for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19.

Due to ongoing serious cardiac adverse events and other serious side effects associated with using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, the FDA revoked emergency use authorization for the drug.

Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic drug that is used to treat river blindness and intestinal roundworm infection in humans and to deworm pets and livestock. It is generally safe when used as prescribed for approved indications. Using Ivermectin off-label or without the guidance of a medical provider can carry substantial risks of poor outcomes for the patient. Ivermectin is not authorized or approved by the FDA for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19.

During the pandemic, ivermectin dispensing by retail pharmacies has increased, as has the use of veterinary formulations available over the counter but not intended for human use. The FDA has cautioned about the potential risks of use for prevention or treatment of COVID-19, with a significant increase of calls to poison control centers across the U.S. for human exposures to Ivermectin, as well as reports of increased frequency of adverse effects and emergency department/hospital visits. Read the CDC Health Advisory to learn more.

-- Reporting by ABC11's Jonah Kaplan

2 p.m.
At a media briefing, Gov. Roy Cooper and North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen provided an update on the state's COVID-19 key metrics and trends.

They said Omicron is expected to soon become the dominant variant in North Carolina. though that isn't the case yet.

"With holiday gatherings, COVID cases beginning to rise and a new highly contagious variant on the way, it's important everyone takes steps to protect themselves and their families," Cooper said. "With every vaccine dose, we get closer to turning the tide of sickness and death brought on by this pandemic."

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Gov. Roy Cooper urges boosters as Omicron variant becomes more prevalent.



11:30 a.m.
All Duke students, faculty and staff will be required to get the COVID-19 booster shot.

A release sent from the university on Monday, Dec. 20, cited the spread of the omicron variant and rising COVID-19 numbers as a reason behind the policy.

The booster shot policy is in effect for Duke University, Duke University Health System and the Private Diagnostic Clinic. All students and employees in those departments must provide proof that they have received the booster shot "in January or as soon as they are eligible under CDC and state guidelines."

Duke said more than 20,000 faculty and staff as well as nearly 4,000 students have already received their booster shots and updated their records.

10 a.m.
Six cases of the omicron variant have been identified in Durham County.

These are the first known omicron COVID-19 cases in Durham County.

"We have been monitoring the spread of Omicron in the state and country since it was first identified, and we have been prepared for its arrival in Durham," said Durham County Public Health Director Rod Jenkins. "Our surveillance team will continue to track the spread like we have for Delta and all other COVID-19 cases, and we'll keep up our contact tracing efforts to help keep our community safe."

The first known omicron cases in North Carolina happened Dec. 10 in the Charlotte area.

MONDAY MORNING HEADLINES
The omicron variant has now been detected in at least 45 states, including North Carolina.

With the variant spreading, COVID-19 metrics nationally are at levels not seen since September.

"It seems to be overtaking all of the other variants, including Delta, with a doubling time of about 2 to 3 days. Which means this really is something to be reckoned with. It is really rapidly spreading throughout the world and in our own country," Dr. Anthony Fauci said.

Omicron is expected to surpass delta as the dominant variant in the U.S. in the coming weeks.

This comes as millions of people prepare to travel for the holidays.

Raleigh-Durham International Airport is gearing up for some of its busiest travel days of the year. Between Dec. 18 and Jan. 2, RDU expects 500,000 people to travel through the airport.

Health experts urge people to get tested for COVID-19 before they leave for their destination and when they get home.

Gov. Roy Cooper and other members of North Carolina's COVID-19 task force are scheduled to address the current situation at 2 p.m. Monday. ABC11 will stream the media event live on ABC11.com.

FRIDAY
10 p.m.
As Orange County sees its first case of the seemingly mild but easily transmittable Omicron variant, what can you do to protect yourself and your loved ones?

If you're wondering where to get a test or the availability in Wake County leading up to the holidays, there are plenty of appointments available early next week. However, you have to reserve your spot at a pharmacy or through the county.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen is encouraging people to get vaccinated if they haven't and if they have to go get boosters.

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Plenty of tests are available. But don't wait too long. Josh Chapin explains.



Cohen, who said she has had both her children vaccinated, said she knows there will be more hospitalizations but they're trying to ensure hospitals have the manpower to handle COVID cases and other illnesses.
She's also worried about the older population.

"I worry about what getting COVID for them will mean," Cohen said. "Maybe some with a good immune system is generally healthy and they say, 'oh well I'm vaccinated, I'm fine,' great, good.

"We have tools, the tools are getting vaccinated and boosted, getting tested and wearing masks," she added. "So, go out and get vaccinated: even if you can't get all the way to booster. Getting some protection does help you even with those more contagious variants on the way."

Brent Eischen, of Cary, got vaccinated and then got a breakthrough case in April. He said he believes the vaccine prevented him and his wife from getting seriously ill.

"I think we all want to get back to normal but I do think people should do the right thing and get vaccinated. I think it's a patriotic duty," Eischen said. "I think it's still a serious thing I think it's serious but it's not something people are going to be that worried about. I think people who are not vaccinated should definitely be worried about it."

Jessica Kornegay is going home this weekend to visit family. They have a newborn so she wanted to get a test.

"I want to make sure I'm in the clear and not bringing anything to their household, keep everyone safe," Kornegay said.

She's vaccinated and getting a booster next Friday, she said.

She had to drive from Durham to north Raleigh to get a test.

"I just went to the closest place I could, I wanted to get it done today to make sure I was in the clear for this weekend," Kornegay said. "I'm not panicked, but I'm definitely concerned especially with the new variant and seeing it's more easily spread than others."

Wake County recently switched to an appointment-based system for COVID-19 testing.

"There is availability to schedule ahead if folks would like to," Wake County spokeswoman Leah Holdren told ABC11. "Residents can check out all of our testing sites, hours and make an appointment online at wakegov.com/testing. We also have a list of other community partners who offer testing if there's not a time/date that works for someone's schedule at our sites."

The Wake County Public Health has administered 1,003,860 tests from June 2020 through November.

Reporting by ABC11's Josh Chapin

4:35 p.m.
Wake County Public Health has confirmed an outbreak of COVID-19 at Raleigh Rehabilitation Center, 616 Wade Ave.

This is the facility's fourth outbreak. The previous outbreaks occurred in June 2020, December 2020 and September 2021. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services defines an outbreak as two or more people - residents or employees - testing positive for the virus. Because of the possibility for the rapid spread of COVID-19 in long-term settings, NCDHHS shares guidance on the steps these facilities should take following an outbreak.

2:45 p.m.
Orange County has confirmed its first case of the Omicron variant.

The person is at home in isolation, has mild symptoms and is fully vaccinated but had not yet received a booster, the health department said.

There have been 344 new cases of COVID-19 in the past two weeks in Orange County, compared to 190 in the previous two weeks.

Genomic sequencing was conducted at UNC Hospitals to determine that the case was caused by the Omicron variant.

"The first case of Omicron is a reminder of the importance of vaccination, boosters, and general prevention strategies needed to protect against COVID-19," said Orange County Health Director Quintana Stewart. "Everyone 5 and older should get vaccinated and boosters are recommended for everyone 16years and older."
Copyright © 2022 ABC11-WTVD-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved - The Associated Press contributed to this report.