The COVID-19 pandemic continues as we close out 2021. Here is the latest news.

U.S. cases of COVID surge, shatter previous records

More than a half million new COVID-19 cases were reported on Monday, according to data tracked by the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. The number surpasses the previous record of more than 300,000 in January. In the past day, the country reported 512,533 cases, a record high, and 1,762 deaths. Since the pandemic began, there has been a total of more than 52 million confirmed cases and more than 818,000 deaths. Approximately 62 percent of the U.S. population have been fully vaccinated against the virus.

In addition, more than 76,000 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized across the country as of Tuesday, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. More than 11 percent of inpatient beds are in use for COVID-19.

KFF: Unvaccinated COVID patients cost U.S. health system billions of dollars

Meanwhile, a new analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation quantifies the number of hospitalizations that could have been prevented by vaccination against COVID-19 and the total cost of the hospitalizations. According to the brief, there were 690,000 vaccine-preventable COVID-19 hospitalizations from June through November 2021, which overlaps with the surge due to the Delta variant. It estimates the costs of treating those patients at $13.8 billion. For the full analysis, see the report on the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker, which monitors and assesses the performance of the U.S. health system.

CDC shortens recommended isolation, quarantine period for general population

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shortened the recommended time for isolation from 10 days for people with COVID-19 to five days, if asymptomatic followed by five days of wearing a mask when around others. The CDC said the change was motivated by evidence that most SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness, generally in the one to two days prior to onset of symptoms and the two to three days after. Therefore, people who test positive should isolate for five days and, if asymptomatic at that time, they may leave isolation if they can continue to mask for five days to minimize the risk of infecting others.

The CDC also update the recommended quarantine period for those exposed to COVID-19. For people who are unvaccinated or are more than six months out from their second mRNA dose (or more than two months after the J&J vaccine) and not yet boosted, CDC now recommends quarantine for five days followed by strict mask use for an additional five days. Alternatively, if a five-day quarantine is not feasible, it is imperative that an exposed person always wears a well-fitting mask when around others for 10 days after exposure. Individuals who have received their booster shot do not need to quarantine following an exposure but should wear a mask for 10 days after the exposure. 

For all those exposed, best practice would also include a test for SARS-CoV-2 at day five after exposure. If symptoms occur, individuals should immediately quarantine until a negative test confirms symptoms are not attributable to COVID-19.

Emergency guidance released for health care facilities to prepare for Omicron surge

The CDC has also updated its guidance for contingency and crisis management due to significant health care worker shortages. The updates offer organizations strategies to limit the effects of staff shortages caused by COVID-19 on patient care. The recommendations include:

  • Health care workers with COVID-19 who are asymptomatic can return to work after seven days with a negative test, and that isolation time can be cut further if there are staffing shortages.
  • Health care workers who have received all recommended COVID-19 vaccine doses, including a booster, do not need to quarantine at home following high-risk exposures.

The CDC said it may revise the guidance as additional information on the Omicron variant becomes available to inform recommended actions.