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U.S. Headlines

News brief: omicron surge, travelers face flight cancellations, Desmond Tutu dies

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As dramatically as omicron spread in December, next month may be worse.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Yeah, two numbers show the increase. This month, the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. climbed sharply, reaching 200,000 per day. In the month ahead, one scenario finds that number reaching more than 400,000 per day.

INSKEEP: Wow. NPR global health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff is here to track this. Michaeleen, good morning.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I've noticed when I've looked at the numbers that omicron is not spreading the same way or at least the same rate everywhere. Where are the hottest of the hot spots?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle are all seeing fast, record-breaking surges. For instance, Chicago recently recorded nearly 10,000 cases in one day. And in D.C., cases have jumped more than fivefold in the last two weeks. I talked to Dr. Robert Wachter at the University of California, San Francisco. He estimates that about 1 in 20 people in that city are walking around with COVID right now and don't even realize it.

ROBERT WACHTER: So that is pretty shocking. If you were in a room with about 30 or 40 people, there's almost a near certainty - about a 90% chance - that one of them has COVID. And so that's a little scary.

DOUCLEFF: Miami, Houston and New Orleans are also seeing big surges.

INSKEEP: Well, I got to tell you, as a resident of Washington, D.C., I can kind of tell this anecdotally. I'm surrounded by people - you know, family and friends, we're just getting constant reports of positive tests or people who are having to quarantine because of someone positive near them. There's a lot more of that than in the past.

DOUCLEFF: Yeah.

INSKEEP: But let me ask about the difference between positive tests and serious cases, hospitalizations. What's happening with them?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So in some cities, including New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago, hospitalization rates are already rising, and that's expected to continue. But so far, hospitalizations aren't rising as quickly as cases. Robert Wachter told me that over in San Francisco, doctors estimate with delta, they would have seen two to three times more hospitalizations at this point than they're having with omicron.

INSKEEP: Why is that the case?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So right now, it looks like maybe two factors are at play. First off, Americans are starting to become partly immune to SARS-CoV-2, either through vaccinations or prior infections. The vaccine doesn't stop an infection with omicron, but it does reduce the risk of hospitalization by about 70%. And with a booster shot, the protection's even higher. Second, you know, there's growing evidence that omicron might cause slightly less severe disease than the delta variant. Robert Wachter at UCSF says it's not much less severe, perhaps 10 to 20% - so a modest reduction.

WACHTER: If you're a person who has no immunity at all - no vaccination and no prior infection or your prior infection was a year and a half ago and it was mild - you're not out of the woods. I mean, there is a reasonable chance that you will get very sick with omicron.

INSKEEP: So people who don't have the protection of vaccination still have to worry here.

DOUCLEFF: Yeah, absolutely. And remember, many hospitals in general are already overburdened. They're short staffed, so even a smaller surge in hospitalizations could be crippling for hospitals and deadly for patients.

INSKEEP: What is this doing to the debate about even more booster shots?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So Israel announced last week they're going to start giving a fourth shot to older people and health care workers. But just this weekend, the government called off that campaign because of data showing that hospitalization rates with omicron are likely lower. And there's some concern among scientists that too many booster shots too quickly may backfire and cause the immune system to sort of go to sleep or start ignoring SARS-CoV-2.

INSKEEP: Oh, a good reason to proceed cautiously. Michaeleen, thanks so much.

DOUCLEFF: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Many people who went ahead with family gatherings this month found they had trouble getting there.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, airlines have canceled many flights, stranding thousands of people at airports. Others got a call in time to stay at home. Some airlines blame staffing shortages caused by the omicron variant and winter weather storms.

INSKEEP: We're joined by airline reporter Leslie Josephs of CNBC. Good morning.

LESLIE JOSEPHS: Good morning.

INSKEEP: This has got to be a big travel day for a lot of people after a holiday weekend. How's it looking?

JOSEPHS: It's looking a little bit better than it did over the weekend. We had over 2,000 cancellations since Christmas Eve, which was, of course, not welcome news to a lot of people traveling. But it is getting a little bit better. Anyone traveling should frequently check in with their airline to make sure that their flight is taking off because these things tend to cascade. You get one crew down with omicron, and it can cascade through the rest of the ranks.

INSKEEP: I did hear from somebody the other day about a canceled flight. And they got the word more than a day in advance - plenty of time not to arrive at the airport to terrible news. Is that the standard now?

JOSEPHS: Yeah, that's when airlines like to do. Sometimes you'll see this with a hurricane or a blizzard or some kind of issue that they can see far in advance. They don't want people crowding the airports and having to overwhelm their gate agents, ticket agents and so forth. It's not, you know, what they used to do in the '90s. Now a lot of us - most of us have smartphones. They want to let people know as soon as possible so they don't have those issues at the airport.

INSKEEP: You know, when I first started hearing about these cancellations, it seemed fairly simple to me. There have been more positive tests among airline crews, and so they don't have enough people, and so flights get canceled. But is it really that simple? Is that what's going on here?

JOSEPHS: Well, I mean, omicron is - the cases are going up. We've seen, you know, every industry from Broadway to restaurants get hit with this and having staffing issues there. And it is an issue for airline crews. I mean, they're not immune. They're largely vaccinated. Airlines are pushing the CDC to maybe lower the quarantine guidance for breakthrough COVID cases now to five days from 10 because that sidelines cruise for a long time. And this is supposed to be among some of the busiest days that they've had since the pandemic began. So they want to get every dollar possible.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about trying to get every dollar possible. I think you've done some reporting on this. Americans will be aware that the U.S. government bailed out the airlines at the beginning of the pandemic. They've received tens of billions of dollars in subsidies. And the idea of those subsidies, like many subsidies across the broader economy, was that airlines should keep people employed; airlines should keep people on the payroll. You would think that if they were keeping people on the payroll all this time, they would then be available in an emergency like this. But that doesn't seem to be what the airlines have done.

JOSEPHS: Well, they were not allowed to lay anybody off for taking that more than $50 billion in taxpayer payroll money. But what they did do is encourage a lot of employees to take buyouts. So they had lost tens of thousands of workers through those voluntary measures, leaves of absence. And then once the vaccination wave came around in the spring and summer and people started traveling again, airlines had a lot of trouble ramping up. And some of their schedules were too ambitious, and we saw cancellations. Usually it's one airline at a time having some issue. Now what we're seeing is many dealing with omicron. But they're staffing up as quickly as possible, of course, dealing with the same tight labor market that lots of industries are.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. Did they spend the federal subsidies to buy employees out instead of keeping them employed?

JOSEPHS: They used it for payroll. So the large majority employees were kept on the payroll, but they did take some hits for buyout packages and so forth. And now they're trying to hire back. They're hiring pilots as quickly as they can, sometimes offering pretty rich signing bonuses so they can have pilots and not have the issue that they're having now. But they're a bit behind still.

INSKEEP: Leslie Josephs of CNBC, thanks so much.

JOSEPHS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: South Africans are remembering Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who became a world figure for his opposition to apartheid.

MARTINEZ: The Nobel Prize winner was 90 when he died yesterday in Cape Town. He was an Anglican priest and used his pulpit to push for the end of apartheid. But he also used his powerful voice and his laugh to combat injustice around the world. Here's what he said in 1994, when he got to vote in South Africa's first free election of his lifetime at the age of 62.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DESMOND TUTU: I want to sing. I want to cry. I want to laugh - everything together - and jump and dance.

INSKEEP: Reporter Kate Bartlett is in Cape Town. Welcome to the program.

KATE BARTLETT: Hi, Steve. Thanks for having me on.

INSKEEP: How did Desmond Tutu use the reputation that he gained in the 1980s through his opposition to apartheid?

BARTLETT: Well, you know, Tutu always spoke truth to power, not only during the years of apartheid, in fact, but since South Africa's democratic transition in 1994. He was never afraid to criticize his own comrades, even Nelson Mandela. And Tutu was the person who coined the famous term the Rainbow Nation. And he wanted to make sure that South Africa lived up to the high ideals enshrined in what is one of the world's most progressive constitutions.

INSKEEP: And when you say Rainbow Nation, of course, what you're saying is you're embracing a multiracial republic. So how are people in that republic responding to the news of his death at 90 and, of course, responding to, reflecting on his life?

BARTLETT: Well, I was out and about in the city of Cape Town yesterday after the news of his death broke and spoke to South Africans of all races. And people are very saddened, Steve, but ultimately grateful for Tutu's contribution to democracy here. But a common refrain from people was the idea that South Africa has lost its moral compass. And people wonder who will be a thorn in the side of corrupt politicians now.

I spoke to one man, Brent Goliath, yesterday, a 44-year-old who had come with his wife to place some flowers at the cathedral where Tutu used to work. And while we were speaking, he just broke down in tears. He said he'd been an altar boy at the Anglican Church for many years and had actually met with Desmond Tutu several times. It was quite moving, speaking with him.

BRENT GOLIATH: I was very emotional (crying) this morning when I heard that he passed away. I thank God that he's been there for us.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking that this feeling must be multiplied by thousands, if not millions of people. How will South Africans mark his passing?

BARTLETT: All week, the iconic Table Mountain, Cape Town's famous landmark, will be lit up in purple at night to honor the archbishop, and the cathedral bells will be rung daily at 12 midday for about 10 minutes. But, you know, because of COVID regulations, attendance at the actual funeral, which is being held on Saturday, on the 1 of January, the church is advising people to watch from home and also to go to different local dioceses where they will be smaller events because at the main cathedral where Tutu worked for many years in Cape Town, funeral attendance will be limited to about a hundred people.

INSKEEP: Kate Bartlett, I want to return to a question you posed earlier. You said people wonder who will be a thorn in the side of corrupt politicians now. What kinds of answers are you hearing to that question?

BARTLETT: Absolutely, that's been a common refrain in the media here and just on the street. And I asked people out mourning, and they couldn't really think of one name who will step in. This old guard of leaders - the generation of Mandela, of Walter Sisulu, of Oliver Tambo - these people are dying, and we can't really think of anybody in the new generation to replace them. But one man I spoke to outside the cathedral, Akhi Khan, put it this way.

AKHI KHAN: I think it was great that we had somebody like that who would question whatever's happening. And I think more people like that need to stand up and say, look; we're not happy with what's going on here.

BARTLETT: So there's a great hope that the youth of South Africa will help carry the torch for Tutu now.

INSKEEP: Kate Bartlett in Cape Town, South Africa, thanks so much.

BARTLETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.