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News brief: omicron variant, N.Y. state of emergency, Gaza talks

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Experts say it's only a matter of time until the new omicron variant emerges in the U.S.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yes. And so the Biden administration is getting ready for the possibility that the existing vaccines we have might not fully protect against it.

MARTINEZ: NPR's health correspondent Allison Aubrey joins us to discuss. Allison - OK, so what is known so far about whether fully vaccinated people will be protected against omicron?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Well, the thinking is that the vaccines would provide some protection, as they have for other variants. But there's not much data yet beyond some initial reports. For instance, in Israel, there's very preliminary information reported there from a public health official that fully vaccinated people infected with omicron have become only slightly ill. But vaccine-makers are not going to wait around. They are anticipating the possibility that they may need to alter their boosters to target omicron. Now, yesterday, President Biden said hopefully this will not be needed. But he said his administration will do all it can to help

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: So that we are prepared if needed, my team is already working with officials at Pfizer and Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans for vaccines or boosters if needed.

AUBREY: He says he would spare no effort to remove all roadblocks to keep people safe.

MARTINEZ: OK. But any idea when it'll be clear whether a new booster is necessary?

AUBREY: You know, right now, scientists are testing the blood of vaccinated people to determine if the antibodies in their plasma fend off omicron. This will help determine whether people are protected. Meanwhile, vaccine-makers are already working to tailor their shots to protect against omicron. For instance, the CEO of Moderna has said that the company has already made its first DNA template. That's the first step to making a new booster. It would likely take about three months or so to make a new booster.

MARTINEZ: Three months - OK. Now, speaking of boosters, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention toughened its position, recommending that all adults - all adults over 18 - get a booster shot. Will this help protect Americans against omicron?

AUBREY: You know, I think that that's the hope. The CDC had previously said everyone 18 and up may get boosters. Now they're saying everyone should get a booster just to emphasize the importance of protection against the virus. That had already been the recommendation for people 50 and up. And you know, as a country, we are in better shape than a year ago. I mean, 74% of eligible people are vaccinated with at least one shot. There are treatments, such as monoclonal antibodies, for people infected with COVID. And FDA advisers will meet today to discuss Merck's new COVID pill. The company has said it's about 30% effective at preventing serious illness or death in people with COVID.

MARTINEZ: All right. Now, omicron is one thing, but delta here in the U.S. is still in the picture. What is expected over the coming weeks?

AUBREY: You know, there's an expectation that a period of significant spread will continue, particularly in the Northeast, the Upper Midwest. The current projection from modelers at the University of Washington is that we'll see waves in various parts of the country. Big picture - the increase in cases that began in the weeks before Thanksgiving will likely continue through the end of January, with about 100,000 cases a day. But of course, omicron does create some uncertainty about current projections.

MARTINEZ: NPR's health correspondent Allison Aubrey. Allison, thanks.

AUBREY: Thank you, A.

MARTINEZ: All right. As scientists work to learn more about the omicron variant, public health officials are preparing for the first cases of it to be identified right here in the U.S.

KING: New York state, you might remember, was hit hard by the very first COVID wave back in the spring of 2020. So this morning, we're checking in to see how officials there are getting ready.

MARTINEZ: And we're going to do that with NPR's Brian Mann. Brian, Governor Kathy Hochul already declared a state of emergency. Why?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Well, A, so far, this is all about the delta variant. Even without omicron being here, New York is facing this really dangerous winter surge. It's expected to grow through the holidays. And this comes at a time when, for economic reasons and staffing reasons, the number of available hospital beds has actually declined quite a bit. And there are already about three dozen hospitals statewide where officials say capacity is a concern. So right now, the biggest step Governor Hochul's team is taking as part of that emergency order is helping manage hospital beds, making sure there's enough ICU capacity. One measure already on the table again - Hochul warned hospitals yesterday that nonessential surgeries might be suspended if things keep getting worse.

MARTINEZ: Do health officials in New York think that they'll know quickly if omicron does wind up arriving?

MANN: Yeah, they do. They're pretty confident about this. There is a surveillance system in place to test people who get sick with COVID-19 and then sequence for coronavirus variants. Dr. Dave Chokshi is health commissioner in New York City.

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DAVE CHOKSHI: We believe it will be a matter of days before omicron is detected in the United States and very likely in New York City as well. When it is here, it will be discovered quite rapidly.

MANN: And Chokshi says they're also stepping up monitoring and contact tracing at airports as international travelers do continue to arrive, including from countries where omicron has now been detected.

MARTINEZ: And we're not sure yet whether vaccines will work as effectively on omicron. Is there talk of other public health measures in New York?

MANN: Well, just last week, some local officials across New York state did implement mask mandates for people in all indoor spaces to slow the spread of delta and as a precautionary step ahead of omicron. And Governor Hochul has actually drawn some criticism for refusing to implement a statewide mask mandate. Here she is speaking about that yesterday.

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KATHY HOCHUL: That is an option, but there's also a reality that's out there. And the people who will not get vaccinated are probably the same people who won't wear a mask.

MANN: So no statewide mandate yet. New York City issued an advisory yesterday, strongly urging mask-wearing indoors. But again, that's not a mandate.

MARTINEZ: And the thing is, the biggest surge right now in New York isn't in the city. It's happening in upstate New York. Do we know why?

MANN: Well, again, it's all about vaccines, A. Some New York City boroughs have done super well. They've got about 80% of their populations vaccinated. But in many rural counties, vaccination rates are still dangerously low. I spoke with Dr. Howard Fritz about this. He's chief medical officer at Glens Falls Hospital north of Albany. In his area, only about 60% of people are vaccinated. So over the last week, his small hospital has been overwhelmed with new COVID patients.

HOWARD FRITZ: Many of our 51 or 52 in house actually are related. So there are pockets, or clusters, of the unvaccinated that seem to be fueling this. We do still see some patients who deny that COVID is a real entity. And that, to me, is just baffling beyond words.

MANN: So Fritz says his staff is already exhausted by the delta variant. And A, with so many people still unvaccinated in these areas, now public health officials are waiting to learn whether omicron will bring another winter surge.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Brian Mann talking about the situation in the state of New York. Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: Are Hamas and Israel on the verge of a long-term truce?

KING: Six months ago, they fought an 11-day war. During that time, Palestinian militants fired thousands of rockets. Israeli warplanes bombarded Gaza. More than 250 people were killed, most of them in Gaza. And since then, the two sides have operated under a tenuous cease-fire.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Daniel Estrin recently visited Gaza, and he's on the line now from Tel Aviv. Daniel, it's been six months since the war. What has changed now to try to reduce tensions between Hamas and Israel?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Well, there's been a big leadership change. Israel has a new prime minister, Naftali Bennett. And after the war, his government got tough, and it said Israel will not allow for large-scale reconstruction of all the homes and all the infrastructure that was damaged in Israel's bombings on Gaza unless Hamas agrees to release Israeli captives that it holds in Gaza. So that is Israel's tough public stance. But we are now seeing that Israel is relaxing its conditions a little bit, and we're seeing some small movement toward a truce that is a little more robust.

MARTINEZ: And Daniel, you were just in Gaza. What'd you see there?

ESTRIN: I saw some examples of these sweeteners that Israel's offering Gaza for Hamas to continue to maintain the cease-fire. So one example is that as I was crossing into Gaza, I saw crowds of Palestinian day laborers walking through this usually heavily fortified Israeli border crossing, walking into Israel to work. And usually Israel lets in very, very few people in from Gaza. And now Israel says it's allowing about 10,000 Palestinians from Gaza to work in Israel. It's the highest number in years.

Another really surprising thing I saw was that some construction of damaged homes destroyed in Israeli airstrikes is beginning. The U.N. is coordinating this reconstruction with international aid money. And usually, Israel tightly restricts construction materials going into Gaza because the concern is that, according to Israel, Hamas fighters could use them for rockets and tunnels. But we're seeing in recent months Israel allowing Gaza to import cement, rebar almost in unlimited numbers. So that's just a couple of examples of ways that Israel is trying to stabilize Gaza a little bit while it is negotiating with Hamas this bigger deal.

MARTINEZ: And the two are sworn enemies, been that way for a while. What do these talks look like, and what exactly are they negotiating?

ESTRIN: Right. Israel and Hamas don't talk to each other directly, so they're indirect talks. Egypt is the mediator in the middle. So you see Hamas officials have gone to Cairo, and then Israeli officials have gone after them to Cairo. And there are three main issues that they're trying to reach. First, a long-term truce - so no fighting for maybe several years. Second, they are looking to agree on a plan to rehabilitate Gaza, to reconstruct those destroyed homes and the infrastructure. And you know, Gaza faces chronic humanitarian problems and crises. And then the last part is the most sensitive part - a prisoner swap. So Israel, under such a deal, would release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Hamas releasing two soldiers' bodies and two Israeli civilians.

MARTINEZ: So how close are they to a deal then?

ESTRIN: A lot of reports and a lot of rumors about progress - it's really hard to tell. It's a hard sell in Israel to make a deal with Hamas. But I think the bottom line is that these negotiations are not aimed at achieving some grand peace between Hamas and Israel. This is about giving Palestinians in Gaza slightly better lives and delaying the next war, maybe just for another few years.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin. Daniel, thanks.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.