New coronavirus cases in US soar to highest levels on record. More than a year after the vaccine was rolled out, new coronavirus cases in the U.S. have soared to the highest level on record at more than 265,000 per day on average, a surge driven largely by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

The previous mark was 250,000 cases per day, set in mid-January, according to data kept by Johns Hopkins University.

The fast-spreading mutant version of the virus has cast a pall over Christmas and New Year’s, forcing communities to scale back or call off their festivities just weeks after it seemed as if Americans were about to enjoy an almost normal holiday season. Thousands of flights have been canceled amid staffing shortages blamed on the virus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious-disease expert, said Wednesday that there is no need to cancel small home gatherings among vaccinated and boosted family and friends.

But “if your plans are to go to a 40- to 50-person New Year’s Eve party with all the bells and whistles and everybody hugging and kissing and wishing each other a happy new year, I would strongly recommend that this year we not do that,” Fauci said.

The number of Americans now in the hospital with COVID-19 is running around 60,000, or about half the figure seen in January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

While hospitalizations sometimes lag behind case numbers, the figures may reflect not only the protection conferred by the vaccine, but also the possibility that Omicron is not making people as severely ill as previous variants.

COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have climbed over the last two weeks from an average of 1,200 per day to around 1,500.

Public health experts will be closely watching the numbers in the coming week for indications of the vaccines’ effectiveness in preventing serious illness, keeping people out of the hospital and relieving strain on exhausted healthcare workers, said Bob Bednarczyk, a professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University.

CDC data already suggest that the unvaccinated are hospitalized at much higher rates than those who have gotten inoculated, even if the effectiveness of the shots decreases over time, he said.

“If we’re able to weather this surge with hopefully minimal disruptions to the overall healthcare system, that is a place where vaccines are really showing their worth,” Bednarczyk said.

Several European countries, including France, Greece, Britain and Spain, also reported record case counts this week, prompting a ban on music at New Year’s celebrations in Greece and a renewed push to encourage vaccination by French authorities.

President Biden and Vladimir Putin will speak Thursday as the Russian leader has stepped up his demands for security guarantees in Eastern Europe.

The two leaders will discuss “a range of topics, including upcoming diplomatic engagements,” National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said in a statement announcing the call.

The talks come as the U.S. and Western allies have watched the buildup of Russian troops near the border of Ukraine, growing to an estimated 100,000 and fueling fears that Moscow is preparing to invade Ukraine.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke on Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Blinken “reiterated the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders.”

Price said the two discussed efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine and upcoming diplomatic engagements with Russia.

Putin said earlier this week he would ponder a slew of options if the West fails to meet his push for security guarantees precluding NATO’s expansion to Ukraine.

Earlier this month, Moscow submitted draft security documents demanding that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back its military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe.

A court in Moscow on Wednesday granted a request to shut down another prominent human rights organization amid a sweeping Russian crackdown on rights groups, independent media and opposition supporters.

The Moscow City Court’s decision to shut down the Memorial Human Rights Center came a day after Russia’s Supreme Court revoked the legal status of its sister organization, Memorial, a human rights group that drew international acclaim for its studies of political repression in the Soviet Union.

Russian authorities previously declared both organizations as “foreign agents” — a designation that brings additional government scrutiny and carries strong pejorative connotations. Prosecutors petitioned to shut down the groups last month, arguing that they had repeatedly violated regulations obliging them to identify themselves as foreign agents in all content they produce.

Memorial and the Memorial Human Rights Center reject the accusations as politically motivated.

“We’ve been saying from the start that the ‘foreign agents’ law — and I’m doing the air quotations again — is not lawful, and it’s not to be amended but only abolished because it was designed with the aim of strangling civil society. Today, we received another proof of that,” Alexander Cherkasov, chairman of the board of the Memorial Human Rights Center, said Wednesday.

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