Thousands of people traveling for the holidays this week will first test themselves for COVID-19 without a doctor, laboratory or medical surveillance.

While rapid home tests are hailed as a major convenience and a smart way to protect loved ones, they also have raised a significant challenge for public health officials. How can agencies comprehensively track cases and trends when many consumers fail to report test results at home?

Federal and state health officials have been working since March 2020 to build capacity to test, report and keep tabs on cases of COVID-19. Public health officials say case reporting is essential for spotting trends and detecting surges so hotspot communities can reduce risk and prepare hospitals for an influx of people seeking care.

But it’s unclear how often clients report the results of the dozen licensed home coronavirus tests that typically give results within 15 minutes outside of a lab or doctor’s office. And the blind spot of public health data is about to get bigger.

Private test makers already do more home antigen testing than standard lab tests – and the gap could almost double next month as new home tests flood the market.

– Ken Alltucker, USA TODAY

Also in the news:

►From Monday, hospitals in Massachusetts will have to cut back on elective scheduled procedures due to staff shortages and longer patient stays, state health officials say.

►The number of air travelers this week is expected to approach or even exceed pre-pandemic levels, and the AAA Automobile Club predicts that 48.3 million people will drive at least 80 kilometers from their homes during the holiday season.

►More than 100 children at an immunization event in Iowa on Saturday received the wrong dose of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, according to a hospital statement. A spokesperson for MercyOne said there were no significant health risks associated with the higher dose, just a likelihood that children would have more severe versions of common side effects from vaccines.

► France launched a plan on Thursday to give COVID-19 reminders to all adults, as it opted against a lockdown or additional curfew to help fight a worrying increase in infections in the country.

??The numbers of the day: The United States has recorded more than 48 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 775,000 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Global totals: Over 259 million cases and 5.1 million deaths. More than 196 million Americans – 59.1% of the population – are fully immunized, According to the CDC.

??What we read: During COVID-19, they thought home was safer than school. Now some New York parents are being accused of negligence.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for Free USA TODAY Newsletter on Coronavirus Watch to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

South African scientists detect new variant of virus in midst of peak

A new variant of the coronavirus has been detected in South Africa, which scientists say is cause for concern due to its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province, has Health Minister Joe Phaahla announced Thursday.

The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with disturbing mutations, often disappear. Scientists are watching for possible changes that could be more transmissible or fatal, but determining whether new variants will impact public health can take time.

South Africa has seen a dramatic increase in new infections, Phaahla said during an online press briefing.

“In the last four or five days, there has been a more exponential increase,” he said, adding that the new variant appears to be driving the spike in cases. Scientists in South Africa are working to determine what percentage of new cases were caused by the new variant.

Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travelers from South Africa, he said.

The WHO technical working group is due to meet on Friday to assess the new variant and can decide whether or not to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.

– Associated Press

White House: Most Federal Workers Complied With Vaccine Mandate

A bit more nine out of ten federal employees received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on schedule, the Biden administration said on Wednesday when the agency-by-agency vaccination rates were released.

These rates reached 97.8% at the Agency for International Development. Workers at the Ministry of Agriculture had the lowest rate: 86.1%.

Federal employees had until Monday at the end of the day to get vaccinated or request a medical or religious exemption. Contrary to a rule the Biden administration wants to impose on private employers, federal workers are not allowed to opt out of the vaccine requirement if they agree to weekly tests.

Workers who are not in the process of getting the vaccine or applying for an exemption will enter a “period of education and counseling, followed by further enforcement action,” according to the White House.

– Maureen Groppe and Michael Collins, USA TODAY

European Union medicines regulator approves Pfizer vaccine for young children

The European Union’s medicines regulator paved the way for children aged 5 to 11 to start receiving the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine on Thursday amid a new wave of infections across the continent.

The Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use of the European Medicines Agency, an EU agency responsible for the evaluation and monitoring of medicines, has concluded that the benefits of vaccinating children outweigh the risks. The European committee will then send its recommendation to the European Commission, which will make a final decision.

Germany has faced its worst wave of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, reporting more than 333,000 cases the week of November 15, according to the World Health Organization. That’s nearly double the weekly rate reported in a previous increase in December 2020.

– Celina Tebor, USA TODAY

Merkel: ‘Sad day’ as Germany scores 100,000 COVID deaths

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Thursday a “very sad day” and backed calls for more restrictions as her country became the last to exceed 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

The national disease control agency said it recorded 351 coronavirus-related deaths in the past 24 hours, bringing the total toll to 100,119. In Europe, Germany is the fifth country to cross this milestone, after Russia , the United Kingdom, Italy and France.

The longtime German leader, who currently holds the post of guard until her successor is sworn in, has warned that hundreds more deaths are already imminent.

“(The deaths) are very clearly correlated with the number of infections that occur,” she said. “We know how many people on average do not survive this disease. “

The Robert Koch Institute, a federal agency that collects data from some 400 regional health offices, said Germany had set a record for daily confirmed cases – 75,961 – in the past 24 hours. Since the start of the epidemic, Germany has recorded more than 5.57 million confirmed cases of COVID-19.

– Associated Press

‘Another COVID Holiday Season’: Experts Concerned Over Rising Cases

Despite early signs suggesting that the United States may have avoided another winter wave, COVID-19 cases on the rise again.

The country reported 665,420 cases in the week ending Monday, an increase of more than 30% from the rate of cases reported about a month ago, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins data.

As cases increase in 39 states, U.S. health and human services data shows hospitals in 32 states admitted more patients in the past week than the week before.

“Frankly, I’m really worried,” said Danielle Ompad, associate professor of epidemiology at the School of Global Public Health at New York University. “I would say we are better off than last year, but the cases are starting to pile up and this is something we really need to watch out for.”

After nearly two years of fighting COVID-19, health experts believed the United States would have been in a better position to control the pandemic. Instead, many people go unvaccinated and ignore mitigation measures, slowing the rate of progress and draining healthcare professionals.

– Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY

Contribution: The Associated Press