The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated its guidance on masks for the general public, saying that people can choose to wear N95 and KN95 masks because they offer the best protection against Covid-19.

However, the agency stopped short of saying that people should opt for certain masks instead of others, noting that the "CDC continues to recommend that you wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently."

Previously, the US health agency did not recommend that the general population wear N95 masks or KN95s, fearing that a run on those higher-quality masks would impact the supply in healthcare settings. The CDC now says shortages are no longer a concern, according to an NBC News report.

"When worn consistently and properly," the agency wrote on its website, N95 respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health "provide the highest level of protection from particles, including the virus that causes Covid-19."

Americans will be able to request free rapid coronavirus tests from the federal government beginning on Wednesday, but the tests will take seven to 12 days to arrive, senior Joe Biden administration officials have said.

The administration's website to process the requests, covidtests.gov, was up and running on Friday, the latest sign of its efforts to ramp up access to testing since the fast-spreading Omicron variant sent coronavirus case counts soaring, Xinhua news agency reported.

"But the delay in accepting orders and the lag in shipping mean that people are unlikely to receive the free tests until the end of January at the earliest," reported The New York Times. In some parts of the country, that may be after the peak of the current surge of cases.

US President Joe Biden said in December 2021 that his administration would purchase 500 million rapid at-home coronavirus tests and distribute them to Americans free of charge. On Thursday, he announced plans to buy an additional 500 million tests, bringing the total to one billion.

The nightmare cruises of spring 2020 are back as Omicron sends passenger case rates soaring. Yet the CDC is poised to loosen the industry's Covid-19 leash, saying cruise lines are now positioned to police themselves, reported major US news portal Politico.

On Saturday, despite a 30-fold increase in on-board Covid-19 cases, with cruise ships being turned away at ports and passengers getting sick, the CDC plans to lift all of its Covid-19 restrictions on the cruise industry.

Just two weeks ago, the agency was recommending against cruising even for vaccinated passengers, and the agency's official guidance states "even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading Covid-19 variants."

"It's the latest in a series of mixed messages from the CDC -- not only about how safe it is to cruise but on a host of other Covid-19 restrictions -- as the agency copes with Omicron's onslaught," said the report.

"It's also a stark example of the thorny decisions the Biden administration and other officials must navigate almost two years into the pandemic, as it tries to balance public health and a still-fragile economy."

The past few weeks have been "hellacious," Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian told a Thursday conference call with stock analysts and reporters, adding that 8,000 of his employees have contracted Covid-19 in the last four weeks alone -- about 10 per cent of the carrier's workforce -- a toll that contributed to more than 2,200 cancelled Delta flights since December 24.

Although a precise count of the number of employees who are out sick or quarantining is hard to come by, about 5 million Americans could be isolating due to Covid-19 at the peak of Omicron, Andrew Hunter, senior US economist at Capital Economics, was quoted as saying in a CBS News report. That could reflect about 2 per cent of the nation's workforce forced to stay home due to illness, he added.

Stew Leonard Jr., Chief Executive of supermarket chain Stew Leonard's, said that about 8 per cent of his staff was out sick or quarantining last week. That affects what shoppers find on store shelves.

"That's the highest we've ever had," he was quoted as saying. "What we are doing is the same as every other business -- you have to limit your product line."

"A record spike in Covid-19 cases due to the Omicron variant is causing a nationwide worker 'sickout,' disrupting businesses ranging from grocery stores to airlines," reported the national broadcaster, noting that "the latest worker shortages are compounding earlier pandemic problems, including supply-chain disruptions and shortage of some services."

The pandemic could start moving into an endemic phase in 2022, though countries will need to stay vigilant as the Omicron variant spreads, according to Moderna Inc. Co-Founder Noubar Afeyan.

"2022 may be the year that the pandemic enters an endemic phase, but it really depends on what happens and the decisions that are made across the world," Afeyan told Bloomberg on Friday.

Although the Omicron variant is highly transmissible, "on the other hand it's having a lesser effect in terms of seriousness of disease," he said, though adding that for now, the world still remains in the pandemic's grasp.

While some countries slowly begin to consider treating Covid-19 as an endemic disease, like the flu, World Health Organisation officials have said it's too early to make that call as cases surge.

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