CDC warns against cruise travel; South Africa registers 12,979 new cases

CDC warns against cruise travel; South Africa registers 12,979 new cases
Cathy Feller hands out Covid-19 at-home rapid-test kits during a drive-thru event at the Hollywood library on 30 December 2021 in Hollywood, Florida. (Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

South Africa registered 12,979 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total to 3,446,532. A further 126 Covid-19-related deaths were reported, taking total official deaths to 91,061. A total of 27,955,112 vaccines have been administered.

New York City’s Mayor-Elect Eric Adams promised to keep schools and businesses open amid record infections. He vowed to keep in place a mandate for all private sector employees to be vaccinated. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended avoiding cruise travel, regardless of vaccination status, as “even fully vaccinated travellers may be at risk of getting and spreading Covid-19 variants”.

The Food and Drug Administration is planning to expand eligibility for booster doses on Monday, allowing 12- to 15-year-olds to receive a third dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine, The New York Times reports. 

South Africa lifted its curfew and restrictions on the sale of alcohol, as the country appears to have passed a fourth viral wave driven by the Omicron variant. 

Key developments: 

U.S. shoppers undeterred by Omicron

Americans didn’t let Omicron stop them from going out for some last-minute holiday shopping and entertainment. 

Activity at businesses including restaurants and retail stores increased as much as 4.8% in the week leading up to Christmas compared with the beginning of the month, according to figures from SafeGraph, which tracks mobile-phone geolocation data. Foot traffic peaked mid-week before declining on Dec. 24 as some shops closed for the holidays. 

South Africa lifts curfew and restrictions on the sale of alcohol

South Africa lifted its curfew and restrictions on the sale of alcohol, though it retains a requirement to wear masks in public, as well as restrictions on numbers of people at gatherings. The country appears to have passed the fourth wave of coronavirus infections, and has spare hospital capacity despite the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele said in a statement.

Texas hospitalisations soar

Texas virus hospitalisations jumped 54% in the past week to a level not seen since mid-October as Houston threatens to become the Lone Star state’s newest hot spot.

Hospitals reported more than 5,550 Covid-19 patients across the second-largest U.S. state, according to health department figures. Almost one-fourth of those patients required intensive-care treatment, straining already stretched ICU capacity in El Paso, Lubbock, Amarillo, Wichita Falls and Waco.

Meanwhile, the burden on medical facilities is increasing in the Houston area with almost 12% of hospital beds occupied by virus patients, state figures showed. Houston, the fourth-biggest U.S. city, surpassed Lubbock in terms of hospital load, trailing only El Paso and Amarillo.

Israel to offer second booster shot

Israel will become the first nation to offer a second booster dose, approving the additional shot for the most vulnerable as infections caused by the Omicron variant rise, the Associated Press reported. 

Nachman Ash, director general of the Health Ministry, was quoted as saying access to the second booster could be expanded to a wider population. 

A first shipment of Pfizer Inc.’s anti-coronavirus drug arrived in Israel on Thursday, the prime minister’s office said. It did not say how many pills had been ordered or delivered. Channel 12 news reported that the shipment contained tens of thousands of pills. 

Vaccine safe for children, says CDC 

Pfizer Inc.’s vaccine caused mostly mild side effects for children ages five to 11, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention.

Results of a survey covering 30,000 children who each received two shots show adverse reactions were similar to those seen in clinical trials, the CDC said. The phone survey, called v-safe, found the most frequent reactions were injection site pain, fatigue and headache. 

New Jersey hospitalisations spike 

Hospitalisations jumped 60% from a week ago in New Jersey, the most densely populated U.S. state. The 3,604 patients numbered just 122 short of those a year ago, before vaccinations were widely available.

The state logged 27,975 cases over 24 hours, a record, and 38 Covid-related deaths in hospitals.

CDC warns against cruise travel 

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention has recommended avoiding cruise travel, regardless of vaccination status, as “even fully vaccinated travellers may be at risk for getting and spreading Covid-19 variants.”

The CDC updated its Covid-19 Travel Health Notice from Level 3 to Level 4, the highest level, to reflect the rise in cases onboard cruise ships since the identification of the Omicron variant.

New York City mayor vows to keep vaccine mandate

New York City’s Mayor-elect, Eric Adams, promised Thursday to keep schools and businesses open amid record coronavirus infections by encouraging more vaccinations, boosters and testing.

Adams outlined a six-point Covid-19 plan during a news briefing that includes keeping outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s mandate for all private sector employees to be vaccinated. His approach to the mandate will be “cooperative, not punitive”, with the city’s focus on “vaccine and testing”, said Adams, who takes office on Saturday.

FDA to approve booster shots for teens

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is planning to expand eligibility for coronavirus vaccine booster doses on Monday, allowing 12- to 15-year-olds to receive a third dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine, The New York Times reports, citing people familiar with the agency’s plans.  

Greece reduces quarantine period

Greece is reducing to five days from 10 the self-isolation requirement for people who test positive as long as they have no symptoms at the end of the period, Greek Health Ministry officials said Thursday. Individuals who have received the booster no longer need to self-isolate after coming into contact with a confirmed case, but must wear FFP2 technology or two surgery masks for 10 days and undergo a PCR test after five days. 

Greece reported Thursday 35,580 new cases, a fourth consecutive daily record.

Russia records deadliest month 

November was Russia’s deadliest month of the Covid-19 pandemic, deepening a demographic crisis that President Vladimir Putin says is a threat to the country’s future.

There were a record 85,527 deaths associated with the virus last month, according to data released by the Federal Statistics Service late Thursday. That was a 16% increase over the previous month, and raised total fatalities linked to Covid-19 in Russia to more than 625,000. 

British Airways cancels Hong Kong flights

British Airways has scrapped flights to Hong Kong until March as the territory further tightens aircrew quarantine restrictions to contain the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant. 

Airline cancellations are already piling up in the U.S., with more than 1,000 flights scrubbed the day before New Year’s Eve as coronavirus cases climbed and heavy snow brewed in the West.

JetBlue Airways Corp. scratched 175 flights, accounting for 17% of its schedule, by 9:39 a.m. Thursday in New York, according to Allegiant canceled 89 flights, or 18% of its service. United Airlines Holdings Inc. scrubbed 190 flights, representing 8% of its schedule.

Studies show T-cells buck Omicron

An unsung arm of the immune system appears to protect against severe disease with the Omicron variant even when antibodies wane, helping to explain why a record wave of infections hasn’t engulfed hospitals so far.

T-cells, the body’s weapon against virus-infected cells, were primed enough by vaccination that they defended against Omicron in separate studies from Erasmus University in the Netherlands and the University of Cape Town in South Africa. 

Germany adds Italy, Canada and Malta to risk list

Germany put Italy, Canada and Malta on its high-risk list, meaning travellers from those countries need to be quarantined for 10 days unless they’re vaccinated, recovered or can present a negative test five days after arrival. The U.S. and dozens of other countries are already on the list.

Germany’s contagion rate ticked up on Thursday, rising to 207.4 infections per 100,000 people over the past seven days. Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has expressed concern that the data don’t accurately reflect the current outbreak because of staffing issues over the Christmas holidays. 

Omicron spreads in post-lockdown Austria

Austria recorded an increased case count for a second day, suggesting the spread of the Omicron variant was overturning the benefits of a three-week national lockdown.

Authorities registered 187 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the seven days through Thursday, up from a nine-week low on Tuesday. Still, hospitalisations continued to drop. 

Italy approves two antiviral drugs 

Italy’s medicines agency approved the use of two antiviral drugs, Molnupiravir and Remdesivir, for the treatment of not hospitalised virus patients at risk of developing severe Covid-19.

Oral antiviral Molnupiravir will be distributed to regional health authorities from Jan. 4.

Italy, meantime, eased coronavirus quarantine rules and imposed a vaccine mandate for most activities in a bid to keep essential services running, after the country recorded a record number of cases.

U.K. erects temporary care centres

The U.K.’s National Health Service is setting up so-called Nightingale care hubs to prepare for a potential surge in Covid-19 admissions due to the Omicron variant. 

The temporary structures will be capable of providing diagnostics and emergency care to about 100 patients and will be erected in the grounds of eight hospitals across the country, the NHS said in a statement Thursday. 

Global cases surge 32% to record high

More than 1.7 million new Covid-19 cases were recorded on Wednesday, a 32% increase from a day earlier and a new global record, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. 

It’s the third day in a row that infections have surpassed the 1 million mark, driven by the highly mutated Omicron variant. Its greater transmissibility, combined with a shorter incubation period, ability to evade existing immunity and higher reproduction number, is expected to spur more records in the days to come. 

J&J booster shot reduces risk of hospitalisation – study

Being boosted with Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J’s) Covid vaccine significantly reduced the risk that South African healthcare workers would be hospitalised with an infection caused by the Omicron variant, a study showed. 

The effectiveness of the booster shot increased with time, rising to 85% protection against hospitalisation when the shot was given one to two months earlier, up from 63% for the first two weeks. The study was published on the online website medRxiv, without undergoing peer review.

The results are the first evidence of effectiveness with the company’s booster given six to nine months after an initial vaccination – a key finding given the reliance on the immunisation in Africa – the researchers said. DM

– With assistance from Muneeza Naqvi, Li Liu, Kevin Ding, Alisa Odenheimer, Paul Tugwell, Sebastian Tong and Joe Carroll.


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