Covid-19

CORONAVIRUS GLOBAL UPDATE

Yale, Princeton impose curbs; South Africa registers 11,106 new cases

A nurse fills in a Covid-19 vaccine card at Meadowlands vaccination site in Soweto on 5 January 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)
By Bloomberg
05 Jan 2022 0

South Africa registered 11,106 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total to 3,494,696. A further 110 Covid-19-related deaths were reported, taking total official deaths to 91,561. A total of 28,164,339 vaccines have been administered.

Rio de Janeiro cancelled its world-renowned Carnival street parties for the second consecutive year as a new wave of infections spreads through the Brazilian city. The official parade, where spectators watch from the stands, will go on.

In the US, Ivy League universities Yale and Princeton said they would limit student travel and impose testing requirements to curb the spread of the Omicron variant.

covid-19 omicron

Singapore’s infection rate rose at the fastest pace in nearly two months, cases in Israel and Switzerland hit daily records and almost one in three people tested in the Philippines returned a positive result.

Hong Kong will ban flights from eight countries, including the UK and US, and shut bars and gyms for two weeks to curb the spread of the highly infectious variant. In England, testing rules will be temporarily relaxed to free up capacity as new cases remain at record levels.

Key developments 

South Africa’s excess deaths decline 

South African excess deaths fell for the first week in three, adding to evidence that the Omicron-driven wave of coronavirus infections has been shorter and less severe than those caused by previous variants.

Excess deaths, a measure of the number of fatalities against a historical average, in the week to December 26 fell to 3,016 from 3,087 the week earlier, the South African Medical Research Council said in a report on Wednesday. Official deaths due to Covid-19 declined to 425 from 428. The excess death decline was the first in three weeks.

“The number of estimated excess deaths has begun to decrease, consistent with the trend in the number of confirmed Covid-19 deaths,” the council said. “This observation is strongly supportive that a significant proportion of the current excess mortality being observed in South Africa is likely to be attributable to Covid-19.”

Finland considers remote learning 

Finland’s Health Ministry may start the school term in remote learning mode after the holiday break, broadcaster YLE reported.

A decision could be taken as soon as Friday, with schools due to reopen on Monday in many areas, YLE said, citing Kirsi Varhila, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health.

Remote learning would allow officials to implement more systematic testing protocols at schools, Varhila said. She didn’t specify whether the plans would apply to children of all ages.

The measures would include better masking and vaccination of students, Varhila told YLE.

Pfizer booster for young teens in spotlight 

Immunisation experts who advise the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention met on Wednesday to discuss the use of Pfizer and BioNTech’s Covid-19 booster shot for young teens.

As the Omicron variant continues to drive a surge in Covid infections across the country, expanding access to boosters for teens aged 12 to 15 could help officials keep schools open. The CDC panel will vote on a recommendation for the Pfizer-BioNTech shot for the age group.

Princeton, Yale restrict student travel

Princeton University undergraduate students who have returned to the New Jersey school won’t be permitted to travel outside of Mercer County or Plainsboro Township for personal reasons, except in extraordinary circumstances. The rules go into effect on 8 January and will last until mid-February.

“Our primary goal is to maintain in-person classroom instruction and co-curricular activities, including varsity athletics, while also supporting the physical and mental health of our community,” Dean of the College Jill Dolan and Vice-President W Rochelle Calhoun wrote to students.

When students return to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, they can expect a campus-wide quarantine until they show a negative test. The rule is expected to end on 7 February.

“If your arrival test is negative, you may move around campus, but avoid local businesses, restaurants, and bars, including outdoor drinking or dining,” Melanie Boyd, dean of student affairs, wrote to students.

Ireland drops test 

Vaccinated people arriving in Ireland will no longer need a negative test. Arrivals with a valid digital Covid certificate or another proof of recent infection or vaccination will not require a test to enter the country. The decision reverses measures introduced a month ago to stem the spread of Omicron, which is now dominant in the country.

Czech quarantine cut 

The Czech government shortened the quarantine period for Covid-positive people and their close contacts to five days starting next Tuesday, from 7-14 days. Prime Minister Petr Fiala said the change was needed because the variant threatened to ground too many workers in key industries.

Starting on 17 January, the administration has also expanded mandatory rapid testing at workplaces to fully vaccinated employees and increased the frequency to twice a week.

Swiss cases reach record 

Switzerland reported a record 31,109 new cases on Wednesday, 10,000 more than the previous day, according to the Federal Office of Public Health. Hospital capacity remains manageable, despite the rate of infections having surged since the new year. Last Wednesday, 17,636 people tested positive.

Sweden weighs measures 

Sweden may widen the use of vaccine certificates as the number of new infections hits records. The government has given the country’s Public Health Agency a mandate to require vaccine certificates at restaurants, shopping centres and other facilities from 12 January. The country of 10 million has seen Omicron fuel an unprecedented spike in infections.

Rio cancels Carnival parades 

Rio de Janeiro cancelled its world-renowned Carnival street parades for the second consecutive year as a new wave of infections spread through the Brazilian city.

Mayor Eduardo Paes announced on Tuesday evening after meeting with health officials that a recent surge in Covid cases, probably related to the Omicron variant, forced him to prohibit street celebrations, which attract hundreds of thousands of partygoers each year.

The official parade, where spectators watch from the stands, will go on.

UK eases testing rules  

Testing rules in England will be temporarily relaxed from 11 January, the UK government said, a move that will free up capacity as new cases remain at record levels.

People who test positive using rapid test kits will no longer need to take so-called PCR tests to confirm the result, the UK Health Security Agency said in a statement on Wednesday. The suspension of the rules comes amid a high prevalence of the virus across the UK, with more than 218,000 cases reported on Tuesday.

Helsinki test delays grow 

Testing protocols have effectively broken down in Helsinki and its surrounding regions amid a surge in cases. Most people now wait three to four days for a test appointment, rendering track and trace efforts meaningless, Finland’s health authorities said. Meanwhile, half of all PCR tests are coming back positive in the capital area, where Omicron accounts for about 90% of confirmed cases.

Djokovic vaccine row escalates 

Tennis star Novak Djokovic was challenged by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to prove why he can’t be vaccinated after a decision to exempt some Australian Open players from virus rules sparked criticism in host city Melbourne, which endured one of the world’s longest lockdowns.

Djokovic, who has previously criticised vaccine mandates, is among a handful of competitors granted medical exemptions for the tournament, the first of the four annual Grand Slam events, which begins on 17 January, according to organisers.

Morrison told reporters that Djokovic must “provide acceptable proof” when he arrives in Australia that he cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.

“If that evidence is insufficient, then he won’t be treated any different to anyone else and he’ll be on the next plane home,” he said.

Singapore requires boosters 

Singapore says booster shots will be required to maintain a person’s vaccination status, as the city-state prepares to tackle an expected Omicron wave.

From 14 February, those aged 18 and above will be considered fully vaccinated for 270 days after their second jab and should get their booster from around five months later to maintain that status, the health ministry said.

Separately, Singapore will share its Covid statistics with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the US embassy, after the CDC said it had insufficient data on the pandemic in the city-state and urged Americans to avoid travelling there.

Philippines positivity rate soars 

Nearly one in three people checked for Covid in the Philippines tested positive, as infections surged. There’s a shortage of certain paracetamol brands in some areas, although alternative analgesics remain available, the pharmaceutical association said.

Israel daily cases hit record 

Israel posted almost 12,000 new infections as Omicron rampaged across the country, the highest tally for a single day since the beginning of the pandemic.

The number of serious cases and deaths has not surged, however, corresponding to the experience of other countries. The burden on hospitals could become heavier if the new daily caseload reaches 50,000, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has warned.

Hong Kong bans flights, shuts bars 

Hong Kong is imposing strict new virus-control measures for the first time in almost a year as Omicron seeps into the community and threatens to spur a winter wave.

The city will ban dining-in after 6pm, close venues including bars and gyms, eliminate large-scale events and halt all flights from eight countries, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said at a briefing on Wednesday. The rules return to distancing restrictions that were in place a year ago and eased after Chinese New Year in 2021 when infections were ebbing.

The eight countries from which no people or flights will be allowed to arrive for the next two weeks are Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, the UK and the US, places with the worst Omicron spread currently, Lam said.

India ratchets up restrictions 

Regional governments across India are implementing an increasingly strict set of movement restrictions and partial lockdowns amid rising Omicron infections.

Weekend and night curfews were imposed in Delhi after its chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, showed mild symptoms and tested positive. Kejriwal was attending massive election rallies ahead of a number of state polls. Private companies in India’s capital have been ordered to keep premises at half strength, and government employees in non-essential services were asked to work from home as the official national infection level rose above 58,000 cases a day — the highest one-day addition since June.

German official expects curbs 

Germany is poised to sharpen contact curbs to tackle an expected surge in infections in coming weeks, even as protests against pandemic measures spread.

“A tightening will unfortunately be needed to face the powerful wave that is bearing down on us,” Health Minister Karl Lauterbach was quoted as saying late on Tuesday by the RND media group. He has repeatedly warned of the threat posed by the Omicron strain.

Australia to fund some tests 

Australia will fund rapid antigen tests for more than six million lower-income earners and welfare recipients as the nation battles a surge of the Omicron variant, with more than 64,000 cases recorded on Wednesday.

Federal and state and territory governments will jointly cover the costs of as many as 10 tests from pharmacies over three months for those Australians, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

Amid a nationwide shortage and skyrocketing prices at retailers, Morrison also said “price gougers” of rapid antigen tests would be penalised by up to A$66,000 ($47,700) in fines and as many as five years in jail should they charge 120% more than what they paid for them. While the health system was under pressure, caseloads in hospitals were generally well within their capacity, he said.

Greenland introduces restrictions 

Greenland has introduced new virus restrictions after the Arctic island of 56,000 people had a record 198 cases in one day, state broadcaster KNR said.

Corona passports must be presented to attend public events in cities and villages where authorities register contaminations from unknown sources. Gatherings at public indoor venues will also be capped to half of the current maximum set by the fire department.

Pakistan cases rise 

Pakistan reported 898 coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, the highest in almost three months, according to government data. The South Asian nation’s latest wave is “spreading at a great pace” led by the Omicron variant, the nation’s virus centre said earlier this week.

CDC cautions on Singapore travel 

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday urged Americans to avoid travelling to Singapore, reclassifying its advisory for the city-state and saying the situation there is now “unknown”.

The change stems from a lack of testing data that the CDC used to get from data aggregator Our World in Data. That information hasn’t been updated since 8 November, the CDC said in an email to Bloomberg.

The designation came as a surprise in Singapore, which maintains far stricter testing and distancing measures than in the US, and where the city-state’s Ministry of Health posts detailed virus statistics, in English, on its website every day.

Another Chinese city locked down 

China’s central province of Henan, which reported four confirmed cases on Wednesday, locked down another city of 7.9 million people after it detected one patient who didn’t show symptoms.

The municipal government of Shangqiu has asked all residents not to leave the city unless necessary, and tightened restrictions including shutting down indoor public venues, according to local authorities.

The lockdown order came after the province shut Yuzhou city and its capital, Zhengzhou, earlier this week. A total of 41 domestically transmitted cases were reported across the country, according to the National Health Commission. DM

– With assistance from Randy Thanthong-Knight, Claire Che, Archana Chaudhary, Jason Scott, Janet Lorin and Cedric Sam.

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