CORONAVIRUS GLOBAL UPDATE
CDC eyes new mask guidance for US states; South Africa registers 3,628 new cases
South Africa registered 3,628 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total to 3,631,642. A further 213 Covid-19-related deaths were reported, 22 of which occurred in the past 24 to 48 hours, taking the official total to 96,289 (the backlog in reporting the mortality rate is due to an ongoing audit by the Health Department). A total of 30,397,806 vaccines have been administered.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working on guidance for governors on how to relax mask-wearing measures, Director Rochelle Walensky said. She spoke as New York Governor Kathy Hochul, at a separate briefing, announced that she was allowing the state’s indoor mask mandate to expire on Thursday.
The UK is planning to remove its last Covid restrictions, including the need to self-isolate after a positive test, as the country pivots to a new strategy of living with the virus. Drugstore giant CVS Health said demand for Covid tests and vaccines is expected to fade this year.
Hong Kong urged residents who suspect they might be infected with coronavirus to avoid emergency rooms after cases topped four figures for the first time, with the outbreak crippling healthcare resources.
Globally reported Covid-19 cases passed 400 million, more than two years after the first cases were reported in China.
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Illinois lifts indoor mask requirement
Illinois Governor JB Pritzker announced on Wednesday that he intends to lift the state’s mask mandate for indoor public places that went into effect about five months ago. The mandate, which will be lifted on 28 February, will still apply to public schools.
San Francisco Bay Area drops mask mandate
Ten counties in the San Francisco Bay Area — including San Francisco, Napa and San Mateo in Silicon Valley — will drop most indoor mask requirements on 16 February. Unvaccinated people will continue to need facial coverings.
The move follows California’s decision to let its statewide mandate expire. Counties were able to set their own rules, and the Bay Area has often imposed stricter requirements.
CDC working on mask guidance for states
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working on guidance for governors on how to relax mask-wearing measures, Director Rochelle Walensky said at a press briefing. But hospitalisations and deaths remain high, she said.
“So as we work toward that and as we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet,” Walensky said.
New York state lifted its indoor mask mandate for businesses on Thursday, following similar moves by other states.
NY to drop indoor mask mandate on Thursday
New York Governor Kathy Hochul is lifting a mask mandate for businesses that don’t check Covid-19 vaccination status, citing high inoculation rates and low transmissions across the state.
The rule, which Hochul implemented amid the Omicron-induced surge in infections, was set to expire on 10 February. It is now being done away with altogether, effective on Thursday.
Hochul is leaving mask mandates in schools in place, while neighbouring states have begun to ease such rules as Covid infections and hospitalizations fall.
Czech Republic expects to lift measures
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said he expects “very few” pandemic measures to be in place after 1 March if the spread of the virus in the country slows, as experts predict. Face masks in shops or public transport will remain in place.
CVS sees lower demand for tests, shots
CVS Health said demand for Covid tests and vaccines is expected to fade this year, as the virus appears to recede after the Omicron variant infected millions of people in recent months.
The pharmacy giant expects to administer about half as many virus tests and up to 80% fewer shots this year compared with 2021, it said in a news release on Wednesday.
UK to pivot to living with virus
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he plans to end the legal requirement for people in England to self-isolate if they test positive for Covid-19 this month.
The move will be part of the government’s strategy for “Living with Covid” to be announced on 21 February, Johnson told the House of Commons on Wednesday, as long as “the current encouraging trends in the data continue.”
Regulations forcing people to self-isolate at home for five days are due to expire on March 24, but Johnson said he expected to be able to lift these “a full month early.”
Slovenian prime minister tests positive
Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa said he has Covid-19, posting a photo of a positive test on Twitter. New infections have peaked in the fifth wave of the epidemic, according to expert estimates, although the number of deaths is rising. More than 100 people died in the past seven days, bringing the total death toll to 6,028.
Poland sees beginning of the end
Poland is seeing “the beginning of the end” of the pandemic, Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said at a press conference in Warsaw, where he announced the easing of some restrictions.
As of 15 February, isolation for people with Covid will be shortened to seven from 10 days. Children will return to schools as of 22 February, a week earlier than planned, Education Minister Przemyslaw Czarnek said at the same briefing.
Indonesia’s cases at seven-month high
The Indonesian government reported 46,843 new cases, the highest since 28 July as hospitalisations steadily increase. The bed-occupancy rate for coronavirus patients has exceeded 40% in Jakarta and Bali, with the national figure at 24%. That compares with rates as low as 2% at the end of last year.
Indonesia is starting to tighten restrictions in the capital and surrounding areas, imposing capacity limits at shops and restaurants while halting in-person school attendance. Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin has warned that daily cases could peak at as high as 285,000 this month as the more transmissible Omicron variant spreads through the country.
Hong Kong cases at record high
Hong Kong urged residents who suspect they might be infected with coronavirus to avoid emergency rooms after cases topped four figures for the first time. The city announced a record 1,161 cases on Wednesday, up from 625 a day earlier, along with about 800 preliminary infections.
Officials overturned advice given less than a week ago and are now asking residents to seek a private doctor to get an official diagnosis, rather than via accident and emergency units, reflecting the rapid deterioration of the city’s virus-fighting capability.
“The number of confirmed patients has been growing rapidly and by multiples over the past two days,” said Larry Lee, chief manager of integrated clinical services at the Hospital Authority. “The emergency wards at different public hospitals have been severely overloaded.”
Italy to expand sports events capacity
Italy is planning to increase the capacity in Italian football stadiums and other open-air sports events to 75% from 50% on 1 March, according to the country’s Health and Sport ministries. The goal is to gradually reintroduce full capacity, should the decrease in virus cases continue. In the week ending on 6 February, Italy reported 282,050 fewer new cases than the week before.
WHO’s $16bn aid programme
The World Health Organization is calling on wealthier nations to donate $16-billion to a programme aimed at providing access to Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and tests in low- and middle-income countries.
Under the WHO proposal, higher-income nations would donate in proportion to their contribution to world trade, while middle-income countries would need to self-finance $6.5-billion additional costs, the United Nations agency said on Wednesday.
Hong Kongers not staying home
Hong Kong residents haven’t reduced their activity levels as much as they did during previous outbreaks, despite a record number of daily infections that is doubling every three days.
Government and health officials have been pleading with people to stay home to slow or cut off silent chains of transmission. Mobility tracking from Apple shows activity has fallen 34% on average during the past seven days compared with levels before the pandemic, about half the record-setting 63% decline from the early days of the pandemic in the summer of 2020.
Singapore aims to calm covid fears
Singapore is highlighting the infection of its 63-year-old defence minister as a way to soothe ongoing fears in the city state about the virus, despite one of the highest vaccination and booster rates in the world.
The Ministry of Health reported more than 12,000 local cases as of noon Tuesday, surpassing the peak of a delta-induced spike last year. Yet about 99.7% of local cases in the last four weeks have been mild or asymptomatic, according to health ministry data.
No more cruise-to-nowhere
Royal Caribbean has cancelled the remaining 2022 cruise-to-nowhere programme in Hong Kong, which includes Spectrum of the Seas sailings, following the city’s extension of Covid-19 measures, according to a statement on Facebook. Extension of measures and uncertainty in the city weighed into the decision.
An Omicron outbreak in southern China led officials to switch traffic lights to red in several counties, as local governments strive to limit people’s movements as part of the Covid-zero strategy.
A sudden resurgence in the southwestern province of Guangxi during the recent Lunar New Year Holiday prompted a snap lockdown on Monday of Baise, a city of 3.6 million bordering Vietnam, after nearly 100 infections were detected. Soon after, local authorities in five sub-districts in the city turned the lights red to reinforce the stay-at-home order, though it granted exceptions for essential travel related to medical care, deliveries and the Covid response.
Hong Kong food supply is back
Vegetables and other fresh produce are gradually back in stock in Hong Kong after China reopened its border control point for food deliveries. Fresh food prices soared since the weekend after some cross-border truck drivers responsible for ferrying supply tested positive for Covid, prompting mainland authorities to take testing and isolation measures, which caused delivery delays.
Hong Kong relies on mainland China for more than 90% of its vegetable and freshwater fish supplies. If more drivers don’t test positive, supply should be back to normal by Thursday, authorities said.
Hong Kong tracks pilots
Hong Kong is further tightening quarantine rules for airline staff, with cargo pilots isolating at home to be tracked with electronic monitoring bracelets, and crew on passenger planes who have been in countries with high levels of the virus having to quarantine for 14 days. DM/MC
— With assistance from Josh Wingrove, Kara Wetzel and Shruti Date Singh.
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