Covid-19

CORONAVIRUS GLOBAL UPDATE

US Centers for Disease Control raises Hong Kong travel alert level; South Africa registers 785 new cases

An elderly patient lies in a hospital bed in a temporary holding area outside Caritas Medical Centre in Hong Kong, China, on 28 February 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Jerome Favre)
By Bloomberg
28 Feb 2022 0

South Africa registered 785 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total to 3,674,042. A further 183 Covid-19-related deaths were reported, taking total official deaths to 99,412. A total of 31,544,594 vaccines have been administered.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised its travel alert for Hong Kong by two levels, citing a high level of Covid-19 transmission. Hong Kong is being forced to move from key pillars of its strict Covid-zero strategy as the surge overwhelms its under-prepared healthcare system.

The Covid-19 response team leader of China’s National Health Commission was set to arrive in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, airline bookings out of the city are surging as residents seek to leave after authorities unveiled measures to combat the surge.

In the US, California, Oregon and Washington will no longer require masks in classrooms after the end of next week. Amazon.com said face coverings will be optional at its US operations, regardless of vaccination status, starting on Tuesday.

Key developments 

Three US West Coast states end mask mandates 

California, Oregon and Washington will no longer require masks in classrooms after the end of next week, as plunging Covid case rates across the West Coast accelerate efforts to return to something like normal life.

The three states will shift to recommending masks in schools and child-care facilities, rather than mandating them, after 11 March, according to a statement on Monday. Oregon and Washington will lift mask rules for most other indoor settings at that time as well. California had let its mask requirement for indoor public spaces expire earlier this month.

Pfizer shot less effective in children 

The vaccine made by Pfizer and partner BioNTech is much less effective in preventing infection in children aged five to 11 than in older adolescents or adults, according to a large new set of data collected by health officials in New York state, The New York Times reported.

The Pfizer vaccine still prevents severe illness in the children, but offers virtually no protection against infection, even within a month after full immunisation, the data, which were collected during the Omicron surge, suggest, according to the newspaper.

The sharp drop in the vaccine’s performance in young children may stem from the fact that they receive a third of the dose given to older children and adults, researchers and federal officials who have reviewed the data said, according to the Times.

Amazon makes masks optional for all 

Amazon.com said face coverings will be optional at its US operations, regardless of vaccination status, starting on Tuesday. The Seattle-based e-commerce giant recommended in a memo to employees that unvaccinated workers wear masks and noted that federal, state and local laws may still require face coverings in some cases. Amazon rescinded its masking guidance for vaccinated employees earlier this month and required employees to be fully vaccinated to receive paid time off if they became sick with Covid-19.

Work from home is here to stay 

About 75% of the increase in telework over the course of the Covid-19 crisis is likely to stick, according to researchers at Arizona State University, Virginia Commonwealth University and the Dallas Federal Reserve.

Twice as many workers will be 100% remote as before the pandemic, and one in every five workdays will be from home, the economists predict. And while work-from-home rose for every major demographic group and industry, it did so especially among highly educated workers, the data found.

Roche cautions pandemic not over 

Roche Holding’s diagnostics chief said it’s too early to call an end to the pandemic even as Omicron’s spread ebbs, because a seasonal resurgence is possible later this year.

“It’s important that we get prepared as we go into the next winter period and don’t get surprised,” said Thomas Schinecker, who heads the Covid test maker’s diagnostics unit

In an interview, the Roche executive called on governments, the largest purchasers of rapid antigen tests, to be more proactive as they plan for bulk purchases ahead of a probable next wave of infections.

Hong Kong numbers rise 

Hong Kong reported 34,466 confirmed Covid-19 cases on Monday, health official Albert Au said at a briefing. Covid deaths among people aged 51 to 100 stood at 87, according to the Hospital Authority, while 49 patients were in critical condition.

Hong Kong exempts schools from early break  

Hong Kong will let international schools stick with their original holiday schedule after educational institutions pushed back on a government announcement to bring forward the summer break.

The schools will be allowed to continue with their regular school schedules, with most summer holidays taking place in July and August, Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung said at a briefing on Monday.

Australia false positives 

Fifty-five cases of Covid-19 reported in two remote indigenous communities in Western Australia state last week were false positives, Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson told reporters on Monday.

Follow-up testing found that some of the cases were instead other respiratory illnesses like colds and the flu, she said. The machines provided by the federal government which were used in the diagnoses are no longer in use, she said.

Hong Kong flight bookings surge 

Major airlines reported a surge in bookings from Hong Kong last week as the city saw a new pandemic-era record in net population outflow, as a deepening Covid-19 crisis pushes more residents to leave.

Emirates Airlines said it is seeing weekly double-digit growth for advanced bookings until July, particularly to the UK and other European countries, a spokesman wrote in an email. Turkish Airlines is experiencing a double-digit increase in demand month-on-month and is closely watching if it is feasible to expand its schedule.

Airlines are seeing big jumps in bookings despite the shortage of flights and logistical difficulties of leaving Hong Kong, after authorities unveiled measures to combat the surge in Covid cases that include bringing forward school summer holidays to March and city-wide mandatory testing that could include a lockdown.

South Korea peak forecast 

The number of daily new coronavirus cases in South Korea may top 230,000 on 9 March while the number of critically ill patients may rise to more than 1,200, Jeong Eun Kyeong, head of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said in a briefing.

Infections are forecast to reach a peak between early March to mid-March, while the number of daily new cases may range from 180,000 to 350,000, the official said.

Hong Kong moves away from Covid zero 

Patients with mild cases in Hong Kong are no longer sent to hospital or isolation facilities as there’s no space; instead, they’re asked to stay home until they test negative with rapid antigen tests.

Close contacts, no longer recorded by the city’s elaborate contact tracing process, are moving around freely though they’re technically supposed to home-quarantine for at least a week. The app used to flag locations with confirmed cases has suspended risk alerts.

The quick erosion of core Covid-zero practices shows the difficulty of maintaining an approach that seeks to wipe out the virus when faced with more infectious strains like Omicron. Hong Kong saw a record 26,026 new cases on Sunday and 83 deaths, making the outbreak much bigger than any the zero-tolerance approach pioneered by China has ever quelled.

New Zealand eases entry rules 

New Zealand is removing the requirement for vaccinated travellers to self-isolate, a sign that the rapidly spreading Omicron outbreak is making border restrictions pointless.

From midnight on 2 March, vaccinated New Zealanders arriving from Australia will no longer need to serve a week of self-isolation and will have to return only two negative rapid antigen tests. The government also brought forward the date from which New Zealanders in other countries can return home, to midnight 4 March from 14 March.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also signalled she would speed up the phased reopening of the border, potentially allowing tourists from anywhere in the world to return much sooner than the current October start date.

New China clusters  

The Southern Chinese province of Guangdong is trying to contain a fresh cluster out of its key manufacturing hub Dongguan, home to factories churning out electronic devices, toys and clothing. Some 50 infections have been found since late last week, with most in the city’s densely populated industrial park.

Meanwhile, coastal city Tianjin is also weeding out infections stemming from the city’s airport, leading to hundreds of flights being cancelled. Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, is seeing its local outbreak worsening as daily cases climbed to 30 on Monday. Overall, China reported 140 new cases on Monday.

Huanan market draws fresh scrutiny 

Researchers tracing the emergence of Covid-19 say they found more evidence implicating the now-infamous Huanan seafood market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Spatial analyses of early cases point to the sprawling market as the epicentre of the outbreak’s emergence, according to research released ahead of peer-review and publication.

A separate paper found the SARS-CoV-2 probably spilled over from animals on two separate occasions, spawning distinct lineages that spread from the market in late November 2019. A third paper by Chinese government scientists provides “convincing evidence” of the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 in the market during the early stage of the outbreak, where 10 stalls had been selling a menagerie of live, “domesticated wildlife”, including deer, badgers, rabbits, bamboo rats, porcupines, hedgehogs, salamanders and crocodiles.

China sending team to Hong Kong for testing help  

China is preparing to send a team of about 9,000 people to help with Hong Kong’s compulsory testing, the Sing Tao Daily reported, citing an official from China’s National Health Commission.

Test samples, if needed, can also be sent to Guangdong which can process 1.2 million to 1.5 million tests a day, which is much higher than Hong Kong’s daily capacity of 300,000, according to the report, which cited Li Dachuan, the commission’s deputy director of the medical administration bureau.

Hong Kong hasn’t ruled out a lockdown during citywide mandatory Covid testing, Commercial Radio Hong Kong reported, citing Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan.

Top China Covid expert in Hong Kong 

The official, Liang Wannian, will advise the city in its fight against the virus, the South China Morning Post reported, citing unidentified people. Hong Kong authorities are warning that cases haven’t peaked yet.

The visit is a sign that China is treating the situation in Hong Kong as dire and requiring top-level guidance, the newspaper reported, adding that Hong Kong’s first makeshift mobile cabin hospitals were to begin operating on Monday. DM/MC

— With assistance from K. Oanh Ha, Prim Chuwiruch, Soraya Permatasari, Jason Gale and Michael Tobin.

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