Covid-19

CORONAVIRUS GLOBAL UPDATE

US activates website for free tests; South Africa registers 3,658 new cases

A woman wearing a protective mask walks past graffiti in Pristina, Kosovo, on 5 November 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / VALDRIN XHEMAJ)
By Bloomberg
18 Jan 2022 0

South Africa registered 3,658 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total to 3,564,578. A further 100 Covid-19-related deaths were reported, taking total official deaths to 93,551. A total of 29,084,975 vaccines have been administered.

Omicron won’t be the last variant, and comprehensive strategies are still needed to reduce severe disease, deaths and transmission, the World Health Organization said. The US Postal Service opened access to a website that allows households to order free at-home tests.

The Covid-19 wave in New York City is slowing, with cases and hospitalisations dropping dramatically from a peak in early January and remaining concentrated among those unvaccinated. The city is also still exploring a remote option for children absent from public schools.

Hong Kong is culling thousands of small animals, after nearly a dozen hamsters imported from the Netherlands and sold at a local pet store were found to be infected with the Delta variant and are suspected of having spread the virus to humans. In South Africa, lions and pumas at a zoo got severe Covid from asymptomatic zoo handlers, raising concerns variants could emerge from animal reservoirs. 

Key developments 

More than 200,000 Swiss in quarantine 

A record of more than 200,000 people in Switzerland are in quarantine or isolation after testing positive or coming into contact with a person infected with Covid-19.

The fast-spreading Omicron variant is responsible for about 90% of new cases in the country of about 8.5 million people and has forced the largest number of residents into isolation since the pandemic began two years ago, government officials said.

About 163,000 people are in quarantine after testing positive and about 52,000 are in isolation after having contact with an infected person. Like the US, Switzerland recently halved its isolation period to five days from 10.

Deaths remain at a low level of about 20 a day, and intensive-care unit occupancy remains manageable, said Virginie Masserey, head of infection control at Switzerland’s Office of Public Health.

US opens access to free-test website 

The US Postal Service opened access to a website that allows households to order one set of four free at-home Covid-19 tests. Each household is limited to one order, with kits expected to begin shipping later this month. The site is part of a push by the Biden administration to increase access to at-home tests, which have been in short supply since the start of the Omicron surge last month.

WHO warns against ending Covid strategies 

Omicron won’t be the last variant, and comprehensive strategies are still needed to reduce severe disease, deaths and transmission, according to Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead officer on Covid. 

She said at a briefing on Tuesday that countries shouldn’t abandon well-established, life-saving interventions, such as social distancing, mask-wearing, good ventilation and avoiding crowds.

Bruce Aylward, senior adviser at the WHO, said that if countries give up, “there’ll be more transmission, more infections, more mutations and more risk in terms of variants. There are consequences, additional risks if you throw in the towel. We don’t understand all of the consequences of letting this thing run, so we really want to reduce transmission as much as possible.”

Two New York City subway lines resume service 

Two New York City subway lines will be reinstated on Wednesday following weeks of suspension as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) deals with staffing shortages prompted by the Omicron-fuelled Covid surge.

The MTA, which operates the US’s largest transit system, said the B and Z trains, which connect Manhattan with the outer boroughs, will resume on Wednesday. Other train services, including the 6 Express, 7 Express, J Express and A trains that go to Rockaway, will also resume service.

Jamaica limits hospital visits 

Jamaica’s public hospitals will accept only emergency cases starting on Wednesday, as the Caribbean island’s health system comes under pressure from Covid-19 cases and a shortage of staff, the government said.

“All our hospitals are seeing increased numbers and several of the larger hospitals are over 90% capacity with some over 100%,”  Christopher Tufton, Jamaica’s minister of health and wellness, said in a statement.

As of Sunday, there were 682 people hospitalised in Jamaica for Covid-19. The island of three million people has reported 113,438 cases of the coronavirus and 2,536 deaths since the pandemic began.

New York City infections slowing 

New York City’s coronavirus surge is declining, with cases and hospitalisations dropping dramatically, health commissioner Dave Chokshi said on Tuesday. 

The daily number of cases dropped to 17,296 over the last week, down from a peak of 42,576 on January 3. Despite the decline, cases remain elevated from October and November, when infections were hovering around 1,000 a day. Chokshi said the cases and hospitalisations remain concentrated among unvaccinated New Yorkers. 

The city is also still exploring a remote schooling option for the more than 200,000 children who remain absent from public schools. Officials said that in-person schooling remains a priority but that there are discussions with teachers’ unions to add remote options.

WHO wants technology vaccine hubs  

Technology vaccine hubs need to be created as the current mechanisms for vaccine manufacturing aren’t conducive for producing equity, a World Health Organization (WHO) official said at a virtual WEF event on Tuesday.

“If we have a system to produce enough vaccine, then tell me why the people who need it are not receiving it,” said Mike Ryan, head of the WHO’s health emergencies programme. “We have a responsibility to come out of this pandemic with the skills and infrastructure to be ready for the next one.”

Ireland passes Omicron peak 

Ireland has passed the peak of the Omicron variant and is likely to begin to ease some restrictions before the end of January following a government review, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said.

Mask mandates could be gone by April as emergency legislation expires, Donnelly told national broadcaster RTE. “We want to see the measures relaxed quickly and safely,” he said, while doing the “medium-term work” to respond comprehensively if another variant of concern arrives.

Omicron could hasten pandemic end  

A laboratory study in South Africa that used samples from 23 people infected with Omicron in November and December showed that while those who previously caught the Delta variant can contract Omicron, those who get the Omicron strain can’t be infected with Delta, particularly if they’ve been vaccinated, 

While Omicron is significantly more infectious than Delta, hospital and mortality data in countries including South Africa – the first to experience a wave of Omicron infections – appear to show that it causes less-severe disease. 

Israel sees peak to Omicron wave 

The surge in coronavirus infections due to the spread of Omicron is expected to peak in a week, a top Israeli health official said

“In the coming week, we will still see increasing numbers, but in another week we will start to see a decline,” Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash said in an Army Radio interview. “There are another two or three difficult weeks ahead.”

Tokyo area faces quasi-emergency 

The greater Tokyo region and other parts of Japan are set to come under a state of quasi-emergency for three weeks starting on Friday as the government tries to rein in a surge in the virus. A final decision will be made on Wednesday for the 13 prefectures including Tokyo. 

If approved, the measure will allow the local government to request limits on gathering and hospitality operations. Tokyo and neighbouring areas are discussing restrictions on serving alcohol, asking restaurants and bars to shorten opening hours and requiring testing of all participants at large events, broadcaster NHK reported on Tuesday.

Mandatory boosters to enter Abu Dhabi 

The oil-rich capital of the United Arab Emirates has made booster doses mandatory for entry as the Gulf nation battles a renewed surge of infections driven by the Omicron variant. Starting this week, people travelling to Abu Dhabi will need to have booster doses to enter unless exempted by the authorities.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the latest requirement also applies to neighbouring Dubai, which has generally had fewer restrictions through the pandemic. 

Thailand aims to remove quarantine 

Thailand will propose reviving the government’s quarantine-free entry programme for vaccinated travellers in February as the situation around the outbreak of the Omicron strain remains manageable. The Health Ministry will also propose to the main Covid-19 task force that the alert level for the country be lowered to three from four.

Olympics spectator rules 

The small number of spectators allowed at next month’s Beijing Winter Olympics will be required to have received boosters and movements before and after events will be limited. 

Organisers said there will be no general ticket sales, a first for any modern Olympics. Access will be restricted to a limited group that includes people linked to Olympic sponsors, staff from Chinese state-owned enterprises and local students, according to people familiar with the matter. 

India curbs celebrations 

India will not allow more than 8,000 people to witness its Republic Day parade in New Delhi on January 26, as infections continue to surge, the government said. The south Asian nation, which now has a confirmed tally of 37.6 million cases, had 25,000 people attend last year’s event at the capital’s iconic Red Fort.

Fears of animal infection 

Hong Kong, suspecting that imported hamsters may have spread the virus to humans, ordered the culling of thousands of the small mammals, closed shops selling them and sent more than 100 pet shop visitors into quarantine camp as part of its increasingly fervent quest to eliminate the virus. 

The escalation came after nearly a dozen hamsters imported from the Netherlands and sold at a local pet store were found to be infected with Delta, a virulent variant that hadn’t been found in the city for months until a worker there tested positive. Samples from the shop’s warehouse in another part of the city also showed traces of the virus.

In South Africa, lions and pumas at a zoo in the capital got severe Covid from asymptomatic zoo handlers.

Germany warns of ‘dangerous’ wave 

Germany is having some success in keeping its Omicron-fuelled Covid wave in check but if more elderly people start to get infected the situation would become “dangerous,” according to Health Minister Karl Lauterbach.

“These are depressing numbers,” Lauterbach said on Deutschlandfunk radio after the RKI public-health institute reported another record incidence rate on Tuesday. “We’re doing all we can to keep this powerful wave we have now as flat as possible,” he added. 

Indonesia lifts ban on foreign arrivals 

Indonesia lifted a ban on all foreign arrivals and kept the required isolation period to seven days in a bid to keep the economy going, even as local Covid-19 infections continued to climb. 

The ban removal came as Southeast Asia’s biggest economy gears up for several international events this year, such as the MotoGP championship in March and the G-20 Summit in November that would generate more international arrivals. DM/MC

With assistance from Jinshan Hong, Iain Rogers, Renee Bonorchis, Archana Chaudhary, Morwenna Coniam, Adveith Nair, Sophie Jackman, Prim Chuwiruch, Alisa Odenheimer, Laura Nahmias, Andy Hoffman, Jim Wyss and Corinne Gretler.

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