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The latest on coronavirus pandemic and Omicron variant

How major cities around the world ring in 2022 in the shadow of Omicron

What we're covering here

  • A growing list of cities have announced they’re canceling New Year’s Eve celebrations as Omicron continues to spread and bring record cases to some areas.
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci warned against attending large-scale New Year’s Eve celebrations, suggesting people opt for smaller gatherings with vaccinated and boosted family and friends.
  • Meanwhile, New York City plans to hold a “scaled back” Times Square celebration with fewer revelers who will be required to show proof of vaccination and wear a mask.

Our live coverage has ended for the day.

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More than 30 colleges and universities changing the start of spring semester due to Covid-19

A general view of the Duke University Chapel on the campus of Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, in 2018.

A growing number of colleges and universities are making changes to the beginning of the 2022 spring semester as a result of the surge in cases of Covid-19.

Duke University is extending its plan for remote classes by another week due to an “incredibly high” positive case count among faculty and students who are already in the area, the school announced on Friday.

The school previously announced that classes would be remote until Jan. 10. The policy applies to undergraduate, graduate and professional school classes, the school said.

Michigan State University said classes will start remotely on Jan. 10 and stay remote for three weeks, according to an announcement on Friday. Residence halls will still be open for students who wish to move back to campus.

“I realize that students prefer to be in person, and so do I,” said university president Samuel Stanley, Jr. in his letter to students. “But it is important that we do so in a safe manner. Starting the semester remotely and de-densifying campus in the coming weeks can be a solution to slowing the spread of the virus.”

Michigan State also said a decision will be made in the coming days as to whether booster shots will be required. Vaccination against Covid-19 is already required.

There are now more than 30 colleges and universities either moving classes online or pushing back the start of the semester entirely, including Columbia University, Princeton University, Harvard University, and Yale University.

CNN’s Taylor Romine contributed to this report.

Italy, Greece and France all end year with record Covid-19 cases

Police officers check compliance with the mandatory wearing of face masks, along the Champs-Elysees Avenue in Paris on New Year's Eve.

Italy, Greece and France have registered record-high numbers of new confirmed cases of Covid-19 on Friday.

France registered at least 232,200 new cases, the highest daily number registered across Europe since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data from the country’s health ministry.

In Italy, at least 144,243 people tested positive for coronavirus, its highest number yet, bringing the total tally to more than six million cases. 

Greece recorded at least 40,560 new confirmed cases of Covid-19.

The death toll and hospitalizations remain relatively low in all countries compared to numbers from previous waves.

Immunity wanes against Omicron variant with both Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, study finds

A Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine is prepared for administration at a vaccination clinic on September 22, in Los Angeles.

Immunity wanes against the Omicron variant of the coronavirus with both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines – but not as much as it wanes after a natural infection, researchers reported Friday.

And they say their findings show the need for vaccines that specifically protect against Omicron.

Dr. Emilia Sordillo at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and colleagues tested the blood of people who had been vaccinated, or vaccinated and boosted with Moderna’s or Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccines, as well as the blood of people who had recovered from Covid-19.

Although the tests were done in lab dishes, the researchers said the experiment replicates real life conditions because they used live virus. They looked for what are known as neutralizing antibodies: immune system structures that can stick to the virus and stop it from infecting cells. “Across all 85 samples, the reduction in neutralization for Omicron was greater than 14.5 fold,” compared with the Beta variant and the original strain, they wrote. “In comparison, there was only a four-fold reduction against Beta in the same sample.

“In fact, 16.5% of samples lost all neutralizing activity against Omicron.” That included nearly three-quarters of blood samples from people who had recovered from infections.

“Our findings support recent reports describing significantly reduced protection from reinfection and almost non-existent vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic disease after two BNT162b2 (Pfizer) vaccinations,” they wrote. But people who got Pfizer boosters had protection “in the range of 75%,” they wrote.

They found no evidence that the Moderna vaccine provides stronger protection than Pfizer’s. The blood of people who got two doses of Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine produced antibody neutralization levels that were 23-fold lower against Omicron than against the original strain of the virus, and antibody levels from people who got Moderna’s vaccine were 42 times lower. For people who got booster doses, neutralization activity was 7.5 times lower for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and 16.7 times lower for Moderna’s.

In general, antibody protection correlates with real-life protection, but it doesn’t measure the long-term protection from severe disease and death provided by a slower-growing and longer-lasting type of protection: immune cells called T cells.

“We should remember that the relationship between measurable neutralizing antibodies and clinical course of infection is not a simple one. In general, antibodies are required to prevent initial infection; but cellular immunity – which may be maintained – is required to prevent serious illness,” Dr. Peter English, an expert in communicable disease control in the UK, said in a statement.

“Importantly, the study supports the view that a third dose of vaccine considerably improves the antibody response against Omicron infection,” added English, who was not involved in the study.

Dr. Julian Tang of the University of Leicester, who also was not involved in the study, also said T-cell responses are important for long-term protection against severe disease. 

“The bottom line is that boosting existing immunity (whether vaccine or naturally acquired) does help to protect against infection/reinfection to some degree – as well as boosting existing T-cell responses – all of which will help to protect us against Omicron. So getting these booster doses is important – especially if you are in one of the more vulnerable groups,” Tang said. 

The US government is deploying medical and ambulance teams to NY to combat Omicron

The federal government is sending significant resources to New York to assist in combating the surge of the Omicron coronavirus variant, according to Jackie Bray, acting commissioner of the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Service.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will be deploying a 35-member disaster medical assistance team to State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, which will be on the ground next week, Bray said. 

There will also be a deployment of a 23-member Department of Defense medical response team to Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo shortly, Bray said. 

While 30 federal ambulance teams have been working in the upstate and central New York regions, Bray said the government would be sending 50 additional ambulance teams to New York City beginning in early January. The original teams will then travel further into the northern part of the state, she said. 

Bray also said the state is opening its stockpiles and sending medical equipment — including oxygen concentrators, tanks and BiPAP machines — to hospitals across the state. 

New York is also deploying 50 additional National Guard members to New York City to give support in “critical non-clinical functions,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said Friday. 

There are already 50 National Guard members in New York City who are focusing on medical support, she said. 

The state is also preparing two classes of 40-guard members each to begin EMT training on Jan. 5 to eventually provide further help, she said.

Texas asks federal government for more Covid-related resources

Healthcare workers operate a Covid-19 drive-through testing site in Houston on December 30.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday the state has formally requested more Covid-related resources from the federal government. 

“Detecting Covid-19 and preventing Covid-related hospitalizations are critical to our fight against this virus,” the governor said in a news release. 

The state, through the Texas Division of Emergency Management and the Texas Department of State Health Services, has requested more federally supported testing sites, medical personnel and additional allocations of monoclonal antibody treatments.

New York's mask or vaccine requirement for businesses extended until February

Shoppers browse the stores at the Brookfield Place indoor mall on December 27, in New York City.

In reviewing her Covid-19 winter surge plan, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul extended the mandate for businesses in the state to have a masking or vaccine requirement until Feb. 1, she said Friday.

The previously planned end date was Jan. 15.

“We have seen the landscape change so dramatically,” Hochul said, adding that when the mandate was first instituted, the trajectory of the pandemic was “not what we’re seeing now.”

The governor said she is willing to reassess and hopes that the picture is more positive in February.

She said generally she has seen and heard about compliance across the state.

CNN’s Taylor Romine contributed to this post.

FAA warns it may be forced to delay flights because of Covid-19

The US Federal Aviation Administration is warning more air travel headaches may be in store, even as airlines cancel thousands of flights because of coronavirus crew shortages and other issues.

The FAA said Friday an “increased number” of its own employees are testing positive for the virus. That could force it to implement health and cleaning procedures that reduce the number of flights the system can handle. 

“To maintain safety, traffic volume at some facilities could be reduced, which might result in delays during busy periods,” the FAA said.  

Airlines canceled more than 11,000 flights since Christmas Eve, including more than 1,000 already scrapped from Saturday and Sunday schedules. But none of those were the result of FAA issues, the agency said.  

The Transportation Security Administration told CNN on Thursday that it has “adequate staff to cover flight schedules and passenger volumes.”

New Year's Eve revelers go through vaccine and security checkpoints at Times Square

New Year Eve’s revelers went through vaccine and security checkpoints at Times Square Friday morning – hours before the ball will drop to ring in the new year.

Ben Von Klemperer took these videos of the checkpoints. He said staff were checking people’s vaccine cards and identification cards before they were allowed to proceed to security.

Risk of hospitalization from Omicron around one-third of Delta, UK analysis suggests

The risk of being hospitalized with the Omicron variant of coronavirus is around one-third of that of the Delta variant, a new analysis from the UK Health Security Agency suggests.

The technical briefing update published Friday includes data analyzed from Dec. 23-29, when more than 198,000 people in England had confirmed infections with the Omicron variant. 

According to the update, three doses of a Covid-19 vaccine reduced the risk of hospitalization with Omicron by 81% compared to unvaccinated cases. For those vaccinated with two doses, the risk is reduced by 65%. The report says 815 people with lab-confirmed Omicron infection had been admitted to hospitals in England.

However, the analysis also suggests: “Vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic disease with the Omicron variant is significantly lower than compared to the Delta variant and wanes rapidly.”

“Nevertheless, protection against hospitalisation is much greater than that against symptomatic disease, in particular after a booster dose, where vaccine effectiveness against hospitalisation is close to 90%,” according to the analysis. 

“Further data is needed to estimate the duration of protection against hospitalisation. Experience with previous variants suggests that this will be sustained longer than protection against symptomatic disease,” it added. 

Philippines announces stricter Covid-19 guidelines in Manila starting Jan. 3

The Philippine government announced on Friday that the National Capital Region, which includes metropolitan Manila, will move under stricter restrictions starting Jan. 3 until Jan. 15 after the country confirmed its first local Omicron cases.

This comes from presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles just hours before the New Year, according to CNN Philippines.

The Philippines had its first three local cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant, indicating a high possibility of local transmission, Nograles announced.

In a statement, the country’s department of health also said “there is a high probability of exponential growth with the continued decreased adherence to MPHS (minimum public health standards) and the detection of local cases with Omicron variant,” CNN Philippines reports. 

The department of health said these local cases were detected from 48 samples sequenced on Friday. 

All patients have already recovered, but regional authorities are still tracing their close contacts, according to CNN Philippines.

These are some of the major cities that canceled their big New Year's Eve events due to Covid-19 concerns

NYPD police officers with rifles stand in Times Square in New York City on Thursday, December 30, 2021. Officers from the Counterterrorism Bureau and other NYPD units will patrol during the New Year's Eve bash on Friday. Revelers must wear face masks and prove they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

In New York City, the New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square will be “scaled back” tonight, with fewer revelers and everyone required to wear a mask, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office said last week.

But some major cities in Europe, where the spread of Omicron has been startling, announced they are flat-out canceling plans.

On Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci repeated his warning that people should avoid large New Year’s Eve gatherings and stick with small gatherings of vaccinated family or close friends.

The following cities announced they’re canceling their big shindigs:

  • Athens: No fireworks show over the Acropolis this year. Greek Health Minister Thanos Plevris said during a news briefing on Dec. 23, that all public Christmas and New Year celebrations planned by municipalities are canceled.
  • Atlanta: Georgia’s capital city is canceling the New Year’s Eve Peach Drop at Underground Atlanta because of the rising number of Covid-19 cases, according to a tweet from Underground Atlanta.
  • Berlin: Germany imposed strict contact restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19 starting on Dec. 28 and will prohibit New Year’s Eve gatherings, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced on Dec. 21. That means no big fireworks gathering in Berlin, the capital, nor in other big gathering spots such as Munich and Frankfurt.
  • Edinburgh: Public New Year’s Eve celebrations in Scotland will be canceled, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Dec. 21. In a statement, Sturgeon explained details for post-Christmas restrictions on large events to blunt the spread of Omicron.
  • London: A planned New Year’s Eve event in London has been canceled over Covid-19 concerns, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan tweeted on Dec. 20. “Due to the surge in Covid cases, we’ve taken the difficult decision to cancel our NYE event in Trafalgar Square,” Khan tweeted. “The safety of all Londoners must come first.”
  • New Delhi: The government of India’s union territory of Delhi, which encompasses the national capital of New Delhi, has announced a ban on all social, cultural, political and festival gatherings until further notice because of a rise in Covid-19 cases, CNN’s New Delhi Bureau reports.
  • Paris: Paris has canceled its traditional fireworks display over the Champs-Elysées Avenue to welcome the New Year because of the renewed coronavirus surge. “The fireworks will not take place, nor unfortunately will there be any DJ sets,” the mayor’s office told AFP in a report on French Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Dec. 17, that major public parties and fireworks would be banned on New Year’s Eve and recommended that even vaccinated people take a self-test before getting together for year-end parties, according to Reuters.
  • Rome: In Italy, Rome is among several cities that have decided to cancel festivities over Covid health concerns. Large New Year’s Eve celebrations across the country have been canceled, including open air concerts and fireworks in Venice. Nightclubs will be closed for the month of January as well. The Campania region has also banned feasts and alcohol consumption in public areas from Dec. 23 to Jan. 1.

See which cities are still moving forward with their NYE’s plans here.

UK approves Pfizer's Covid-19 antiviral pill for high-risk adults

Paxlovid from Pfizer.

UK regulators have approved Paxlovid, the antiviral pill developed by Pfizer which, studies suggest, can sharply reduce the risk of hospitalization and death for high-risk adults with Covid-19.

The pill is “safe and effective,” according to the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in a statement published online Friday. It is taken in combination with an older antiviral, ritonavir, which slows the drug’s breakdown.

Clinical trials among high-risk adults concluded that one course of Paxlovid, taken twice a day for five days, reduced the risk of Covid-19 related hospitalization and death within 28 days by 89%, compared to a placebo group when taken within three days of the start of symptoms. 

The UK has authorized it for people aged 18 and above who have mild to moderate Covid-19 symptoms, and at least one risk factor for developing severe illness, according to the statement.

“The booster campaign, testing and antiviral defences ensure our country is in the strongest possible position to deal with the threat posed by Omicron as we head into the new year,” UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said in the statement. 

The news release added, “It is too early to know whether the omicron variant has any impact on Paxlovid’s effectiveness but the MHRA is proactively working with the company to establish this.”

The US Food and Drug Administration authorized the pill last week.

Greece follows US in cutting Covid self-isolation to five days

A group of young people wearing masks are seen at a cafe in Athens, Greece, on Dec. 30, 2021. Greece's government implemented further protection measures against Covid-19 on Wednesday as the number of new cases tripled in 48 hours.

Greece has followed the US in halving its Covid-19 self-isolation period from 10 days to five, apparently making it the first European country to do so.

The change was announced despite a record surge in cases. 

The country’s health experts committee announced the move in a statement published online Wednesday, ahead of a record 35,580 new cases reported on Thursday, according to data from Greece’s national public health organization.

The revised guidelines replicate the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations announced Monday to end self-isolation after five days, provided patients have no symptoms.

The person must then wear a “high-protection” N95, KN95 or FFP2 mask for a further five days, according to the Greek statement. 

Those who are fully vaccinated, including a booster shot, are not required to self-isolate if they are identified as a close contact of a Covid-positive person, while the unvaccinated must follow the revised isolation rules. 

Elsewhere in Europe, Portugal, England and Wales have shortened their isolation period from 10 days to seven.

WHO chief: 2022 can mark the end of the pandemic

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus gives a press conference on December 20, 2021 at the WHO headquarters in Geneva.

The head of the World Health Organization has struck a hopeful note about beating the pandemic in 2022 in a New Year’s Eve message, saying the world had the “tools to end this calamity” even as daily new Covid cases worldwide reached new records.

But the optimistic post from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, which he shared on LinkedIn Thursday, came with a warning: The longer inequity continues, the longer the pandemic will persist.

Two years in, the tools available to fight Covid-19 remain unevenly distributed around the world. In Africa, three in four health care workers remain unvaccinated, while people in Europe and the United States are receiving third booster doses. That gap has made the chances of new variants emerging more likely, “locking us into a cycle of continued loss, hardship and restrictions,” Tedros said.

“If we end inequity, we end the pandemic, and end the global nightmare we have all lived through. And this is possible,” he added.

As part of his New Year resolutions, the WHO chief said he would work in collaboration with governments to prioritize vaccine deliveries to global initiatives, like COVAX and AVAT, with the target of vaccinating 70% of people in all countries by mid-2022.

You can read his full post, “My hope for ending the Covid-19 pandemic in 2022,” on LinkedIn. Here’s an excerpt from his message:

After two years, we now know this virus well. We know the proven measures to control transmission: mask use, avoiding crowds, maintaining physical distancing, practicing hand and respiratory hygiene, opening windows for ventilation, testing and contact tracing. We know how to treat the disease it causes and improve the chances of survival for people suffering serious illness. With all these learnings and capacities, the opportunity to turn this pandemic around for good is in our grasp.

Omicron is now the dominant variant in France

People walk past the Trocadero place near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, Dec. 29, 2021. France reported on Wednesday 208,099 new confirmed Covid-19 cases detected in the past 24 hours, a new daily record since the outbreak of the pandemic in France.

French President Emmanuel Macron is poised to deliver his annual New Year’s Eve speech on Friday afternoon, hours after the country announced that Omicron had become the dominant variant and as it grapples with a surge in Covid-19 cases.

More than 60% of coronavirus tests are now showing a profile compatible with Omicron, data released by the government late Thursday showed. The variant accounted for just 15% of all cases in mid-December, but holiday gatherings in recent weeks have fueled its spread and sparked a surge in infections.

Omicron variant cases are doubling every two to three days, French Health Minister Olivier Veran said Wednesday, reporting that France set another new daily record high of 208,000 coronavirus cases in 24 hours. “We are seeing numbers that give you vertigo,” Veran told a parliamentary health commission in Paris.

Earlier this month, French ministers tightened travel restrictions for the United Kingdom, citing concerns over the spread of Omicron. But on Thursday, the French Interior Ministry announced that British nationals who are legal residents of an EU country would be allowed to transit through France over the holiday period.

To curb the spread of Omicron, France has also announced it will require a new “vaccine pass,” replacing the previous “health pass,” which could be obtained by providing a recent negative Covid test instead of proof of vaccination. The new system will to come into force from January 15 in restaurants, as well as in some of the country’s public transportation.

President Macron has pledged to ramp up restrictions on the unvaccinated, but has stopped short of making the vaccine compulsory.

Hong Kong reports first Omicron cluster as city prepares to welcomes New Year

Hong Kong has confirmed its first Omicron cluster, bringing an end to its long streak of zero locally transmitted cases and prompting fears of a wider outbreak as the city prepares to ring in the new year.

Two cases of local transmission were detected on Thursday, both fully vaccinated with no recent travel history. They tested preliminarily positive for Covid-19 after eating at a restaurant on Monday, where they were exposed to an air crew member who was later confirmed to be carrying the highly transmissible Omicron variant, authorities say.

The crew member, an employee of Cathay Pacific, the city’s flagship carrier, arrived in Hong Kong from the United States on Christmas Day. He had tested negative twice, before testing preliminarily positive for Omicron on Tuesday. He is fully vaccinated with a third booster shot of the Pfizer vaccine and remains asymptomatic, according to the Department of Health.

Health authorities announced Friday they are also monitoring 19 new cases, mostly imported and all suspected to be Omicron — including a cargo pilot who visited several popular restaurants and bars on Monday, just days after returning from the US. On Tuesday he was determined to be a close contact of another patient and sent to the government’s quarantine center; by Wednesday, he had tested positive for the virus.

Hong Kong hasn’t seen a locally transmitted Covid case with an unknown source for nearly three months; the last such reported case was on October 8. Though the city had reported a number of imported Omicron cases from quarantined overseas travelers in December, the variant hadn’t broken to the local community until now.

Read more:

Isolation units at the Penny's Bay Quarantine Centre in Hong Kong, China, on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. The Hong Kong government declared that travelers returning from the U.S. and the U.K have to spend a week of quarantine in a spartan isolation camp, before serving out another 14 days in a hotel room they pay for themselves. Photographer: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hong Kong reports first Omicron cluster as city welcomes New Year

Cathay Pacific says strict new Hong Kong quarantine rules could cause "dramatic" supply chain disruptions

A Cathay Pacific cargo airplane prepares to land at Hong Kong International Airport on November 21, 2021.

Hong Kong’s flagship airline warned Friday that strict new quarantine measures in the city could lead to “dramatic disruptions” to local supply chains, as the company is forced to curb some passenger and cargo flights.

Cathay Pacific’s note of caution came as the Hong Kong government announced that, from Saturday, all cargo air crew based in the city who have stayed overseas will need to spend seven days in hotel quarantine when they return. That’s up from the current three-day requirement.

The measure marks an escalation from what are already some of the world’s most stringent and isolating restrictions, as Hong Kong attempts to stamp out any trace of the coronavirus. The city, along with mainland China, is one of the last places in Asia still adopting a “zero Covid” strategy. And most people coming into the city are forced to quarantine in a hotel for up to three weeks upon arrival, even if they are inoculated.

“We are wary that any further tightening of aircrew quarantine arrangements would lead to reductions in flight frequencies to protect the well-being of our crew members and the overall safety of our operations,” said Andy Wong, general manager of Cathay Pacific’s corporate affairs division, in a statement.

He added that such actions would cause “dramatic disruptions to supply chains in the short-term” and undermine Hong Kong International Airport as a “leading cargo hub.”

Strict quarantine rules have already been taking a toll on pilots at the carrier.

Like staff at many airlines, all Cathay flight crew are fully vaccinated. But Cathay pilots told CNN Business weeks ago that the airline had adopted strict policies for those traveling to countries designated as “high risk,” such as the United States, India and the United Kingdom. Pilots headed to those places typically fly out for several weeks and still have to quarantine in hotels again in Hong Kong.

Omicron cases: “Low risk” and cargo flights have been more lenient in the past, but Friday’s announcement suggests the city sees a need for a tightening as the threat of the Omicron coronavirus variant grows. Hong Kong just reported its first two local cases of the variant, which health authorities said Thursday were likely linked to a Cathay crew member.

Read more:

A Cathay Pacific cargo airplane prepares to land at Hong Kong International Airport on November 21, 2021. (Photo by Bertha WANG / AFP) (Photo by BERTHA WANG/AFP via Getty Images)

Hong Kong's flagship airline says strict new quarantine rules could cause 'dramatic' supply chain disruptions

Doctors in India end strike amid growing Covid cases

Junior doctors of a government medical college hospital shout anti-government slogans as they march in New Delhi on Tuesday.

Resident doctors in India’s capital, New Delhi, have called off their two-week long strike amid rising coronavirus cases in the country, a statement from the Federation of Resident Doctors’ Association (FORDA) said on Friday.

Thousands of resident doctors have been protesting a delay in allocating hospitals to doctors who have passed their post-graduate exams — leaving them unemployed and unable to support the country’s Covid efforts. The delay has led to a shortage of 45,000 doctors on the front line, according to the Indian Medical Association. 

“With the Covid situation getting worse we have rejoined hospitals,” said FORDA secretary Dr. Anuj Aggarwal, adding they will continue to push for allocation of hospitals to the incoming batch of doctors.

India reported more than 16,000 new Covid-19 cases Friday, a 27% rise from the day before, according to the Ministry of Health.

Omicron is likely behind a "sharp increase" in India cases, health official says

India reported more than 16,000 new coronavirus cases on Friday, a 27% rise from the day before, according to the country’s Ministry of Health — as doctors brace for a potential third wave driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

India’s Omicron case numbers have more than tripled this week, with at least 1,270 infections now recorded, compared to 358 last Friday.

Health secretary Lav Agarwal called it a “sharp increase” during a news conference Thursday.

According to the head of India’s Covid-19 task force, VK Paul, the rise “could be part of the global rise in cases pushed by Omicron.”

Meanwhile, as five Indian states gear up for elections in early 2022, political parties have held a number of events drawing large crowds, particularly in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous.

Many people have stopped wearing face masks, and are getting tested less frequently than before.

Local restrictions: While the national government has issued no restrictions on large gatherings, it has outlined Covid protocols for states to impose depending on their local situation. At least 13 states and several major cities have imposed restrictions.

In the capital, New Delhi, all social, cultural, political and festival gatherings are banned until further notice. Bars and restaurants are capped at 50% capacity, with face masks required for entry. Gyms and pools are shut entirely. A night curfew was announced Tuesday.

In Mumbai, all social, religious and political gatherings — including weddings and professional functions — are capped at 50% indoors and 25% outdoors until further notice.

Vaccination status: Just over 63% of India’s adult population are fully vaccinated as of Thursday, according to the Ministry of Health, while 90% are “partially vaccinated.”

India has reported a total of 34.8 million Covid-19 cases and 481,080 related deaths, according to the ministry.

Read more about Omicron and India:

ALLAHABAD, INDIA - DECEMBER 21: Women from various districts are seen near cut-outs of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally held by Modi on December 21, 2021 in Allahabad, India. Modi visited the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s strongholds in Uttar Pradesh, as India's economy emerges from Covid-19 and against the backdrop of sectarian tensions within the country increasing. Modi held the rallies as part of his "Vision of Prime Minister to empower the women" campaign in which the campaign transfers money to the accounts of self-help groups, benefiting around 1.6 million women members of the groups, local media said. (Photo by Ritesh Shukla/Getty Images)

As Omicron spreads in India, mass gatherings spark fears of another wave

Cathay Pacific to cancel more flights after Hong Kong tightens aircrew quarantine rules

Cathay Pacific planes seen on ground at Hong Kong International Airport in this file photo from Nov. 29.

Cathay Pacific will cancel an unspecified number of passenger flights to and from Hong Kong after the city tightened quarantine rules for aircrew, the airline said in a statement Thursday.

The Cathay statement said Hong Kong’s “latest tightening of aircrew quarantine restrictions continues to constrain our ability to operate flights as planned. We are making further significant changes to our flight schedule, including cancellations of passenger flights to and from Hong Kong from now to tentatively the first quarter of 2022.”
“We intend to operate a skeleton passenger flight schedule in January.”

It’s yet another setback for the embattled Hong Kong flag carrier, which has been dealt several blows by the city’s strict coronavirus border rules.

In a separate statement Friday, Cathay said it was suspending long-haul cargo flights into the city for one week, effective immediately.

The flight cancellations are expected to further isolate Hong Kong as the financial hub remains one of the only places in Asia, alongside mainland China, to stick to a rigid zero-Covid strategy.

“We sincerely apologise for the disruption caused. We will be working with customers to mitigate the disruption as much as possible,” the airline said.

In an email to CNN, Hong Kong’s Transport and Housing Bureau did not elaborate on changes to current aircrew quarantine restrictions.

Flight bans: Cathay’s announcement follows Hong Kong’s suspension of some international routes into the city for major airlines including Qatar Airways, Emirates, Korean Air, Turkish Airlines, Cebu Pacific and Finnair. 

Hong Kong has temporarily banned some passenger flights from New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Helsinki, London, Dubai, Doha, Bangkok, Korea, Istanbul and Manila after imported Covid-19 cases were recorded in patients arriving from these destinations. 

The Hong Kong government said it will review temporary bans on flight routes in early January 2022.

Analysis: A pandemic-scarred year ends in darkness — but with hope on the horizon

2021 wasn’t supposed to end like this.

The year dawned in a blaze of hope that new, effective Covid-19 vaccines — free and available to all — would deliver the country from the worst public health emergency in 100 years, in which 350,000 Americans had already died. The promise of a new President, Joe Biden, to shut down the virus rang in the nation’s ears after his predecessor had lied about Covid-19’s severity, botched the government response and prized his political goals over its health.

But the year ends in a dark place. Hospitals are flooded with Covid-19 patients, the transportation network is seizing up, and a new coronavirus variant — Omicron — is finding even the most careful citizens.

This year was deadlier then the last. More than 820,000 have now perished in the United States alone from Covid-19. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is predicting 44,000 deaths in the next four weeks. The once-unthinkable figure of a million lost Americans looks depressingly credible, and another White House has often seemed outmatched and hoping in vain for best-case scenarios to unfold as the virus stages fresh assaults.

“I think that right now we’re in the public health crisis of our lifetimes,” Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University, told CNN on Thursday.

He spoke as hospitalizations are rising fast, across the country — including in New York, Michigan, Colorado and Maryland — and the Delta variant of the coronavirus clings on and causes vicious hotspots elsewhere.

Read more:

Teresa Hui poses for a selfie in front of a 2022 sign displayed in Times Square, New York, on Dec. 20, 2021.

A pandemic-scarred year ends in darkness -- but with hope on the horizon

Some residents of locked down Chinese city say they are growing desperate for daily goods

After living for more than a week under a lockdown imposed to bring a local coronavirus outbreak under control, some residents of a city in northwestern China say they are growing desperate for basic necessities.

Xi’an, a city of 13 million in northwest Shaanxi province, went into lockdown on December 23. As cases continue to rise in the city, social media posts this week have detailed some residents’ struggle to buy groceries and other essential items.

In response, the Xi’an government said it would increase efforts to distribute daily supplies.

Photos of received groceries have now begun to appear on the social media site Weibo, despite the local government warning of continued difficulties in finding personnel to deliver food. 

Xian’s lockdown is the largest enacted in China since restrictions in Wuhan, which sealed off 11 million people in 2020.

The Xi’an outbreak poses a threat to China’s dogged zero-Covid strategy; the city’s restrictions were further tightened on Monday, banning residents from leaving their homes unless to undergo testing for the virus. Groceries are instead supposed to be delivered to people’s doors. 

The Shaanxi government has deployed 4,900 public servants to help with Covid controls and food distribution, according to state-run The Paper.

China reported 166 new locally transmitted Covid-19 cases on Friday, including 161 in Xi’an, the National Health Commission (NHC) said.

Xi’an has reported a total of 1,278 cases since its outbreak began on December 9. 

Read more about the Xi’an lockdown:

Mandatory Credit: Photo by CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Shutterstock (12658973f)
(211225) - XI'AN, Dec. 25, 2021 (Xinhua) - Staff members disinfect packed vegetables at a residential area under quarantine in Xi'an, northwest China's Shaanxi Province, Dec. 25, 2021. Xi'an initiated closed-off management for communities and villages on Thursday in an effort to curb the spread of the latest COVID-19 resurgence.
 More than 3,000 nucleic acid testing sites in Xi'an are working to provide services for residents in communities and on roadsides.
 Tens of thousands of frontline workers and volunteers are working against the clock to contain the virus.
 To swiftly contain the spread of the virus, local authorities have rolled out urgent measures while ensuring the city's residents have access to daily necessities.
China Shaanxi xi'an Covid 19 Prevention and Control - 25 Dec 2021

China tightens Xi'an lockdown as city reports highest daily Covid-19 cases in nearly 2 years

Germany to lift UK travel ban on Tuesday, embassy says

Germany is set to lift a ban on British nationals from entering the country from Tuesday, the German embassy in London said Thursday.   

From midnight on Tuesday, Germany will allow travelers who are fully vaccinated or “who have an important reason for travelling” from the United Kingdom to enter the country, the embassy said in a statement on Twitter.

People who are fully vaccinated will not need a negative Covid-19 test to enter the country, nor will they need to quarantine for 14 days upon entry, it added.

Responding to Germany’s move, British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said it was a “welcome development from our German colleagues.” 

Germany added the UK to its list of areas with “variants of concern” on December 19. Only German citizens and residents were allowed to enter the country from the UK.

Health experts are urging Americans to keep New Year's celebrations small tonight

With the spike in Covid-19 cases, experts are urging Americans to practice caution as they celebrate the new year.

Revelers should skip big indoor New Year’s Eve parties, said Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University.

“We’re in the public health crisis of our lifetime,” Reiner told CNN’s Phil Mattingly on Thursday. And New York City’s Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration “should have been canceled,” in part because attendees might “pack the subways” to get there, he said. The event has been scaled back, with fewer revelers and everyone required to wear a mask.

The Omicron variant “is extraordinarily contagious, and if you are in a crowd now, and certainly if you’re unvaccinated, you are at great risk of contracting this virus,” Reiner told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday.

A small celebration at a friend’s house should be OK if everyone is vaccinated and boosted and tested negative before the party, he said. Big outdoor parties are less risky unless they’re crowded.

“I would not eat in a restaurant now without a mask,” Reiner said Thursday. “I would absolutely not go into a bar.”

People should avoid large New Year’s Eve gatherings where they don’t know the vaccination status of guests, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said. Small gatherings of vaccinated family or close friends are safe, he said.

“When you are talking about a New Year’s Eve party, where you have 30, 40, 50 people celebrating, you do not know the status of the vaccination — I would recommend strongly, stay away from that this year. There will be other years to do that, but not this year,” Fauci told Fox News.

US CDC raises cruise ship travel to its highest risk level

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention increased the risk level for cruise ship travel to its highest tier and said such journeys should be avoided, regardless of vaccination status.

“The COVID-19 Travel Health Notice level has been updated from Level 3 to Level 4, the highest level,” the CDC website said on Thursday. “This reflects increases in cases onboard cruise ships since identification of the Omicron variant.”

“Since the identification of the Omicron variant, there has been an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases among cruise passengers and crew reported to CDC. Additionally, there has been an increase in the number of cruise ships meeting the COVID-19 case threshold for CDC investigation,” the agency said.

The CDC said people should avoid cruise travel, regardless of whether they are vaccinated. Those who do travel on a cruise ship should make sure they are fully vaccinated and boosted, if eligible. People who go on a cruise should also get tested one to three days before their trip, and three to five days after, regardless of vaccination status.

For the unvaccinated, they should also self-quarantine for five full days after. People on cruise ships should also wear masks in shared places, the CDC said.

South Africa eases Covid-19 restrictions following a decline in new cases

The South African government has announced it will relax some Covid-19 restrictions with immediate effect following a decline in both new coronavirus cases and hospital admissions, adding that “all indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak” of the fourth wave. 

According to a government statement issued Thursday, the national curfew will now be lifted and alcohol establishments licensed to operate beyond 11 p.m. local time will revert back to their full license conditions.

Previously, under “Alert Level 1” regulations, a curfew had been in place from midnight until 4 a.m. local time, with the sale of alcohol not permitted during these hours. 

Under new guidance, public gatherings will also now be restricted to no more than 1,000 people indoors — as opposed to 750 people — with outdoor gatherings still limited to 2,000 people.

According to data from the South African Department of Health, a 29.7% decrease in the number of new cases was reported in the week ending Dec. 25, in comparison to the previous week. 

While data has shown a “marginal increase” in deaths across all provinces, the department of health has seen a decline in hospital admissions across the country, with the exception of the Western Cape.

“While the Omicron variant is highly transmissible, there has been lower rates of hospitalization than in previous waves. This means that the country has spare capacity for admission of patients even for routine health services,” the government said in its statement. 

Despite the easing of some restrictions, the government has cautioned that the risk of an increase in infections remains high, owing to the transmissibility of the Omicron variant. 

In light of this, the wearing of masks in public places will continue to be enforced as a mandatory measure, and citizens are urged to continue observing public health protocols. 

“Vaccination remains the best defence against severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19. All people in South Africa who have not yet done so are encouraged to vaccinated as soon as possible,” the government statement continued. 

The announcement comes a week after the government outlined its new quarantine regulations, with those exposed to a positive coronavirus case no longer required to quarantine or test unless they develop symptoms. 

Those who have been exposed to a positive case, but remain asymptomatic, will instead be asked to practice “self-observation” for five to seven days to monitor for the development of symptoms.  

Contact tracing has also been halted in South Africa, with the exception of cluster outbreaks or self-contained settings. 


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Travel to the Netherlands during Covid-19: What you need to know before you go
Alleged Chinese smugglers publicly shamed for breaching Covid rules