Health

COVID-19 cases at record high around world, raising testing and quarantine fears

Almost
900,000 cases were detected on average each day around the world between Dec 22
and 28, with myriad countries posting new all-time highs over the past 24
hours, including the United States, Australia and many in Europe.

Almost two
years after China first alerted the World Health Organisation (WHO) to a
cluster of “viral pneumonia” cases of unknown origin in the central
city of Wuhan, the regularly mutating coronavirus is still wreaking havoc,
forcing numerous governments to rethink quarantine and test rules.

Although
studies have suggested the omicron variant is less deadly than some of its
predecessors, the huge numbers of people testing positive mean that hospitals
in some countries might soon be overwhelmed, while businesses might struggle to
carry on operating because of workers having to quarantine.

“Delta
and omicron are now twin threats driving up cases to record numbers, leading to
spikes in hospitalisation and deaths,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom
Ghebreyesus told a news briefing on Wednesday.

“I am
highly concerned that omicron, being highly transmissible and spreading at the
same time as delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases.”

France,
Britain, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Malta all registered record
numbers of new cases on Tuesday, while the average number of daily COVID-19
cases in the United States hit a record 258,312 over the past seven days,
according to a Reuters tally on Wednesday. The previous peak was a figure of
250,141 registered in early January this year.

US Centres
for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, in television
interviews on Wednesday, said she expected many more US cases ahead.

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British
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that 90 percent of patients ending up in
intensive care had not received booster vaccines, which medics say is the best
protection against omicron.

“The omicron
variant continues to cause real problems, you’re seeing cases rising in
hospitals, but it is obviously milder than the Delta variant,” Johnson
said.

New daily
infections in Australia spiked to nearly 18,300 on Wednesday, eclipsing the
previous pandemic high of around 11,300 a day earlier.

Australian
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his country needed “a gear change”
to manage overburdened laboratories, with long walk-in and drive-in queues reported
in a number of areas.

Testing
bottlenecks have also built in Europe, including Spain where demand for free
COVID-19 testing kits provided by Madrid’s regional government far outstripped
supply, with long queues forming outside pharmacies.

‘I JUST WANT
TO GO HOME’

A number of
governments were also increasingly worried by the huge numbers of people being
forced into self-isolation because they had been in contact with a coronavirus
sufferer.

“We
just can’t have everybody just being taken out of circulation because they just
happen to be at a particular place at a particular time,” Australia’s
Morrison told reporters.

Italy was
expected to relax some quarantine rules on Wednesday over fears the country
will soon grind to a halt given how many people are having to self-isolate
protectively, with cases doubling on Tuesday from a day earlier to 78,313.

However,
China showed no let up in its policy of zero tolerance to outbreaks, keeping 13
million people in the city of Xian under rigid lockdown for a seventh day as
new COVID-19 infections persisted, with 151 cases reported on Tuesday.

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“I just
want to go home,” said a 32-year-old mechanic, who was in Xian last week
for a business trip when the city was effectively shut off from the outside
world.

No cases of
omicron have been announced in Xian so far.

Many
countries are still grappling with the earlier Delta variant, including Poland,
which reported 794 COVID-related deaths on Wednesday – the highest number in
the fourth wave of the pandemic.

Deputy Health
Minister Waldemar Kraska said more than 75 percent of those who died were
unvaccinated.

Early data
from Britain, South Africa and Denmark suggests there is a reduced risk of
hospitalisation for Omicron compared with Delta, the WHO said in its latest
epidemiological report.

However, the
report said further data was needed to understand how severity of illness may
be impacted by vaccination and, or, prior infection.

The surge in
cases is coinciding with the New Year holidays, normally a period of parties
and travel. Some countries, such as Italy, have cancelled public celebrations,
while authorities in Japan urged residents to keep end-of-year gatherings
small.

“The
highest risk is meeting people without taking adequate measures to prevent
infection,” said Norio Ohmagari, director of the Disease Control and
Prevention Centre and a top health advisor to the Tokyo Metropolitan
Government.

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