COVID testing policy put under the microscope as omicron sweeps world

This time last year, vaccines offered hope that the pandemic
could be over by now. But omicron has brought new challenges, including
overloading public health systems, even if – as many scientists say – it leads
to less severe illness than the earlier delta variant.

Demand for testing kits has squeezed supply. Last week,
queues formed outside pharmacies in Spain’s capital Madrid in what has become a
common scene since omicron began driving up infections. Madrid, whose
conservative government has put supporting the hospitality sector at the top of
its agenda, is opting for increased testing and no restrictions on socialising.

A surge in demand for tests has led to issues in Italy and
Britain. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said that 100,000 more PCR
booking slots per day had been made available since mid-December and that
capacity had been doubled to 900,000 PCR and LFD test kits a day.

People in England who test positive for COVID-19 on rapid
lateral flow device (LFD) tests will not need to confirm their results with a
follow-up PCR test if they are not showing symptoms, the UKHSA said on Wednesday.

A record-high one in 15 people had COVID-19 in England in
the week ending Dec 31, estimates published by the Office for National
Statistics showed on Wednesday.

“While cases of COVID continue to rise, this
tried-and-tested approach means that LFDs can be used confidently to indicate
COVID-19 infection without the need for PCR confirmation,” said agency
Chief Executive Dr Jenny Harries.

PCR tests are processed in a lab and can be used to
determine which variant a person has, while an LFD can be used at home and
gives an indication of infectivity within half an hour.

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Israel changed its quarantine and testing policy as part of
efforts to save resources and ensure continued protection for vulnerable

PCR tests will be earmarked for people aged 60 and over or
with weak immune systems, while those at lower risk will be checked with rapid
antigen tests, the health ministry said.

“This is a significant change intended to identify risk
populations sooner, intervene and prevent severe disease,” ministry
director-general Nachman Ash told a news conference.

Until now, those exposed to confirmed COVID-19 carriers have
been required to take official tests. If found to be positive, they must submit
to police-enforced quarantine rules.

The United States reported nearly a million new coronavirus
infections on Monday, the highest daily tally of any country in the world and
nearly double the previous US peak set a week earlier.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on
Tuesday backed its week-old guidance for people seeking to end their COVID-19
isolation at five days, adding they could take a rapid antigen test if they
want to and can access one, but it is not a requirement.

The agency had been pressured by health experts to institute
a test requirement after it cut in half its guidance last week for people to
isolate after a COVID-19 infection to five days from 10.

Spain, Portugal and Britain have also slashed the mandatory
isolation period for people who test positive for COVID-19 amid fears that
lengthy quarantines could paralyse economies.

Ireland will drop its requirement for vaccinated arrivals to
have proof of a negative COVID-19 test and return to seeking proof of
vaccination or recent infection upon entry, Prime Minister Micheál Martin said.

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Nearly 294 million people have been reported to be infected
by the coronavirus globally and more than 5.8 million​ have died, according to
a Reuters tally.

Infections have been reported in more than 210 countries and
territories since the first cases were identified in central China in December

A “supersonic” rise in French COVID-19 infections
is set to continue in the coming days and there are no signs of the trend
reversing, a government spokesman said on Wednesday.

Sweden set a daily record for new coronavirus cases,
registering 17,320 infections on Tuesday, with omicron dominating.

Tennis star Novak Djokovic landed in Australia in the middle
of a political maelstrom over his COVID-19 vaccine status, as a visa dispute
added a new twist to the world number one’s attempt to play in the Australian

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