World nations try to balance omicron restrictions while keeping economies open

Almost 900,000 cases were detected on
average each day worldwide between Dec 22 and 28. A number of countries posted
all-time highs during the previous 24 hours, including Argentina, Australia,
Bolivia, the United States and many nations in Europe.

Studies have suggested omicron is less
deadly than some previous variants. But the sheer number of people testing
positive could overwhelm hospitals in some countries and leave e businesses
struggling to carry on without workers who government officials have ordered to

Researchers in South Africa found that a
key part of the immune system’s second-line defence – its T cells – are highly
effective at recognising and attacking the omicron variant, preventing most
infections from progressing to critical illness.

Political leaders in some nations,
fearful of the economic impact of keeping so many workers at home, were
considering shortening the period required for isolation after a positive COVID
test or exposure.

Spain said on Wednesday it was reducing
the quarantine period to seven days from 10, while Italy said it was planning
to relax isolation rules for those who came into close contact with sufferers
of the virus.

Earlier this week US health authorities
released new guidance shortening the isolation period for people with a
confirmed infection to five days from 10, so long as they are asymptomatic.

“I am highly concerned that
omicron, being highly transmissible and spreading at the same time as Delta, is
leading to a tsunami of cases,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom
Ghebreyesus told a news briefing.

French Health Minister Olivier Veran
told lawmakers France was seeing a “dizzying” rise in cases, with
208,000 reported in the space of 24 hours – a national and European record.

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Britain, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece,
Cyprus and Malta all registered record numbers of new cases on Tuesday, while
the seven-day average number of new daily cases in the United States hit a
record 258,312, according to a Reuters tally on Wednesday. The previous peak
was 250,141, registered last January.

Despite the surge in coronavirus
infections, deaths and hospitalisations are comparatively low, Rochelle
Walensky, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
said on Wednesday.

While the current seven-day daily
average of cases is about 240,400, up 60% over the previous week, the
hospitalisation rate for the same period is up just 14% to about 9,000 per day
over the same period. Deaths were down about 7% to 1,100 per day, Walensky

Some experts questioned the new CDC
rules that halve the isolation period for asymptomatic coronavirus infections,
saying more infections could result. The new directive does not require testing
to confirm that a person is no longer infectious before they go back to work or

“They were trying to strike a
balance: How do we do good public health principles at the time we don’t have
to get to the point where you’re forced to essentially shut the country
down,” Anthony Fauci, the US government’s top infectious disease official,
told MSNBC in explaining the CDC’s new guidance.

Britain reported 183,037 COVID-19 cases
on Wednesday, a new record and over 50,000 more than the previous high
registered just a day earlier, government statistics showed. Ireland, too,
reported record cases on Wednesday, with more than 16,000 new infections.

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has
said he will not issue new restrictions this year to limit the spread of
omicron, which now accounts for roughly 90% of all community infections,
according to health officials.

Australia registered almost 18,300 new
cases, eclipsing Tuesday’s previous pandemic high of around 11,300.

In Spain, demand for free testing kits
from the Madrid regional government far outstripped supply, with long queues
forming outside pharmacies.

Governments are increasingly worried by
the economic impact of huge numbers of people being forced into 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,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told

Morrison wants to make urgent changes to
COVID-19 testing rules to ease pressure on testing sites. He said Australia
needed “a gear change” to manage overburdened laboratories and get
people out of isolation.

While Spain and Italy moved to relax
some isolation rules, China stuck to its policy of zero tolerance, keeping 13
million people in Xian, capital of central Shaanxi province, under rigid
lockdown for a seventh day as 151 new cases were reported on Tuesday, albeit
none with omicron so far.

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

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