"Connecting Communities for COVID19 News" 14th Dec 2021

Isolation Tips
Austria ends Covid lockdown restrictions for vaccinated people
Austria has ended lockdown restrictions for vaccinated people across most of the country, three weeks after reimposing strict rules to combat a rising wave of coronavirus infections. The rules, which vary by region within the country, largely allow for the reopening of theatres, museums and other cultural and entertainment venues on Sunday. Shops will follow on Monday. Some regions are reopening restaurants and hotels on Sunday, while others will wait until later in the month. In all cases, there will be an 11pm curfew for restaurants, and masks will still be required on public transport and inside stores and public spaces.
Hygiene Helpers
S.Korea to test AI-powered facial recognition to track COVID-19 cases
South Korea will soon roll out a pilot project to use artificial intelligence, facial recognition and thousands of CCTV cameras to track the movement of people infected with the coronavirus, despite concerns about the invasion of privacy. The nationally funded project in Bucheon, one of the country's most densely populated cities on the outskirts of Seoul, is due to become operational in January, a city official told Reuters. The system uses an AI algorithms and facial recognition technology to analyse footage gathered by more than 10,820 CCTV cameras and track an infected person’s movements, anyone they had close contact with, and whether they were wearing a mask, according to a 110-page business plan from the city submitted to the Ministry of Science and ICT (Information and Communications Technology), and provided to Reuters by a parliamentary lawmaker critical of the project.
California to re-institute statewide mask mandate amid rise in COVID cases
California will impose a statewide mask mandate in all indoor public spaces as COVID-19 case rates soar, the state's senior government health official said on Monday as precautions ramp up against the Omicron variant. The mandate, which will take effect on Wednesday and last a month, is one of several measures the most-populous U.S. state is taking to slow a wave of infections that is already straining hospitals in areas where vaccination rates are low.
São Paulo says it has fully vaccinated more than 100 percent of its adults. Will it be enough to stop omicron?
In a world struggling to convince people to take the coronavirus vaccine, the news was striking. São Paulo, the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, announced late last month that it had succeeded where others had failed. One hundred percent of its adult population had been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus — a remarkable rate in an era characterized by an intransigent and growing global anti-vaccine movement that has hobbled vaccination efforts from Europe to the United States.
Coronavirus: Army to help with booster vaccines for all UK adults.
The army will help in an effort to give booster vaccinations to all UK adults by New Year's Day, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced. Speaking on TV in a recorded message on Sunday night after Strictly Come Dancing, the PM explained that the top-up vaccinations would help "in our battle with the new variant". The plan will be delivered across all four UK nations, he said. Scotland is also setting the same target to offer all adults a booster by the end of the year, and Northern Ireland said it is stepping up its rollout and hopes to get as many people as possible boosted by then too.
COVID-19: N Ireland's coronavirus passport set to become legally enforceable, as Wales and Scotland prepare for tougher restrictions
Northern Ireland's COVID-19 passport scheme, which requires people to provide proof of vaccination, a negative lateral flow test result or evidence of a previous coronavirus infection to gain entry to licenced premises and entertainment venues, is set to become legally enforceable today. The scheme was introduced late last month with a two-week grace period to allow businesses to adjust to the new requirements. The rules will apply to the hospitality sector including pubs, restaurants and nightclubs, as well as entry to large indoor and outdoor events, such as cinemas, concerts, theatres, and sporting events.
Community Activities
U.S. Supreme Court rejects religious challenge to New York vaccine mandate
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected challenges brought by a group of Christian doctors and nurses and an organization that promotes vaccine skepticism to New York's refusal to allow religious exemptions to the state's mandate that healthcare workers be vaccinated against COVID-19. Acting in two cases, the justices denied emergency requests for an injunction requiring the state to permit religious exemptions while litigation over the mandate's legality continues in lower courts. Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch said they would have granted the injunction.
Thousands protest in Prague against COVID vaccine mandate
Several thousand people marched through the Czech capital on Sunday, protesting a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for certain groups including people age 60 and over. The participants didn’t wear face coverings or follow social distancing rules despite a request by police to do so. One person was detained. The protesters, chanting “Freedom!” alleged their constitutional rights are being violated. They said they weren’t against voluntary vaccination but opposed a vaccine mandate. The outgoing government released an order this week, making vaccination mandatory for the 60 and over age group, as well as medical personnel, police officers, firefighters and medical students.
Working Remotely
Australia's top CEOs support workplace flexibility
Alexis George, AMP, says that "workplace flexibility is here to stay, as our people have adapted well to this way of working and want it to continue, but it’s also important to encourage the social connection and in-person collaboration that comes from the physical workplace. It’s something that’s important to me, and I’ve heard it from our employees at AMP too – the workplace plays an important role in team development and culture. We will continue to provide our people with the flexibility to work from home or the office, with specific arrangements agreed with leaders based on individual, role, customer and team requirements. I would expect that would be at least a few days for many of our people, but we continue to weigh the pros and cons."
Goldman Sachs Tells London Staff to Work From Home If They Can
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. has told its London staff to work from home if they can, as the City of London’s biggest firms adjust to the latest government guidance. “Those of you who are able to work from home effectively should do so from Monday,” the lender said last week in an internal memo. The bank’s offices will remain open for those who still need to come in. Safety protocols including an on-site testing program and the wearing of masks away from desks remain in place. The guidance mirrors moves from firms across the City of London after U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson tightened pandemic rules to curb the spread of the omicron variant. HSBC Holdings Plc, Deutsche Bank AG and Citigroup Inc. have all told staff to return to home working if they could.
Virtual Classrooms
How to go about online assessment practices in higher education
Assessment is an integral part of the teaching-learning process. During the pandemic period, teachers are desperately looking for online methods to accurately assess a learner’s knowledge, ability and skill. There are diverse issues to be addressed, such as how to proctor an online exam; how to avoid copying so that grades are allotted in a fair fashion; and how to get descriptive/step wise answers through online exams. Several measures -- from simple online questionnaire forms to browser-locking artificial intelligence-based software -- have been adopted to address these issues. However, the question is, should we re-create all the existing offline assessment methods to a virtual platform or introspect a little and evolve more meaningful approaches
Berkeley College Online Learning Program Among Best in Country, Newsweek Says
Berkeley College's commitment to serving its students a quality education earned recognition beyond the classroom this year after the school was recently named as one of America’s Best Online Learning Schools of 2022, according to Newsweek and Statista. “The higher education landscape has drastically changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Diane Recinos, interim president of Berkeley College. “While some colleges struggled to pivot, Berkeley College’s 23-year tradition of excellence in online education offered students a seamless transition to remote learning."
Schools are sending children home early for Christmas for remote learning in one part of Wales
In Wales, a council has announced children will return to remote learning for the last three days of term in response to soaring Covid cases and fears over the new Omicron variant. Anglesey council is bringing back hub schools for key workers while others are sent home to learn remotely. Last week headteachers told WalesOnline they were discussing ending term early. Many staff and pupils are absent and there are worries that anyone testing positive from Wednesday December 15 will have to isolate over Christmas Day
Public Policies
Moderna amends Covid-19 vaccine supply deal with Gavi
Moderna has amended an existing contract with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to expedite the supply of 20 million doses of its Covid-19 vaccine to COVAX by the end of this year. Under the deal, the company agreed to deliver a total of 54 million vaccine doses to COVAX this year. The supply of the vaccine doses to COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC) nations has already been initiated. They were initially agreed to be delivered in the first quarter of next year as part of the company’s prior agreement with Gavi.
Nicaragua receives China vaccines after cutting ties with Taiwan
Nicaragua has received one million Covid vaccines from China, days after it cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of Beijing. Government representatives returned to the Central American state on Sunday with news of the donation. Local media broadcast clips showing an Air China plane landing with the first 200,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine. Officials said they were "extremely grateful" for restored relations with Beijing. "We have come back with this great news that we have brought this donation of one million vaccinates to the Nicaraguan people," said Laureano Ortega Murillo, the son of Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega and one of his advisers.
Philippines secures $250 mln loan from ADB for COVID-19 vaccines
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has approved a $250 million loan for the Philippines to purchase COVID-19 vaccines, it said in a statement on Monday. The ADB said the loan would allow the government to purchase 40 million additional COVID-19 vaccine doses for eligible children and booster shots for adults. The Philippines is aiming to fully vaccinate at least 54 million people, or nearly half of its 110 million population, before the year ends.
Thailand to expedite COVID-19 boosters in anticipation of Omicron
Thailand will halve to three months the time between administering a second COVID-19 vaccine shot and a booster, a health official said on Monday, to try to strengthen immunity in anticipation of a local spread of the Omicron variant. Thailand has so far detected eight imported cases of the Omicron variant but has yet to see community transmission, according to its health ministry. Omicron has been reported in dozens of countries. "Because Omicron is now widespread, the booster third shot would help lessen the severity of symptoms and reduce the death rate," said Taweesin Wisanuyothin, spokesperson for the government's COVID-19 taskforce.
UK raises COVID alert level as Omicron advances
Britain raised its COVID alert level on Sunday in response to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the virus, as medical authorities warned that hospitalisations are likely to rise sharply over the coming weeks. The chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland recommended an increase to alert level 4 from level 3 on its 5-point scale, which means they judge transmission of the virus to be high. "Early evidence shows that Omicron is spreading much faster than Delta and that vaccine protection against symptomatic disease from Omicron is reduced," the medical officers said in a joint statement.
Moderna Plans Australia Vaccine-Manufacturing Facility
Moderna Inc. reached an agreement in principle with the Australian government to build a messenger RNA vaccine-manufacturing facility in Victoria, Australia. Moderna expects to invest in the facility with the collaboration of the Commonwealth and Victorian governments, aiming to provide Australians with domestically manufactured vaccines, including the Covid-19 and flu vaccines. Moderna expects that up to 100 million vaccine doses could be produced in Australia each year. The company said it is in discussions with other governments about potential collaborations using a similar model.
France: 400 investigations into fake COVID-19 health passes
France has opened 400 investigations into networks providing fake COVID-19 health passes, the interior minister said Sunday, as virus-related hospitalizations rise sharply across the country. The case of a woman with the virus who died in a Paris regional hospital after showing a false vaccine certificate has drawn attention in French media in recent days. The hospital’s intensive care chief said they would have given the woman immediate antibody treatment had they known that she wasn’t vaccinated. Authorities have identified several thousand fake COVID-19 health passes in use around France, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said Sunday on RTL radio. He said some 400 investigations have been opened into peddling fake passes, including some “connected to health professionals.”
Maintaining Services
Omicron cases may already be peaking in South Africa, less than a month after the COVID-19 variant first surfaced
Nearly three weeks after the Omicron variant was first identified by South African scientists, the COVID-19 mutation has whipped across the world, with infections in at least 63 countries. But in South Africa itself, the cases seem to be nearing their peak, and could already be headed for decline. Cases of Omicron in Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous province and home to its biggest city, Johannesburg, rose slightly from a seven-day daily average of 9,645 last Thursday, to 10,131 on Sunday. At the same time, the positivity rate of those being tested and the number of hospitalizations have both been falling. Data from the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases shows positivity rates dropping from 30% to around 15% between Thursday and Saturday, while the number of new hospitalizations fell from 207 to 64 over the same period. “The positivity rate in South Africa has been flattening and now declined for the past two days,” Scott Gottlieb, a senior fellow for the American Enterprise Institute and former FDA commissioner, tweeted on Sunday.
Spain receives first shipment of Covid-19 vaccines for children
Spain on Monday received its first shipment of Covid-19 vaccines for children. The 1.3 million doses made by Pfizer-BioNTech will be shipped to the regions, which are in charge of their own vaccination campaigns, said the Health Ministry. The shots will be administered from December 15, when health authorities are expected to first call in kids from at-risk groups and those ages 10 and 11. But the logistics will vary depending on the region, with some like Catalonia choosing to immunize all children between the ages of five and 11 at the same time.
Indonesia to start vaccinating children aged 6-11 against COVID-19
Indonesia will start administering COVID-19 vaccinations for children aged between 6-11 on Tuesday, a health ministry official said, as the Southeast Asian country becomes one of the first in the region to immunise the very young. Indonesia approved China's Sinovac Biotech vaccine for the age group last month and about 26.5 million children have been targeted for vaccination, Maxi Rein Rondonuwu, a senior health ministry official, told a briefing.
Norway bans serving of alcohol in bid to halt Omicron outbreak
Norway will ban the serving of alcohol in bars and restaurants, impose stricter rules in schools and speed up vaccination as part of new efforts to curb the outbreak of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, the government said on Monday. "For many this will feel like a lockdown, if not of society then of their lives and of their livelihoods," Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere told a news conference.
Exclusive: Senegal expects 400000 COVID-19 vaccines to expire by year-end
At least 200,000 COVID-19 vaccines have expired in Senegal without being used in the past two months and another 200,000 are set to expire at the end of December because demand is too slow, the head of its immunisation programme said on Monday. African governments have been calling for more COVID-19 vaccines to help catch up with richer regions, where vaccine rollouts have been humming along for more than a year. Yet, as the pace of supply has picked up in recent weeks some countries have struggled to keep pace. Logistical problems, the short shelf life of vaccines that arrive from donors, and vaccine hesitancy have all kept doses from reaching arms.
Healthcare Innovations
Two-Dose Covid Vaccine Less Effective Against Omicron Than Delta, Study Shows
The omicron variant dented the protection afforded by two doses of Pfizer Inc.’s and AstraZeneca Plc’s Covid vaccines as feared, researchers found, increasing the risk of infection. Blood samples collected from people vaccinated with the two different shots and tested against the new strain showed a substantial drop in neutralizing antibodies, a proxy for protection, particularly compared with the delta variant, researchers from the University of Oxford said Monday in a paper.
China's Brii says its COVID-19 antibody cocktail retains activity against Omicron
China's Brii Biosciences said on Sunday lab studies showed that its COVID-19 antibody cocktail retained activity against the Omicron variant, although one of the antibodies showed a substantial drop in activity when tested alone. Test details for the dual-antibody treatment, which last week became the first approved COVID-19 antibody cocktail in China, would not be available until publication in a scientific journal, but results from three independent labs showed similar pattern, Brii chief executive Hong Zhi said on Monday
Israeli study finds Pfizer COVID-19 booster protects against Omicron
Israeli researchers said on Saturday they found that a three-shot course of the Pfizer/BioNTech, COVID-19 vaccine provided significant protection against the new Omicron variant. The findings were similar to those presented by BioNTech and Pfizer earlier in the week, which were an early signal that booster shots could be key to protect against infection from the newly identified variant. The study, carried out by Sheba Medical Center and the Health Ministry's Central Virology Laboratory, compared the blood of 20 people who had received two vaccine doses 5-6 months earlier to the same number of individuals who had received a booster a month before.