"Connecting Communities for COVID19 News" 29th Dec 2021

Isolation Tips
Greece expands restrictions to contain Omicron variant surge
Greece on Monday announced further restrictions effective from Jan. 3-16 to contain a further upsurge in COVID-19 infections including the Omicron variant, targeting mainly night-time entertainment venues. As confirmed new COVID-19 cases surged to a record of 9,284 on Monday, resulting in 66 deaths, the health minister said that under the new measures, high-protection masks would be compulsory at supermarkets, public transport and eating establishments. Bars and restaurants will have to close at midnight and no standing customers at entertainment venues will be allowed. There will also be a maximum limit of six people per table.
China puts city of 13 million in COVID lockdown before Olympics
China has put a city of 13 million people into lockdown over an increase in coronavirus infections, just weeks before it is set to host the Winter Olympics. The restrictions in the city of Xi’an in the northeastern Shaanxi province took effect on Thursday, with no word on when they might be lifted. They are some of the harshest since China imposed a strict lockdown last year on more than 11 million people in and around the city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019. One person from each household will be allowed out every two days to buy household necessities, a government order said.
Hygiene Helpers
Madrid's free COVID tests struggle with demand as infections hit new high
Demand for free COVID-19 testing kits provided by Madrid's regional government far outstripped supply on Tuesday, with long queues forming outside pharmacies as nationwide infections continued to climb amid the Omicron variant's rapid expansion. Spain's coronavirus infection rate hit a new record, rising to 1,360 cases per 100,000 people, measured over the preceding 14 days, from 1,206 cases reported on Monday, a five-fold rise since the beginning of December, according to health ministry data.
Latin America Is Now a World Leader in Vaccinations
Latin America, once a hot spot of Covid-19 deaths, now leads the U.S. and much of the world in vaccinations, as supply concerns have eased and health policy makers rush to shield their countries from new variants roiling other regions. Applying a mix of Chinese, European and American vaccines, about 62% of South America’s population has received two shots or the single dose by Johnson & Johnson. That is more than the 60% of Europeans inoculated with two doses, the 56% of people in North America and the 54% in Asia, according to Our World in Data, a pandemic research project at the University of Oxford. Only Australia has fully vaccinated a bigger percentage of its people.
Ecuador mandates vaccines, Italy masks outdoors as Omicron rages
Italy has reintroduced mandatory masks outdoors and Ecuador made vaccines compulsory for nearly all to combat coronavirus infections surging globally, led by the Omicron variant, days before the Christmas holidays. More stringent than most, China shut down a city of 13 million people to extinguish a tiny Delta variant outbreak, pursuing its zero COVID-19 goal, while Spain will require masks in some outdoor settings. Meanwhile, France and the United Kingdom announced record highs of COVID-19 daily infections. Vaccination has also been made mandatory in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Indonesia, Micronesia and New Caledonia for adults, while Greece said people must wear face masks both indoors and outdoors during Christmas and New Year’s gatherings.
Making Green, Disposable Face Masks That Won't Become Ocean Plastic
“Biodegradable masks will be a big market with a lot of demand from governments who are seeing what a big problem mask pollution is becoming,” says Francois Dalibard, chief executive officer of Groupe Lemoine, a French company that manufactured 500 million face masks this year. “The first ones to offer it will have a big advantage.”
Bulgaria offers cash reward to boost vaccination rates among pensioners
Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said on Thursday that elderly people who get a COVID-19 shot will be eligible for a cash reward as part of his government's drive to boost the vaccination rates, the lowest in the European Union. Petkov, who took office this month, said every retired Bulgarian will get a one-off payment of 75 levs ($43.40) in addition to their pension in the next six months when vaccinated with a first or second dose. Pensioners who have already received three shots will also be eligible for the add-on.
White House says it is 'grateful' Trump got, promoted COVID-19 booster shot
The White House is grateful that former U.S. President Donald Trump received and promoted getting the COVID-19 vaccine booster shot, press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday. The Republican former president recently said in an interview that he received a booster shot, and called the COVID-19 vaccines "one of the greatest achievements of mankind." "The ones that get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones that don't take the vaccine," Trump said in an interview with conservative commentator Candace Owens. "If you take the vaccine, you're protected."
Australia Brings Forward Booster Shots Amid Omicron Outbreaks
Australia has brought forward implementing third-dose booster shots for Covid-19 as the nation battles outbreaks of the omicron variant. From Jan. 4, Australians will be be able to get their booster shot four months after receiving their second dose, narrowing the current five-months wait time, Health Minister Greg Hunt said in Canberra. From Jan. 31, the gap will be cut again to three months. “These dates have been set out of an abundance of caution to give Australians early continued protection,” Hunt said. About 91% of Australians aged 16 and over have had two jabs, he said.
COVID: Study suggests AstraZeneca booster works against Omicron
AstraZeneca has said that a third dose of its COVID-19 vaccine “significantly” lifted antibody levels against the Omicron coronavirus variant, citing data from a new laboratory study. Findings from the study, yet to be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, match those from rivals Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which have also found a third dose of their shots works against Omicron.
Zambia to introduce COVID-19 booster jabs next week
Zambia will introduce COVID-19 booster vaccines as it battles the respiratory disease which has infected over 200,000 people and killed more than 3,000, Health Minister Sylvia Masebo said on Thursday. The southern African nation also plans to start vaccinating children agred 12-17, who until now have not been elegible for the COVID-19 jab, Masebo said at a media briefing. "Zambia will begin to administer the booster vaccines for COVID-19 commencing on 27th December, 2021," Masebo said.
Community Activities
Dutch Travel to Germany, Belgium to Avoid Lockdown
A new lockdown in the Netherlands has had an unexpected consequence: packed roads and shopping streets in neighboring Belgium and Germany. Faced with the spread of the omicron variant across Europe, the Dutch government introduced new restrictions on social contact on Dec. 19, closing non-essential stores and shuttering hospitality businesses at 5 p.m. But some Dutch people haven’t stopped shopping and celebrating. Instead, they simply moved these activities to countries where stores, restaurants and bars remain open.
United, Delta cancel more than 200 U.S. Christmas Eve flights amid COVID surge
United Airlines and Delta Air Lines have canceled hundreds of Christmas Eve flights, as the spreading COVID-19 Omicron variant takes a toll on its flight crews and other workers. Chicago-based United on Thursday canceled 120 flights for Friday, while Atlanta-based Delta said it had canceled about 90. Both said they were working to contact passengers so they would not be stranded at airports. FlightAware on Friday said United has now canceled 169 flights on Christmas Eve and Delta has canceled 127, along with another 50 canceled flights for United on Christmas and 89 for Delta.
Working Remotely
Working from home shouldn’t hinder promotion chances
Swinburne University of Technology researcher John Hopkins said while working from home might ordinarily hamper chances of progression, the pandemic had “levelled the playing field” for many. Associate Professor Matthew Beck from the University of Sydney Business School said he expected many firms would “judge outputs rather than inputs” in the office. “To attract talented workers, flexible work will likely need to be part of the package,” he said. "Younger workers will still need an opportunity for face time to form social and workplace culture connections.” Brendan Churchill, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne, said bosses often get the impression that staff who are not present in the office are not as dedicated.
Costa Rica jumps into the global competition for remote workers
Costa Rica is giving foreigners tax and visa breaks if they work remotely from the Central American nation. Some Costa Ricans say the advantages are unfair to locals who do remote work and pay taxes.
New Report Highlights Remote Working's Impact On The Workforce
A new report from The Institute of Internal Auditors’ (IIA’s) Internal Audit Foundation (IAF) and AuditBoard reveals how remote working has impacted the workforce, as well as how to maintain a healthy distributed work culture. According to “The Remote Auditor: Challenges, Opportunities, and New Ways of Working” report, 58% of chief audit executives (CAEs) said their teams were working mostly remotely, while 22% stated they were taking a more hybrid approach. As a result, the data showed that over half of respondents stated their organization relied on cloud-based technology to improve their remote working experience.
Greece Reinstates Work-From-Home Mandate, Curbs on Nightlife
Greece reintroduced measures aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic amid concern that rising cases will pile pressure on the nation’s health care system. As much as 50% of all private and public-sector employees will have to work from home between Jan. 3 and Jan. 16, Health Minister Athanasios Plevris said
Virtual Classrooms
Why Mission — Not Money — Will Lead Colleges to Truly Innovative Online Learning
During the past decade, online education has been driven by enrollments, especially out-of-state enrollments. Online courses have been developed as cash cows for years, by many of the institutions that have them at all. Not only is this approach pedagogically bankrupt, but it hasn’t worked. In-house course design and fiscal responsibility alone, though, will not be enough to create really robust online programs. We also need innovation and creativity. We need to expand beyond the primarily self-paced and asynchronous approach we have already tried.
Indigenous learners face more challenges with virtual learning, says report
A report about the impacts of remote learning on children includes a section specific to Indigenous youth, including perspectives from a Nipissing First Nation educator. The Information and Communications Technology Council published 'Uncharted Waters: A World-class Canadian E-learning Paradigm,' which explores virtual learning in Canada and the ways in which it may be useful beyond a COVID-19 context. The report said just 17 per cent of on-reserve households in Ontario have access to high-speed internet. Attendance rates have long been a challenge at First Nation schools, and absenteeism rates grew during the first shift to online school. Also a problem is that some parts of the curriculum, such as traditional knowledge sharing from elders, cannot take place online, either due to technological barriers or the belief that sacred knowledge should only be shared orally.
Public Policies
Pope's Message on Christmas: Prays for Vaccines for All
Pope Francis prayed Saturday for an end to the coronavirus pandemic, using his Christmas Day address to urge health care for all, vaccines for the poor and for dialogue to prevail in resolving the world’s conflicts. Amid a record-setting rise in COVID-19 cases in Italy this week, only a few thousand people flocked to a rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square for Francis’ annual “Urbi et Orbi” ("To the city and the world") Christmas address. Normally, the square would be packed with tens of thousands of holiday well-wishers.
CDC cuts quarantine time for healthcare workers amid Omicron surge
Healthcare workers in the United States who test positive for COVID-19 but are asymptomatic can return to work after seven days in isolation, provided they test negative, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday. The new guidance cuts the quarantine time from a previously recommended 10 days, which the CDC said was in preparation for an anticipated increase in Omicron cases. Omicron now accounts for 73% of coronavirus infections in the United States, the CDC said on Monday. The CDC said the quarantine time can be cut further if there are staffing shortages due to COVID-19, adding that healthcare workers who have been fully vaccinated, including a booster, do not need to quarantine at home following high-risk exposures.
Italy bans New Year events as COVID infections surge
Italy has tightened restrictions to curb surging COVID-19 infections, including banning all public New Year's Eve celebrations, as daily infections hit a record high, the government said on Thursday. Health Minister Roberto Speranza said mask wearing would be compulsory outdoors again and ordered people to use the more protective Ffp2 face masks on public transport and in public places, such as theatres, cinemas and at sports events. In addition, concerts and open-air events will be banned until Jan. 31, and discos and dance clubs will have to shut their doors until that date, in an effort to prevent mass socialising during the holiday period.
U.S. pauses allocation of Regeneron, Lilly COVID-19 antibodies
The U.S. government has paused the distribution of COVID-19 antibody treatments from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Eli Lilly, saying the therapies were unlikely to be effective against the Omicron coronavirus variant. The variant has become the dominant strain in the United States with lightning speed, resurrecting restrictions and stretching the country's testing infrastructure. The halt on the allocation of the therapies will continue until new data emerges on their efficacy, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the office of Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response said in a joint statement on Thursday
FDA Authorizes Merck’s Covid-19 Pill for At-Home Treatment
U.S. regulators cleared use of a Covid-19 pill from Merck and partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP, the latest easy-to-use therapy that infected people can take to keep out of the hospital. The authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration permits doctors to prescribe the drug, called molnupiravir, to adults at high risk of severe disease shortly after they develop mild to moderate symptoms. The FDA recommended using the Merck drug only if other authorized drugs aren’t available and medically appropriate. Health experts have raised safety concerns about the Merck drug, which also was less effective in testing than an antiviral from Pfizer Inc. On Wednesday, the FDA cleared the Pfizer pill, Paxlovid, also for people to take at home to try to stay out of the hospital. The authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration permits doctors to prescribe the drug, called molnupiravir, to adults at high risk of severe disease shortly after they develop mild to moderate symptoms. The FDA recommended using the Merck drug only if other authorized drugs aren’t available and medically appropriate. Health experts have raised safety concerns about the Merck drug, which also was less effective in testing than an antiviral from Pfizer Inc. On Wednesday, the FDA cleared the Pfizer pill, Paxlovid, also for people to take at home to try to stay out of the hospital.
South African health regulator approves J&J COVID-19 boosters
South Africa's health regulator on Thursday approved the use of Johnson & Johnson vaccine for a second dose or booster, paving the way for the shot widely used in South Africa to shore up protection against the Omicron variant. The country already announced in December that it was preparing to offer people booster doses of both the Pfizer and J&J shots, but it did not specify when J&J boosters would be available. The South African Health Products Authority (SAPHRA) said in a statement on Thursday that it had approved J&J shots for use as a second dose or booster at least two months after the completion of the person's primary vaccination, with either J&J's single-shot course or another approved mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.
Maintaining Services
Undertakers, rabbis join global fight promoting COVID shots
In Germany, Lutheran pastors are offering COVID-19 shots inside churches. In Israel’s science-skeptical ultra-Orthodox community, trusted rabbis are trying to change minds. And in South Africa, undertakers are taking to the streets to spread the word. The funeral directors' message: “We’re burying too many people.’’ A year after the COVID-19 vaccine became available, traditional public health campaigns promoting vaccination are often going unheeded. So an unconventional cadre of people has joined the effort. They are opening sanctuaries and going door to door and village to village, touting the benefits of the vaccines and sometimes offering shots on the spot.
U.S. CDC investigating nearly 70 cruise ships hit by COVID-19 cases
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Monday it was investigating nearly 70 cruise ships after reports of COVID-19 cases on board, as the Omicron variant upended holiday travel over the Christmas weekend. The CDC said COVID-19 cases on 68 ships had met its threshold for an investigation.
Pre-Christmas Omicron surge leads to record new British COVID cases
Britain recorded a record number of new coronavirus cases on Thursday as the Omicron variant swept across the country, with the daily tally reaching 119,789 from 106,122 a day earlier. Many industries and transport networks are struggling with staff shortages as sick workers self-isolate, while hospitals in Britain have warned of the risk of an impact on patient safety. Omicron's rapid advance has driven a surge in cases in Britain over the last seven days, with the total rising by 678,165, government data showed.
Overwhelmed U.S. Midwest hospitals prepare for worst with Omicron
The rapid spread of Omicron infections has hospitals in the U.S. Midwest "preparing for the worst," with their intensive care units and medical personnel already severely strained from a wave of the potent Delta variant of COVID-19. Indiana, Ohio and Michigan have been hit harder in recent weeks by the virus than any other states. About one in four of their hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data. The impact is even greater in their intensive care units, where COVID-19 patients now account for one-third or more of the beds, according to HHS.
French kids line up to get vaccine shots as omicron spreads
French schoolchildren clung nervously to their parents as they entered a vast vaccine center west of Paris on Wednesday — then walked excitedly away with a decorated “vaccination diploma,” as France kicked off mass COVID-19 inoculations for children age 5 to 11. It’s not a moment too soon for the French government, which is facing the highest recorded infection rates since the pandemic began but trying to avoid a new lockdown. The health minister said Wednesday that the swiftly-spreading omicron variant is expected to be dominant in France by next week, but ruled out additional restrictions on public life for now. Officials are hoping that a surge in vaccinations will be enough to limit the mounting pressure on hospitals, where COVID-19 patients occupy more than 60% of beds.
Healthcare Innovations
Unvaccinated 60 times more likely to end up in ICU with Covid, new research says
Unjabbed people who catch Covid are up to 60 times more likely to end up in an intensive care ward than those who have been vaccinated, figures reveal. The startling data also shows the difference between the jabbed and unjabbed needing intensive care is starkest among older people – who are more likely to suffer more seriously from Covid. Figures from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICNARC), which covers hospital units in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, show that between May and November the rate of admission for double-jabbed Covid sufferers in their 60s was just 0.6 cases per 100,000 people per week. But among unjabbed people of the same age the rate was 37.3 per 100,000 per week – equating to a relative risk about 60 times higher
Merck (MRK) Covid Drug Molnupiravir Gains US Clearance for High-Risk Adults
Merck & Co.’s Covid-19 pill was cleared by U.S. regulators Thursday, giving high-risk patients a second at-home treatment just as the omicron variant is causing cases to surge around the country. The drug, molnupiravir, received emergency authorization on the heels of Pfizer Inc.’s Covid pill being cleared Wednesday. The FDA said Merck’s drug is not recommended for use in pregnant people. The two treatments hold the potential to keep a sharp rise in infections from overwhelming U.S. hospitals. Molnupiravir, developed by Merck with partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP, is intended to be used at home to treat Covid in people 18 and older at risk of developing severe illness. A study showed it reduced the risk of hospitalization or death among adults with mild to moderate disease by 30%.
S.Africa Omicron data should not be extrapolated to all countries- Africa CDC
Data from South Africa which suggests the Omicron coronavirus variant is 70% to 80% less severe than Delta should not be extrapolated to all countries, the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC) said on Thursday. A South African study published on Wednesday found that people diagnosed with Omicron in the country in October and November were 80% less likely to be admitted to hospital than those diagnosed with another variant in the same period.
China's Sinovac COVID-19 booster weaker against Omicron- Hong Kong study
Three doses of Sinovac's CoronaVac COVID-19 vaccine do not produce adequate levels of antibodies to fight the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, researchers from Hong Kong said in a statement. Their analysis revealed Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was more effective, as a third dose of the shot administered after two doses of the same or China's Sinovac vaccine provided "protective levels" of antibody against Omicron. Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech have said their three-shot course was able to neutralise the new Omicron variant in a laboratory test.
Omicron Study in U.K. Bolsters Evidence of Lower Hospital Risks
Omicron appears to be less severe but more contagious than any other Covid-19 strain to date, a U.K. government study concluded, bolstering research that has shown a lower risk of hospitalization from the fast-spreading variant. People infected with omicron are 50% to 70% less likely than those with delta to be admitted to hospitals, the U.K. Health Security Agency said Thursday. Omicron patients are also 31% to 45% less likely to arrive at emergency departments than those with delta. The agency’s data came with an important caveat: While a booster shot improves protection against omicron, its effectiveness starts to wane more rapidly than with delta and is 15% to 25% lower starting 10 weeks after the third dose. The agency also cautioned that the new variant is so infectious that it could still produce significant numbers of severe cases.
New U.K. Study Reinforces Conclusion That Omicron Causes Less Severe Disease
People infected with the Omicron variant of coronavirus are between 50% to 70% less likely to be admitted to the hospital than those who caught earlier strains, according to a new U.K. study that adds to a growing body of evidence of Omicron’s reduced severity in populations with high levels of immunity. The analysis from England, published Thursday by the U.K.’s Health Security Agency, follows studies in Scotland and South Africa that also pointed to a substantially lower risk of hospitalization with Omicron than with more established variants, including Delta. Scientists are still unsure how these encouraging findings around hospitalizations will stack up against Omicron’s much increased transmissibility, and ability to partially evade the protection of vaccines. The risk, they say, is the variant could still cause a big wave of hospital admissions simply by infecting many more people.