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Israel approves fourth vaccine for vulnerable

The WHO has warned of a “tsunami” of new cases as countries, including Ireland, record largest-ever surges.

A crowd fills Portal del Angel shopping street in Barcelona
A crowd fills Portal del Angel shopping street in Barcelona
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Dec 30th 2021, 10:00 PM

ISRAEL TODAY APPROVED a fourth vaccine shot for vulnerable people, becoming one of the first countries to do so, amid a surge in Covid in cases driven by the Omicron variant.

The approval came as another anti-Covid weapon arrived in the country: a first shipment of Pfizer’s anti-Covid pills.

“Today I approved giving the fourth vaccine for immunocompromised people,” health ministry director-general Nachman Ash told reporters.

“I did this in light of studies that show the benefit of the vaccine, including the fourth vaccine, to this population, and in light of the fear they are more vulnerable in this outbreak of Omicron.”

Health authorities reported more than 4,000 new cases today, a high not seen since September.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Israel was in “a fifth wave”, with most cases probably related to the Omicron variant.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel, which was among the first countries in the world to offer a third shot to the general public, would be a trailblazer for the fourth jab.

“Israel will lead the way in administering a fourth vaccine to the Israeli people,” he said.

Some 4.2 million people out of a population of 9.4 Israelis have gotten three shots of coronavirus vaccine.

Also today, an Israeli El Al flight from Belgium landed in Tel Aviv carrying a shipment of Pfizer’s anti-Covid pill, Paxlovid.

Bennett hailed this as an “important addition to the arsenal in the war against the pandemic”.

“Thanks to our rapid action, the drugs have arrived in Israel quickly and will assist us in getting past the peak of the coming Omicron wave,” he said.

Temporary hospitals

England is building temporary hospitals to deal with a potential overspill of inpatients as surging virus cases put the country’s health service on a “war footing”, officials said Thursday.

Fuelled by the highly contagious Omicron variant, daily cases have ballooned, standing at more than 183,000 on Wednesday.

NHS England said it would build the structures known as “surge hubs” in the grounds of eight hospitals in cities including London, Bristol and Leeds from this week, with each designed to house around 100 extra patients.

Outside St George’s Hospital in Tooting in south London, workers were already putting up a metal framework to support the roof of a new unit, AFP journalists saw.

“Given the high level of Covid-19 infections and increasing hospital admissions, the NHS is now on a war footing,” National Medical Director Stephen Powis said.

He added that he hoped “we never to have to use these new hubs”.

The extra beds are designed for patients who are recovering from illnesses, including those who no longer have Covid, to free up space and staff in the adjacent hospitals to treat large numbers of virus cases.

The number of patients in hospital with the virus are also growing fast, exceeding 10,000 in England on Wednesday – the highest figure since March.

The government opened large ‘Nightingale’ field hospitals in venues such as exhibition centres during the first wave of the virus. The facilities named after nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale were not widely used and staffing was a problem due to their vast size.

This time, the plan is to make available as many as 4,000 “super-surge beds”, in some cases using existing hospital facilities such as gyms or education centres.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “We hope the Nightingale surge hubs at hospitals will not have to be used but it is absolutely right that we prepare for all scenarios and increase capacity”.

It comes as three-quarters of people with new cold-like symptoms are likely to have Covid-19, scientists have said.

According to new analysis in the UK, the ZOE Covid Study estimates that 75% of people experiencing new cold-like symptoms are likely to have symptomatic Covid-19.

This is up from around 50% last week, with the study reporting that the data was showing a fall in the number of non-Covid “colds” and a rise in symptomatic coronavirus infections.

Dr Claire Steves, scientist on the ZOE Covid Study app, said that while the number of daily new symptomatic Covid cases in the UKwas more than double what it was this time last year, exponential growth appeared to have stopped.

“The fact that 75% of new cold-like symptoms are Covid, and the classic symptoms are much less common, means the Government advice needs to be urgently updated.

“We want to see symptoms like sore throat, headache and runny nose added to the list as soon as possible.”

Test shortages

The Welsh Government has acted to aid England by loaning them four million lateral flow (antigen) tests, as UK ministers struggle to secure supplies around the world.

There has been a surge in demand for Covid-19 tests as people try to comply with advice to limit the spread of the Omicron variant by ensuring they do not have coronavirus before socialising.

But by 9am today, home delivery slots for lateral flow tests were unavailable on the Gov.uk website.

Pharmacies have also complained about patchy supplies of lateral flow kits.

The Welsh Government has agreed to loan four million more tests to the NHS in England, bringing the total the country has given England to a total of 10 million.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “Wales has a significant stock of lateral flow tests, sufficient to meet our needs over the weeks ahead.”

In a letter to MPs, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the supply of lateral flow devices (LFDs) was being tripled in January and February from a pre-Omicron plan of 100 million to 300 million per month.

“To respond to anticipated demand over the coming few weeks we are buying hundreds of millions more LFD tests, bringing new products on board and accelerating their deployment to the public,” he said.

But “in light of the huge demand for LFDs seen over the last three weeks, we expect to need to constrain the system at certain points over the next two weeks to manage supply over the course of each day, with new tranches of supply released regularly throughout each day”.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson previously urged people in England heading out for New Year’s Eve festivities on Friday to get tested.

World Health Organization

A Covid “tsunami” threatens to overwhelm healthcare systems, the WHO has said, as record surges fuelled by the Omicron variant dampened New Year celebrations around the world once again.

Governments are walking a tightrope between anti-virus restrictions and the need to keep societies and economies open, as the highly transmissible variant drove cases to levels never seen before in the United States, Britain, France and Denmark.

The blistering surge was illustrated by AFP’s tally of 6.55 million new infections reported globally in the week ending Tuesday, the highest the figure has been since the World Health Organization declared a Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020.

“I am highly concerned that Omicron, being more transmissible, circulating at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“This is and will continue to put immense pressure on exhausted health workers, and health systems on the brink of collapse.”

The variant has already started to overwhelm some hospitals in the United States, the hardest-hit nation where the seven-day average of new cases hit 265,427, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.

Harvard epidemiologist and immunologist Michael Mina tweeted that the count was likely just the “tip of the iceberg” with the true number likely far higher because of a shortage of tests.

But there was some hope as data indicated a decoupling of the number of cases and hospitalisations.

“We should not become complacent,” top US infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci said Wednesday, but “all indications point to a lesser severity of Omicron”.

At a drive-through virus testing site in Miami, Florida, yesterday, there were long lines of cars with people waiting to provide samples.

“Half of my family has it, you know this new variant is very, very spreadable, like way more spreadable than the first time around,” said resident Victoria Sierralta.

“It’s like we’re back in like the first stage of Covid. It’s absolutely crazy.”

‘This is serious’

Millions around the world will again welcome a new year in the shadow of the pandemic, which is known to have killed more than 5.4 million people so far, with festivities dampened or cancelled in many countries.

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Greece yesterday banned music in bars and restaurants to try and limit New Year’s Eve parties, with public events already cancelled.

The mayor of Mexico’s capital has cancelled the city’s massive New Year’s Eve celebrations after a spike in cases.

Despite the outbreak concerns, the streets of Mexico City were busy yesterday.

“I don’t think that such an event with such economic importance should be cancelled, however health comes before everything else,” said 59-year-old teacher Victor Arturo Madrid Contreras.

With the “cancellation they are sending a message … ‘You know what? This is serious’.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meanwhile defended his decision not to clamp down on festivities over the holidays, saying around 90% percent of Covid patients in intensive care had not received a vaccine booster.

The number of people in hospital with the coronavirus topped 10,000 in England, the highest total since March, as Britain on Wednesday reported a new record of 183,037 daily cases.

The high take-up of boosters in England “is allowing us to go ahead with New Year in the cautious way that we are”, Johnson said, despite new closures in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Meanwhile, Germany has announced that they are planning on lifting travel restrictions from people arriving from countries that have been badly hit by Omicron in early January.

All countries currently listed in the “virus variant” category, including the UK and several southern African nations, will be reclassified as “high risk” from 4 January, said government health agency, the Robert Koch Institute.

The change eases a ban on entry for travellers who are not German residents or citizens, instead allowing anyone to enter as long as they observe quarantine and testing rules.

Germany introduced its “virus variant” travel category in a bid to stop new coronavirus strains that have not yet spread widely on its territory.

Only citizens and residents of Germany are permitted to enter from an Omicron variant country and are subject to a two-week quarantine, regardless of whether they are fully vaccinated or can provide a negative Covid-19 test.

By contrast, anyone can enter from a high-risk country as long as they provide a negative test on arrival.

Travellers from high-risk areas are exempt from quarantine if they have been fully vaccinated.

Record cases in Scotland, France, Denmark

In Scotland today, daily cases of Covid-19 have hit record highs for the second day running at 16,857.

Figures published by the Scottish Government on Thursday show 71,612 new tests for Covid-19 reported results and 27.1% were positive.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the record reflects the Omicron variant of the virus being “very, very infectious” and added the “likelihood of getting it just now if you mix with others is high”.

The new daily case figure breaks the previous high of 15,849 announced yesterday.

France hit a new daily record of more than 200,000 cases yesterday – more than double the number on Christmas Day – as it extended its closure of nightclubs into January.

Wearing masks outdoors will become compulsory in Paris on Friday for everyone over the age of 11 except those inside vehicles, cyclists, users of other two-wheelers such as scooters and those participating in sports. 

Denmark, which currently has the world’s highest rate of infection per person, recorded a fresh record of 23,228 new cases, which authorities attributed in part to the large numbers of tests carried out after Christmas celebrations.

Portugal also saw a record with nearly 27,000 cases reported in 24 hours.

© – AFP, 2021

With reporting by Press Association

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