Omicron has been noted as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Scientists say preliminary data suggests it may cause milder cases of covid-19 than the delta variant.
Here’s what to know
- Britain’s Boris Johnson reports the country’s first known death from omicron variant of the coronavirus. The announcement comes as Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the variant was spreading at a phenomenal rate and urged people to get boosters. Long lines for shots were reported in several British cities.
- European health officials said Sunday there have been 766 confirmed omicron cases in the region, and of those patients for whom they have information on severity, all were either asymptomatic or mildly ill.
- The president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, tested positive Sunday for the coronavirus and is experiencing mild symptoms, his office said. He is fully vaccinated.
- Long covid is destroying careers and leaving economic distress in its wake. Do you think you’re experiencing long-haul covid symptoms? Share your experience with The Post.
MORE ON THE OMICRON VARIANT
Key coronavirus updates from around the world
Here’s what to know about the top coronavirus stories around the globe from news service reports.
- In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Sunday that eligibility for booster doses would be widened and the national vaccination drive “turbocharge[d]” ahead of the new year, as coronavirus cases tied to the omicron variant are doubling every two to three days.
- The operator of Ghana’s main international airport will fine airlines $3,500 for every passenger they bring in who is not vaccinated against the coronavirus or tests positive on arrival, it said. All visitors to Ghana are required to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, the Health Ministry announced last week.
- Norway will ban alcohol in bars and restaurants, impose stricter rules in schools and speed up vaccination as part of new efforts to curb the spread of the omicron variant, the government said. Coronavirus infections and hospitalizations are surging in the country.
- At least 200,000 coronavirus vaccine shots have expired unused in Senegal in the past two months and 200,000 more are set to expire this month because demand is slow, the head of its immunization program said. Logistical problems, the short shelf life of shots that arrive from donors, and vaccine hesitancy have kept doses from reaching arms.
- Western Australia will reopen its borders to vaccinated travelers with no quarantine starting Feb. 5, as the country forges ahead with gradual reopening plans after a “pause” because of concerns about the omicron variant.
- Pakistan confirmed its first detected case of omicron Monday, in the city of Karachi.
As Brazil braces for omicron, São Paulo says it has fully vaccinated more than 100 percent of its adults
SÃO PAULO — In a world struggling to persuade 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.
In this city of 12.3 million, the story has gone differently. For months, day after day, long and orderly lines formed outside the city’s vaccination stations. Young and old, rich and poor, highly and barely educated: People showed up when their names were called. Then returned weeks later for the second dose. “The world’s vaccine capital,” the city has dubbed itself.
Denmark anticipates explosive omicron growth in the coming days
In a potential sign of the pandemic’s trajectory in Europe, Denmark this week is projecting that the omicron variant will explode in growth, overtaking delta as the majority variant in the capital region, which includes Copenhagen.
A chart shared on Twitter by Denmark’s health minister, analyzing cases in that region, showed omicron cases skyrocketing in the coming days — an increase that would give the country by far its highest daily numbers since the beginning of the pandemic.
“The calculations are still subject to great uncertainty,” the health minister, Magnus Heunicke, said. “But they give an indication of what we are facing.”
Among European Union countries, Denmark has perhaps the best window into the trends of the virus, because of the vast scale at which it sequences the variants in circulation.
The latest numbers, from the State Serum Institute, show that omicron-related cases are doubling every day.
There are initial indications from southern Africa — where the variant was first detected — that omicron-related sickness might be less severe. But Denmark noted that, with such an explosion of cases, omicron could still challenge the health system — especially given the prevalence of breakthrough infections in those who have already been vaccinated. The State Serum Institute said there is a “high risk” that infections travel through hospitals and reduce staff.
“There is still considerable uncertainty in relation to the severity and contagion of omicron,” as well as the effectiveness of booster shots in reducing infections, the institute said, making it difficult to assess the exact burden on the health system. But, it said, “with continued exponential growth of omicron, there is no doubt that the load can become significant.”
Massachusetts to distribute more than 2 million at-home coronavirus tests
Massachusetts will distribute more than 2 million free, at-home coronavirus tests to 102 cities and towns, with a focus on reaching families facing financial hardship, Gov. Charlie Baker (R) announced Monday.
The 2.1 million iHealth Labs rapid antigen tests will be provided to communities that have the highest percentage of families below the poverty level. They will be distributed to the public by each municipality. The tests take 15 minutes to complete at home, with no need to send a sample to a laboratory.
“With the holidays approaching, we encourage residents to utilize rapid tests as a convenient way to keep family members and friends safe at gatherings,” Baker said in a news release.
He said his administration is also finalizing a plan to allow cities and towns to buy tests directly from manufacturers at state-negotiated prices.
The governor noted that at-home tests are widely available at many pharmacies and other retail locations but said the initiatives are “making it even easier for residents to get free rapid testing.”
The seven-day average of new cases in Massachusetts stood at 4,821 on Friday after weeks of climbing, according to Washington Post tracking, which also indicated that about 1,130 people were hospitalized for covid-19 in the state.
‘We’re overwhelmed,’ Minnesota hospital leaders say in full-page ad
The leaders of Minnesota health-care systems struggling with a surge in covid-19 patients put out a full-page message in newspapers across the state Sunday: “We’re heartbroken. We’re overwhelmed.”
The letter described the situation as “critical,” with health-care workers witnessing preventable illness and death daily from the virus. Emergency departments are packed and hospital beds full. Operations are strained and some workers are demoralized. The ad, signed by executives at North Memorial Health, the Mayo Clinic, Fairview Health Services and six other systems, said that hospitals’ ability to provide care is “threatened.”
“At any time, you or your loved one might need our support,” it continues. “Heart attacks. Car accidents. Cancer. Stroke. Appendicitis. Now, an ominous question looms: Will you be able to get care at your local community hospital without delay? Today, that’s uncertain.”
Minnesota is among the country’s coronavirus hot spots, ranking fourth in the nation for the seven-day average of new cases per capita on Friday, at 529. Cases and hospitalizations have been rising. New cases hit a pandemic high on Nov. 30, according to Washington Post tracking. About 1,760 people were hospitalized Friday — fewer than the record 2,059 reported Nov. 29, 2020, but more than hospitals had seen since last winter.
The state’s medical community has been sounding the alarm for weeks. Sunday’s ad was another bid to get the public’s help in controlling the virus’s spread. It urged vaccinations, boosters, masking, social distancing and other precautions.
“How can we as a society stand by and watch people die when a simple shot could prevent a life-threatening illness?” the letter asked. “Your access to health care is being seriously threatened by COVID-19. We need to stop the spread!”
German leaders express fear over radicalized covid deniers after weekend of violence
By Vanessa Guinan-Bank9:51 a.m.
BERLIN — German politicians expressed alarm Monday after protests against coronavirus restrictions turned violent over the weekend.
In several cities across the country, authorized and unauthorized protests ended in violent altercations with the police. Although the number of protesters remained relatively small, more than a dozen police officers were injured and several journalists were attacked.
“The propensity to violence is increasing,” Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said on Twitter on Sunday. Denouncing threats and intimidations as unacceptable, she warned that covid deniers were increasingly radicalizing.
Amid high infection rates, comparatively low vaccination rates and the threat of the omicron variant, Germany is tightening covid restrictions again, mostly targeted at the unvaccinated.
Protests may also be connected to the start of child vaccinations this week. In the city of Hamburg, the main slogan was “hands away from our children.”
Germany has planned a wide-scale vaccination campaign for 5- to 11-year-olds. Vaccinations are meant to take place in zoos, museums and primary schools.
The recently inaugurated federal government is also discussing a generalized vaccine mandate.
In a talk show on Sunday, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said that previous virus variants may not have required a vaccine mandate but with the infectiousness of the delta variant “and especially with omicron” this was no longer the case.
Although a vaccine mandate for health professionals was approved by an overwhelming majority in parliament including most of the opposition parties last Friday, the generalized mandate remains contentious. Even parts of the current governing coalition oppose the mandate and may vote against it.
The continued radicalization of the small but increasingly violent anti-immunization groups is also a concern. Terrorism expert Peter Neumann said that in light of the isolated attacks on Germany’s federal agency for disease control as well as hospitals and vaccination centers, “we may possibly have to call this a terrorist campaign in a few months.”
About 400 investigations launched into fake health passes, French interior minister says
PARIS — French authorities have launched about 400 investigations into criminal networks or individuals behind fake health passes, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said, condemning the fake documents as “death passes.”
President Emmanuel Macron introduced the official passes this past summer, and they have become necessary to gain access to numerous venues, including bars, restaurants and many long-distance trains in France. They can be obtained through vaccination, recovery from covid-19 or a recent negative test.
The introduction of France’s health pass prompted weeks-long nationwide protests this summer. Even though the rallies have shrunk in size, incidents of vandalism against vaccination centers and other sites continue to be reported.
On Monday, France’s Defense Ministry condemned an act of vandalism that targeted the country’s memorial for French WWII resistance fighters at Fort Mont-Valérien. Authorities had found the words “ANTI PASS” — with the last two letters meant to evoke the German Nazi SS logo — sprayed onto a wall.
Darmanin said Sunday that authorities have tracked down thousands of fake documents, which have in some cases been traced to health professionals. He announced that suspects found guilty of creating and distributing them would face “extremely severe” sentences. Several people are already under arrest.
About 78 percent of all French have received at least one vaccine shot, which has given rise to cautious optimism in France that no new lockdowns or curfews will be needed to confront the latest wave of coronavirus cases in the country.
But the rapid spread of the omicron variant in Britain and other parts of Europe appears to have surprised French officials, who had predicted that the variant would spread widely in the region only by the end of January. France has accelerated its booster campaign, reaching over 12 million people so far.
First U.S. vaccine mandate in 1809 launched 200 years of court battles
At the turn of the 19th century, a Massachusetts doctor named Benjamin Waterhouse learned that an English physician had been injecting people with the cowpox virus and claiming it protected them from the deadlier smallpox. So Waterhouse decided to test this novel treatment on his 5-year-old son and expose him to smallpox patients.
At the time, it wasn’t unusual for scientists and doctors to use their children as test subjects. When Waterhouse’s son didn’t become ill, he vaccinated other members of his family. Then he raised the stakes.
He repeated the experiment — this time with 19 children. He injected them with cowpox and sent them to Noddle’s Island, a secluded smallpox hospital off the coast of Boston. Twenty days later, not a single one was showing symptoms of smallpox.
Waterhouse published his results within weeks of completing the experiment. He became a passionate vaccine advocate, lobbying every level of government, from the Boston Board of Heath all the way up to the White House, to demand an organized way to vaccinate the public. He even sent the vaccine to President Thomas Jefferson.
Armed with the results of Waterhouse’s experiments, alongside several conducted by other local doctors, the Massachusetts legislature took swift action. In 1809, it passed a law giving local health boards the authority to require vaccination — the first vaccine mandate law in U.S. history.
Former Trump trade adviser defies House subpoena in coronavirus probe
A senior Trump administration official told the House panel probing the government’s coronavirus response that he will not comply with its subpoena, escalating a fight with Democrats investigating the handling of the pandemic.
Peter Navarro, who served as President Donald Trump’s trade adviser and closely consulted on the White House’s virus strategy, cited a “direct order” from the former president to claim executive privilege, according to a letter the panel released Saturday.
“This matter is out of my hands and something that the Sub-Committee should discuss with President Trump’s counsel,” Navarro wrote to the committee on Dec. 7, rejecting its requests to turn over documents and share other information about the White House coronavirus response by a Dec. 8 deadline.
Vaccine holdouts in U.S. military approach 40,000 even as omicron fuels booster calls
The number of active-duty U.S. military personnel declining to be vaccinated against the coronavirus by their prescribed deadlines is as high as 40,000, with new Army data showing that, days ahead of its cutoff, 3 percent of soldiers either have rejected President Biden’s mandate or sought a long-shot exemption.
While the vast majority of service members are fully vaccinated, military analysts have characterized the number of refusals and holdouts as a troubling indicator in a rigid, top-down culture where decision-making often is predicated on the understanding that the troops will do as they are told. It also suggests that the nation’s divisive politics have influenced a small but significant segment of the Defense Department.
Military leaders have few options to address the dissent other than to hope that, as waiver requests are denied, more troops will choose to fall in line. The alternative, the Pentagon has said, is to purge the ranks of those failing to meet requirements, although some of those roughly 40,000 service members opting out had already planned to leave the military.
Boris Johnson reports U.K.’s first known death from the omicron variant
LONDON — At least one person has died of the omicron variant, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday as he urged Britons to increase their protection with a booster shot.
Johnson, who was speaking to reporters during a visit to a vaccination clinic on Monday, said the omicron variant “was producing hospitalizations, and sadly at least one patient has been confirmed to have died with omicron.”
“I think the idea that this is somehow a milder version of the virus, I think that’s something we need to set on one side and just recognize the sheer pace at which it accelerates through the population,” he said, adding, “the best thing we can do is all get our boosters.”
His comments come amid scenes of long queues outside clinics as Britons scramble to get their third dose of vaccination. Others who tried to book appointments via the National Health Service website were told to try again later. Some people said the site had crashed.
South African president tests positive for coronavirus
South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, tested positive for the coronavirus Sunday, his office said in a statement. Ramaphosa, who was fully vaccinated, was being treated for mild covid-19 symptoms, the statement said. He began feeling “unwell” after leaving a memorial service in Cape Town on Sunday, the statement added.
The 69-year-old was self-isolating in Cape Town, it said, and “delegated all responsibilities” to South Africa’s deputy president, David Mabuza, “for the next week.”
Coronavirus cases have risen sharply in South Africa in recent days, with 19,000 new cases reported each day on a seven-day average, according to Our World in Data, which tracks coronavirus cases. On Dec. 1, the country was averaging nearly 3,800 new cases daily.
Omicron has been the dominant coronavirus variant in South Africa since November, according to the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
Ramaphosa’s office said he had tested negative before returning to South Africa from Senegal on Dec. 8 and again upon arrival.
“People who have had contact with the President [Sunday] are advised to watch for symptoms or to have themselves tested,” the statement said.
Ramaphosa is the latest addition to a sizable list of world leaders who have tested positive for the coronavirus, including former president Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Booster shot offers ‘optimal protection’ against omicron, Fauci says
Getting a booster shot after being fully vaccinated against the coronavirus offers the “best and optimal protection” against the omicron variant, Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, said on Sunday.
Fauci, speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” cited preliminary data showing that a booster shot raises the level of protection high enough to “do well against” omicron and urged Americans to get vaccinated or boosted.
Preliminary data has shown that, with its slew of mutations, the omicron variant may evade some of the protection offered by the primary regimen to be considered fully vaccinated. However, some studies have indicated that booster shots can raise the level of antibodies high enough to block omicron.
Fauci said that for official purposes, two shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine or one shot of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine still count as full vaccination. “We’ll be continuing to evaluate what the official designation is,” he said when asked whether additional shots should now be considered the standard.
“But for now, if you want to be optimally protected, absolutely get a booster if you’ve already had your primary vaccination,” he continued.
A pandemic fix for teacher stress: More half days of school
In a school year widely described as the most grueling of the pandemic, schools have come up with at least one fix for teacher burnout: more half days.
In Virginia’s Hampton Roads area, Suffolk Public Schools is shortening instructional hours every other Wednesday to help take the pressure off beleaguered educators. In Maryland, at least six school districts have remade their calendars for this school year to add more early-release days.
Rick Briggs, chief academic officer in Maryland’s Wicomico County school district, which includes the Eastern Shore city of Salisbury, said his system converted seven full days to half days because of “the stress and the anxiety and the wearing-down of staff like none of us have ever seen before.”