COVID-19 news from January 5: Infections surge around the world amid spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant.
Daily coronavirus infections have soared to record highs in several European countries including France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Turkey.
France reported more than 332,000 cases, beating the previous record established on Tuesday when 271,686 new COVID-19 cases were recorded.
The Omicron variant is driving record daily cases of coronavirus from the United States to Australia, adding to pressure on health services.
Meanwhile, China is doubling down on its COVID-zero strategy, announcing new city lockdowns in response to only a few cases, while Hong Kong is ordering people who were in some 57 locations visited by close contacts of a person later confirmed with Omicron to undergo compulsory testing.
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Puerto Rico’s public schools delayed the start of classes by two weeks, the governor announced on Wednesday, as the US territory grapples with a 36 percent COVID-19 positivity rate.
Governor Pedro Pierluisi said schools would reopen to in-person learning on January 24, adding that all those working in the education sector are required to have their booster shot of a coronavirus vaccine by January 15.
Schoolchildren age 5 and older are required to have at least their first vaccine dose by January 10.
Hundreds of passengers who were hoping to go on cruises departing from the US port in Miami were returned home or had their trips cancelled altogether.
Cheryl Rogers, of Starke, Florida, was sent back to Miami two days after the Norwegian Pearl – which was supposed to be an 11-day cruise – set sail. Rogers said travellers were told crew members fell ill with the coronavirus.
The coronavirus pandemic also prompted a last-minute cancellation of the Norwegian Cruise Line, another cruise that was scheduled to depart on Wednesday for a five-day trip.
Matt Daly, of Surf City, North Carolina, said his holiday was cancelled late on Tuesday, after he and his wife flew into Miami and drove overnight to the port. “I’m never leaving North Carolina,” Daly said. “Too much of a hassle.”
Organisers of the Sundance Film Festival cancelled its in-person event in Utah in the US and shifted entirely online, citing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.
“This was a difficult decision to make,” the festival said in a statement. “As a nonprofit, our Sundance spirit is in making something work against the odds. But with case numbers forecasted to peak in our host community the week of the festival we cannot knowingly put our staff and community at risk.”
Last year’s festival was also held virtually due to the pandemic.
While the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is seemingly milder than previous variants, a Washington DC-based epidemiologist believes the high transmission rate of the new variant should still make people “very worried”.
“Just because you’re slightly milder than the worst strain [Delta] that we’ve had so far, that does not protect us. And again, Omicron is about four to six times more transmissible than Delta, and Delta was twice as transmissible,” Eric Feigl-Ding told Al Jazeera via Skype.
“We’re talking about 10 times more transmissible than the original Wuhan strain. US hospitalisations are at an all-time high. Pediatric hospitalisations are two times last year’s all-time high. Pediatric hospitalisations are also at record highs in England, as well as France and many many other countries,” he said.
The 64th Grammy Awards will not take place on January 31 in Los Angeles, due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
The Recording Academy, which presents music’s most prestigious awards show, said Wednesday that “holding the show on January 31 simply contains too many risks” and added that a new date would be announced “soon”.
“After careful consideration and analysis with city and state officials, health and safety experts, the artist community and our many partners, the Recording Academy and CBS have postponed the 64th Annual Grammy Awards show,” the group said in a joint statement with CBS, its longtime television partner.
The effects of the Omicron variant will vary in different countries, as well as regions in the country, due to the “heterogeneity of the immunity” in these populations, Patrick Tang of Sidra Medicine told Al Jazeera.
“If you’re in a country where there’s high vaccination rates, and maybe a recent wave of Delta infection so that everyone has already high levels of pre-existing immunity, then the effect of Omicron can be different than a region or a country that has low vaccination, and has not had the effects of Delta variants in recent time,” he said speaking from Doha, Qatar.
“So I think there’s going to be some different strategies to approach this for different countries depending on the situation in which they’re in.”
However, overall, Tang said the world was “lucky” the Omicron variant compared with the previous variants was milder.
“There is absolutely no reason why the virus would want to evolve into a less severe or even a more severe version of itself because that’s not really linked to the evolution. So we are very lucky that this highly transmissible virus is also less severe than previous variants,” he added.
A woman accused by her ex-husband of kidnapping their two boys to prevent them from being vaccinated against COVID-19 turned herself in to the authorities on Wednesday, officials said.
The 46-year-old woman was wanted for “kidnapping minors” after her ex-husband, who lives near the southern city of Seville, filed a complaint with police in mid-December accusing her of taking the boys aged 14 and 12 without authorisation, a judicial source told the AFP news agency.
The man said he had not seen the boys since November 4 when he received a letter from his former wife saying she planned to remove them from their school just days after a court ruled he had the right to decide whether the children should be vaccinated.
Epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani of Queen Mary University in London believes the Omicron variant has shown the coronavirus is “very flexible”, making the future course of the pandemic very “unpredictable” amid continuing transmission.
“The Omicron variant is so different to the other variants that we’ve seen that’s actually able to enter in cells in completely different ways from the ways previous rates used to enter. And what we realised is that the space for adaptation of this virus is quite large,” she told Al Jazeera.
“And as long as transmission is allowed to continue, the course of the pandemic is going to be very, very unpredictable.”
The Italian government is set to make coronavirus vaccination mandatory for people aged 50 and above, a draft decree seen by the Reuters news agency showed as a cabinet on new curbs was still continuing.
The obligation will be effective until June 15, the draft decree said.
COVID-19 cases in the United States are up 98 percent compared to last week, officials said, amid rising concern over the rapid spread of the Omicron variant in the country.
During a regular COVID news briefing Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that the US is currently averaging 491,700 cases per day.
Hospitalisations, currently averaging 14,800 per day, were 63 percent higher than last week. Deaths, at 1,200 per day, were at a 5 percent increase from a week ago.
“Over the last several weeks and over the holidays we have seen a significant and rapid increase in COVID-19 cases,” Walensky said.
The CDC also said that the highly infectious Omicron variant now accounts for 95 percent of coronavirus cases in the US, while only 5 percent are due to the Delta strain.
Health authorities across the UK simplified COVID-19 testing requirements on, a move designed to cut isolation times for many people and that may ease the staffing shortages that are hitting public services from hospitals to garbage collection amid an omicron-fueled surge in infections.
In another effort to bolster the economy, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that pre-departure tests for people traveling to England will no longer be required because the Omicron variant is so prevalent that travel restrictions meant to contain its spread are now meaningless.
With indications that Omicron is less severe than earlier variants and widespread vaccination curtailing serious illnesses, the government is sticking with light-touch controls imposed in mid-December.
Bulgaria will require almost all travellers from the European Union to have a negative PCR coronavirus test prior to entry along with a valid COVID certificate, starting on Friday, the Health Ministry said.
The measure is aimed at limiting the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, the ministry said.
The Balkan country recorded its first 12 Omicron cases since the New Year. On Wednesday it reported a sharp rise in new infections to over 6,200 from about 1,900 a day earlier.
French Health Minister Olivier Veran told parliament on Wednesday that today’s COVID-19 new cases figure stood at around 335,000 new confirmed cases in France, marking a new record.
Turkey recorded 66,467 new coronavirus infections in the last 24 hours, the highest daily figure on record, health ministry data showed.
Cases in Turkey have more than doubled in just over a week as the Omicron variant became dominant in the country.
Canada will ramp up supplies of rapid COVID-19 tests to the country’s 10 provinces, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters, promising, “There will be better days ahead.”
Most provinces have reimposed restrictions on businesses and gatherings amid warnings from medical professionals that healthcare systems could be swamped.
The United States has the tools needed to keep schools open despite a surge of coronavirus cases driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said.
“We know how to keep our kids safe in school. About 96 percent of schools are open. Parents want schools open, and experts are clear that in-person learning is best for kids’ physical and mental health and further education. And the President couldn’t be clearer; schools in this country should remain open,” Zients told reporters.
The UK reported 194,747 further cases of COVID-19 and 334 more deaths within 28 days of a positive test, according to official data.
The deaths figures reported included four days of hospital data for England as the data catches up after a seasonal holiday.
Public schools in the US city of Chicago, Illinois were closed after the teachers union voted in favour of switching to remote learning amid a surge in COVID-19 infections fueled by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
The state had rejected a return to distance learning, arguing it was harmful to children’s education and mental health. But the union argued the district’s safety protocols were insufficient – leaving both teachers and students vulnerable to the disease.
“This decision was made with a heavy heart and a singular focus on student and community safety,” the union said in a statement. “Our teachers are not willing to report to work.”
The Chicago Teachers Union’s move was approved by 73 percent of members and called to continue remote instruction until “cases substantially subside” or union leaders reach an agreement on improved safety protocols.
“We are deeply concerned about this decision but even more concerned about its impact on the health, safety, and well-being of our students and families,” the district said in a statement.
Austrian police said they had raided two dozen homes, seizing equipment and placing 22 people under investigation on suspicion of forging vaccine certificates, weeks before COVID vaccines become mandatory.
Investigators suspect the 22 people were forging documents not just for themselves but for friends and acquaintances, the interior ministry said in a statement.
“Organised trade and use of forged vaccine certificates is no trivial matter, but a criminal offence,” said Interior Minister Gerhard Karner.
Cypriot authorities announced stricter controls on social gatherings to tackle the world’s worst COVID-19 infection rate per capita.
Ministers at a cabinet meeting imposed restrictions on church gatherings and home visits as Cypriots prepare to mark the Epiphany on Thursday, a key date in the Greek Orthodox religious calendar.
Home visits will be limited to 10 people, half the number previously permitted, and not including children under 12, while church attendance will be restricted to a maximum of 200 people.
The Netherlands reported more than 24,000 new COVID-19 infections in 24 hours, a record high, official data showed.
The figure came as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus became dominant in the country during a strict lockdown.
Infections were up almost 60 percent from last week despite a strict lockdown that has closed all but essential stores as well as restaurants, hairdressers, gyms, museums and other public places since December 19.
Qatar has introduced multiple new precautionary curbs as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the Gulf nation, local media outlet The Peninsula reported.
The measures which will be effective January 8, include limited capacity at restaurants, recreational centres, weddings and other venues; only vaccinated people will be allowed in malls; and no under-12’s will be allowed in mosques.
In the last 24 hours, Qatar reported 1,696 infections and no deaths.
Liverpool’s League Cup semi-final first leg match with Arsenal, scheduled to be played on Thursday, has been postponed due to several positive COVID cases, Liverpool announced on their website.
Liverpool closed their training ground and have manager Jurgen Klopp, assistant Pepijn Lijnders and several players presently isolating due to positive tests.
Klopp and three players, Alisson Becker, Joel Matip and Roberto Firmino, were already isolating before the latest wave of infections.
President Emmanuel Macron has faced anger from opponents and chaos in parliament after issuing a provocative warning to people in France not yet vaccinated against COVID-19 that he would pressure them as much as possible by limiting access to key aspects of life.
Macron, who has not yet formally declared his candidacy for re-election in April, came under fire from challengers already in the race, accusing him of overstepping the line with his remarks.
Read more here.
Polish President Andrzej Duda has tested positive for coronavirus, a top aide told the state news agency PAP.
The president is in isolation, the aide added.
Israel is giving groups at high COVID-19 risk priority access to PCR tests, and allowing vaccinated people who are exposed to carriers to make an initial determination of quarantine status with home tests, the Health Ministry announced.
Tokyo authorities may ask Japan’s government to reinstate emergency measures as a rise in COVID-19 cases spurs concern that the capital is experiencing a sixth wave of infections, the Sankei newspaper reported.
Tokyo metropolitan government officials are preparing to make the request for a declaration of what are known in Japan as quasi-emergency measures, the paper reported, citing unidentified sources.
Such measures, which include restrictions on restaurant and bar opening hours, were lifted across Japan in September.
Hong Kong has announced a two-week ban on incoming flights from eight countries and tightened coronavirus restrictions after detecting cases of the Omicron variant.
Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, told reporters on Wednesday that incoming flights from Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, the United Kingdom and the United States, including interchanges, would be banned from January 8 to January 21.
The government will ban indoor dining after 6pm from Friday, she said, and close swimming pools, sports centres, bars and clubs, museums and other venues for at least two weeks.
Read more here.
Singapore expects the Omicron coronavirus variant to cause a bigger wave of infections than Delta, the health ministry said, adding a booster dose will soon be required for adults to be considered fully vaccinated.
From February 14, eligible persons aged 18 years and above should have received a booster dose no later than 270 days after the last dose in the primary vaccination series to be considered fully vaccinated, the ministry said.
The city-state of 5.5 million people allows only those counted as fully vaccinated to enter malls or dine in restaurants or at hawker stalls.
The leader of the UK’s opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, has tested positive for COVID-19, his spokesperson said.
Xu Mingfei, vice mayor of Xian, has said that more than 42,000 people were in centralised COVID-19 quarantine facilities in the Chinese city.
Mingfei told a news briefing that residents should continue to avoid going out or leaving the city for non-essential reasons.
In Xian, which is two weeks into a lockdown, authorities reported 35 domestically transmitted cases with confirmed symptoms on Tuesday, compared with 95 the previous day and 150 or more per day during the December 25-31 period, official data showed.
Philippine authorities have cancelled an annual procession, which normally draws millions of Catholic devotees accompanying a black wooden statue of Jesus Christ through the streets of Manila, for a second straight year due to coronavirus concerns.
The government’s coronavirus task force cancelled the “Black Nazerene” procession, which is one of the country’s largest religious festivals, before celebrations related to the January 9 procession, were due to start on Friday because of rising COVID-19 infections.
Unlike last year, there will be no in-person masses in the church housing the centuries-old statue, and police will be deployed to discourage people from gathering outside the building, authorities said.
“We understand [the cancellation] for our safety and health reasons,” Father Douglas Badong, parochial vicar of Quiapo Church, told a news conference. He said physical masses will take place in other provinces and online masses for devotees in the capital.
Japan’s Okinawa region has emerged as the epicentre of a new coronavirus surge with cases more than doubling from the previous day and officials were considering imposing emergency steps to contain it.
New infections in the southern prefecture jumped to 623 from 225 on Tuesday, the most since August when Japan was in the middle of its fifth and biggest wave of COVID-19.
Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki told reporters the region had entered a sixth wave of infections and the highly transmissible Omicron variant was responsible.
As of Tuesday, a total of 1,191 cases of the Omicron variant had been found in Japan, including 479 cases considered community transmissions, according to the health ministry.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has said that the government will introduce a series of new measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, as she warned the global financial hub was on the verge of another outbreak.
The new rules include a ban on flights from eight countries for two weeks from January 8, affecting the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Pakistan, Philippines, France and India.
Lam was speaking as Hong Kong authorities launched a city-wide search for the contacts of a COVID-19 patient and ordered a Royal Caribbean “cruise to nowhere” ship to return to port early, as health officials feared a fifth wave of infections.
Read more here.
Israel’s health ministry has announced nearly 12,000 new coronavirus cases, constituting the largest daily rise in infections since the beginning of the pandemic nearly two years ago.
According to the figures, 11,978 new COVID cases were detected over the course of Tuesday, surpassing the country’s previous record high of 11,344 cases recorded on September 2 last year.
While there were currently nearly 60,000 people with COVID in Israel, the number of serious cases on Wednesday was only 125, according to the health ministry.
Nearly 4.3 million of Israel’s 9.4 million inhabitants have received three shots of coronavirus vaccine. In recent days, authorities began administering fourth shots to at-risk groups.
Hungary has reported 5,270 new COVID-19 cases, a sharp rise from the 3,005 recorded a week ago, amid the spread of the Omicron variant.
Omicron accounted for more than 11 percent of new cases, the government said.
India has reported 58,097 new daily COVID-19 cases, twice the number seen only four days ago, with a top health official in the national capital saying the pandemic’s third wave in the country “has set in”.
Deaths rose by 534, including the southern state of Kerala’s updated death toll of 423, lifting the national total to 482,551, according to the health ministry data on Wednesday.
The total number of cases officially reported so far is more than 35 million, as the highly transmissible Omicron variant begins to overtake Delta, a strain first discovered in India.
Read more here.
Thousands of passengers are being held on a cruise ship in Hong Kong for coronavirus testing after health authorities said nine passengers were linked to a recent omicron cluster and ordered the ship to turn back.
Authorities forced the Royal Caribbean’s Spectrum of the Seas ship, which began sailing on Sunday on a “cruise to nowhere,” to return a day early on Wednesday, according to a government statement.
Royal Caribbean said in a statement that the nine guests were immediately isolated and had all tested negative, and that the company was working closely with authorities to comply with epidemic prevention policies and regulations.
The decision to award the world’s top-ranked tennis player Novak Djokovic a medical exemption to travel to Melbourne to defend his Australian Open title has prompted an outcry on social media and criticism from other sportspeople, medical professionals and politicians.
The Serb, who is seeking a record 21st Grand Slam singles title, has continually refused to reveal if he is vaccinated against the coronavirus.
He has been vocal in his opposition for vaccine mandates, calling for freedom across the world. On Tuesday, Djokovic wrote on Instagram he has “an exemption permission”.
Read more here.
The United States reported nearly one million new coronavirus infections, the highest daily tally of any country in the world and nearly double the previous US peak set a week ago.
The number of hospitalised COVID-19 patients has risen nearly 50 percent in the past week and now exceeds 100,000, according to data collected by Reuters news agency, marking the first time that threshold has been reached in a year.
The latest surge, which forced waves of cancellations from commercial airlines flights to Broadway shows in recent weeks, was disrupting plans for public schools to welcome students back from winter vacation.
German Finance Minister Christian Lindner has said that the country does not want to impose another lockdown even as coronavirus cases are jumping again.
“We want to avoid blanket and area-wide closures in the future,” Lindner was quoted as saying by the Stuttgarter Nachrichten daily and the Neue Berliner Redaktionsgesellschaft.
“Our goal remains to maintain social life as far as possible and to avoid social damage as far as possible.”
Lindner has called for Germany to be in a position to vaccinate the entire population within a month in the event of future waves of the pandemic.
Pakistan says it registered 898 new cases of the coronavirus on Tuesday, the biggest jump in daily cases since mid-October.
There were five deaths recorded on Tuesday, taking the official death toll since the pandemic began to 28,950.
Asad Hashim, Al Jazeera’s Islamabad correspondent, says authorities are warning of the beginning of a fifth wave of the virus.
More on the situation in Australia …
Al Jazeera’s Sarah Clarke, who is in Brisbane, says the National Cabinet, which includes Prime Minister Scott Morrison as well as state premiers and other senior officials, is meeting to discuss next steps amid fears of an “emerging crisis”.
She says there are three main issues:
Okinawa in Japan’s south appears to be emerging as a new hotspot for coronavirus in Japan.
Citing local officials, the Reuters news agency is reporting cases more than doubled to about 600 on Wednesday, compared with 225 on Tuesday.
It says emergency steps to contain the outbreak are being considered.
India has reported 58,097 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, twice the number of only four days ago, according to health ministry data.
Deaths rose by 534, including the southern state of Kerala’s updated death toll of 423, lifting the national total to 482,551.
Australia has reported a record number of daily COVID-19 cases for a third consecutive day.
Officials reported 64,758 new cases on Wednesday, most of them in New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, the country’s most populous states. That compares with about 47,800 on Tuesday.
Total infections have surged more than 50 times from approximately 1,200 since late November when Omicron was first detected, according to the Reuters news agency.
The surge is putting pressure on hospitals – admissions in NSW and Victoria rose 10 percent on Wednesday compared with Tuesday, with NSW Deputy Health Secretary Susan Pearce warning of “challenging weeks” to come.
Officials in Xi’an say cases of COVID-19 in the city have been largely “brought under control” following a strict lockdown.
It reported 35 cases on Wednesday, the lowest daily count since the middle of last month,
“Although the case number has been high for many days, the rapid rise in COVID spread at community level has been brought under control compared with the early stages of the outbreak,” Ma Guanghui, the deputy director of Shaanxi health commission told a press conference.
“The overall trend of the epidemic is showing a downward trend.”
But other cities are also battling outbreaks, with a new partial lockdown imposed in the city of Zhengzhou in neighbouring Henan province. The city has reported two cases and nine asymptomatic infections in recent days.
Malaysia has confirmed 54 more cases of Omicron, with 39 of them in Malaysians returning from Saudi Arabia for their pilgrimage.
Health minister Khairy Jamaluddin says four of the cases are local but linked to an umrah traveller.
Malaysia has been maintaining strict border controls to contain the spread of the virus with only citizens and long-term residents allowed into the country.
Given the high number of Omicron cases found in travellers returning from Saudi Arabia, he announced last week that umrah pilgrimages would be suspended from January 8.
54 kes lagi Omicron (confirmed whole genome sequenced). 39 daripada 54 adalah pengembara warganegara Malaysia yang kembali dari Arab Saudi. 4 adalah jangkitan tempatan daripada kes indeks yang pulang dari Umrah. https://t.co/UnLubk2961
— Khairy Jamaluddin 🇲🇾🌺 (@Khairykj) January 4, 2022
(Translation: 54 more cases of Omicron (confirmed by sequencing of whole genome). 39 of the 54 are Malaysian citizens returning from Saudi Arabia. 4 are local infections via an index case who returned from Umrah)
Hong Kong has been sealing off residential housing complexes and enforcing compulsory testing to stamp out coronavirus transmission after a resident was discovered to have the Omicron strain of the virus.
So-called “restricted area” testing was imposed on two apartment buildings in the Causeway Bay area of the Chinese territory on the night of January 4 with all residents required to be tested in order to leave their homes. Some 270 people at the two locations had been tested by 3am (07:00 GMT), the government said, with no cases found.
People who were in 57 locations at the same time as contacts of the COVID-19 patients have also been ordered to undergo compulsory testing. The locations include branches of McDonald’s, the M+ art museum and various buses, trains and ferries.
Hong Kong reported 39 cases on January 5.
French President Emmanuel Macron has warned people in France who have yet to be vaccinated against COVID-19 that their access to key aspects of life will be limited.
“I really want to hassle them,” Macron told the Le Parisien newspaper in an interview. “And we will continue to do this, to the end. This is the strategy.”
He added this would mean “limiting as much as possible their access to activities in social life”.
The French government is trying to push through legislation that would make vaccination compulsory to enjoy cultural activities, take intercity trains or visit cafes and restaurants from January 15.
Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro has cancelled street parades and parties at its annual Carnival for the second year in a row.
The city’s mayor says that is because of an increase in COVID-19 cases and the threat from the arrival of the Omicron variant.
Hundreds of thousands of people usually attend such events every year.
“The street carnival, by its very nature, due to the democratic aspect it has, makes it impossible to exercise any kind of inspection,” Eduardo Paes said in a live internet broadcast.
The display by Rio’s samba schools will go ahead with strict health protocols for those watching from the stands.
This is Al Jazeera’s live blog on the coronavirus pandemic. For coronavirus news from January 4, please click here.
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COVID-19 news from January 5: Infections surge around the world amid spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant.