Merkel: COVID-19 spike ‘worse than anything we’ve seen’

People wearing face masks stand in a reportedly 700-meter-long queue to get vaccinated in the Philharmonic Hall "Elbphilharmonie" (inseen) in the northern German city of Hamburg on Nov 22, 2021, as a vaccination center has been opened in the philharmonic amid a surge of COVID-19 infections. (MORRIS MAC MATZEN / AFP)

BRUSSELS / LJUBLJANA / TUNIS / MOSCOW / NAIROBI / KIGALI / LONDON / BERLIN / QUITO / VIENNA / TORONTO / AMSTERDAM / BUDAPEST – Chancellor Angela Merkel said the latest surge in COVID-19 infections is worse than anything Germany has experienced so far and called for tighter restrictions to help check the spread.

Merkel told officials from her Christian Democratic party on Monday that the situation is “highly dramatic” and warned that some hospitals would soon be overwhelmed unless the fourth wave of the pandemic is broken, according to a person familiar with her remarks.

While deaths are at about a fifth of the levels seen last winter, the number of cases has been rising at a record pace. In the eastern state of Saxony the seven-day incidence rate has surged to almost 1,000 per 100,000 people — close to three times higher than the national average

She said many citizens don’t seem to understand the severity of the outbreak, and that while more people should get vaccinated, it wouldn’t be enough on its own. She called on Germany’s 16 states, which largely set their own policies on coronavirus curbs, to introduce more restrictions already this week.

Merkel, who is due to step down as soon as next month after 16 years in power, has been making increasingly frantic calls for Germany to step up its fight against the virus.

While deaths are at about a fifth of the levels seen last winter, the number of cases has been rising at a record pace. In the eastern state of Saxony the seven-day incidence rate has surged to almost 1,000 per 100,000 people — close to three times higher than the national average.

Health Minister Jens Spahn said Monday that people who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19 are almost certain to catch it in coming months and some of those will die.

“Just about everyone in Germany will probably be either vaccinated, recovered or dead” by the end of this winter, Spahn said at a news conference in Berlin. He acknowledged that some might find the statement cynical.

Spahn said last week he couldn’t rule out another full lockdown, after neighboring Austria imposed its fourth shutdown of the pandemic that took effect Monday.

While Germany is accelerating its vaccine campaign, the vast majority of COVID-19 shots given of late have been boosters. In the past week, about 75 percent of the 2.5 million shots administered were third doses, while just 13 percent, or about 329,000, were people getting their initial jabs, according to the health ministry.

At that rate, only about 10 percent of the country’s nearly 15 million adult vaccine holdouts would receive their first dose by the end of this year.

“Immunity will be reached,” Spahn said. “The question is whether it’s via vaccination or infection, and we emphatically recommend the path via vaccination.”

Many of the Germany’s famed outdoor Christmas markets have been canceled for the second year in a row, and people who aren’t inoculated face possible curfews.

Starting this week, Bavaria will close clubs and bars, while shops will have to reduce capacity and restaurants will have to shut by 10 pm. The hardest-hit communities will face even tougher restrictions, the state government announced on Friday. Saxony has also closed clubs and bars, among other measures.

The situation in hospitals is increasingly strained, with clinics preparing to transfer severely ill people to other facilities, according to German intensive-care association DIVI.

The number of COVID-19 cases in ICUs rose to about 3,840 on Monday, still below the peak of around  5,750 during the second wave and about 5,100 during the second, DIVI data showed.

In the states of Bavaria, Saxony and Thuringia, Covid patients account for more than 30 percent of the patients in intensive care. Across the country, there are 2,705 free ICU beds, less than half the available capacity a year ago.

Authorities expect shipments of 6 million doses of the Pfizer Inc-BioNTech SE Covid shot early this week in Germany, Spahn said. Still, boosters alone won’t be enough to curb infections within the next two weeks and people will need to reduce contacts as well, he added.

Africa

The first of nearly 100 million doses of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine being donated by the European Union by year-end have begun arriving in African countries, a statement by the GAVI vaccine alliance said on Monday.

Belgium negotiated the deal as part of the bloc's overall pledge to share at least 500 million doses with low and lower-middle income countries by mid-2022, the Geneva-based group, which leads the COVAX initiative, said in a statement.

"The first doses have reached Niger, with more doses arriving in a number of countries this week," Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said in the statement that also listed Guinea Conakry, Mauritania, the Central African Republic, Djibouti, Nigeria, Togo and the Republic of Congo.

People crowd a Christmas market in Vienna, Austria on Nov 21, 2021. The Austrian government announced a nationwide lockdown that will start Monday and comes as average daily deaths have tripled in recent weeks and hospitals in heavily hit states have warned that intensive care units are reaching capacity. (VADIM GHIRDA / AP)

Austria

Austria powered down public life on Monday as its fourth national COVID-19 lockdown began, making it the first western European country to reimpose the drastic and unpopular measure this autumn in the face of surging coronavirus infections.

This lockdown is similar to previous ones but is the first introduced since vaccines became widely available. Most places people gather, like restaurants, cafes, bars, theatres, non-essential shops and hairdressers cannot open their doors for 10 days initially and maybe as many as 20, the government says.

Christmas markets, a big draw for tourists that had only just begun to open, must also shut but, in a last-minute change, ski lifts can remain open to the vaccinated. Hotels will, however, close to tourists not already staying there when the lockdown began.

"It is a situation where we have to react now," Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein told ORF TV on Sunday night.

The conservative-led government imposed a lockdown on the unvaccinated last week but daily infections kept extending far above the previous peak reached a year ago and intensive care beds are running short.

On Friday, the government announced it was reimposing a full lockdown as of Monday and would make it compulsory to get vaccinated as of Feb 1, a step few countries have taken.

People can leave their homes for a limited number of reasons like going to work or buying essentials. Going for a walk is allowed with no limit on time or distance. Only one person from another household can be met at a time.

Workplaces and schools will stay open, but the government has asked parents to keep their children at home if possible.

A man shows a poster reading: "Against Passes. Stop the COVID-19 noose. Freedom" during a demonstration against the reinforced measures of the Belgium government to counter the latest spike of the coronavirus in Brussels, Belgium on Nov 21, 2021. (OLIVIER MATTHYS / AP)

Belgium

Around 35,000 demonstrators gathered in the streets of Brussels on Sunday to protest against the newly adopted COVID-19 restrictive measures.

The march started around 1:00 pm outside the Brussels North Station, with protesters bracing placards saying "Freedom," "Fear is a bad engine" or "No to the Pass."

Police were forced to deploy water cannons and tear gas to fend off violent demonstrators who threw fireworks at officers.

The situation is now back to normal and transport links have reopened, said the police.

New measures to curb the spike in COVID-19 infections in Belgium entered into force on Saturday, mandating the use of masks in areas where a COVID Safe Ticket (CST) is required.

A "COVID Safe Ticket Plus" rule, combining the CST with mandatory mask-wearing, is now applied indoors for anyone above the age of 10.

The authorities, expected to meet again in January, have asked people to respect the 1.5-meter social distancing rule indoors and limit social contacts outdoors, though no "bubbles" will be imposed for now.

A man walks past an anti-vaccine tag in Liverpool on Nov 16, 2021. Scientists in the UK gave the green light to an expansion of the country's COVID-19 inoculation program to offer a third shot to all healthy adults aged 40-49, six months after their second jab. (OLI SCARFF / AFP)

Britain

The UK has added Sinovac-CoronaVac, Sinopharm Beijing and Covaxin to its list of approved vaccines for travel into the country, according to the Department for Transport and Department of Health and Social Care’s guidance.

The UK government is extending its coronavirus booster program, part of an effort to avoid following other European nations into imposing new restrictions to control the virus.

From Monday, everyone over age 40 will be invited to have a third dose of the vaccine. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the hope is that by bolstering immunity within the population, the number of serious cases that require hospitalization will be limited. 

Britain has already delivered 15 million booster jabs covering a quarter of the population.

“It’s very sad to see cases rising, surging, in certain parts of Europe,” Javid said in an interview with Trevor Phillips on Sky News on Sunday. “What’s made a real difference here in the UK is our booster program.”

The United Kingdom reported 40,004 confirmed new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, taking the seven-day total to 287,205, a 9.4 percent rise over the previous seven-day period, official daily data showed.

The data also showed 61 new deaths from the virus, as measured in deaths within 28 days of a positive test, were reported on Sunday, raising the seven-day toll to 1,029, a 5.9 percent drop compared with the previous seven days.

Evacuated residents of Merritt, British Columbia, line up at a reception centre in Kelowna, British Columbia on Nov 18, 2021. British Columbia Premier John Horgan said over the past six months there have been drought conditions in Merritt, where the river was at its lowest point in living memory and where people had to be evacuated because of wildfires in temperatures that were unprecedented. And now, he said, much of the community is under water. (JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS VIA AP)

Canada

Canadians crossing into the United States for fuel and other essential supplies will be exempt from having to show a negative COVID-19 test result on their return, as Ottawa seeks to help flood-hit residents in British Columbia, a federal official said on Sunday.

While the flood situation in Canada's westernmost province remains serious, there have been some improvements as water levels drop and roads and highways reopen, Bill Blair, minister of emergency preparedness, told a media conference. 

But more potentially damaging weather is forecast for the province this week.

Blair said the exemption would allow people living in a border community who travel to the United States for essential goods to return without the requirement of a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test.

Residents wait to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in Guayaquil, Ecuador, July 22, 2021. (DOLORES OCHOA / AP)

Ecuador and Colombia

Ecuador and Colombia on Sunday agreed to the bilateral reopening of their shared border from the start of December after it was closed amid the coronavirus pandemic, and pledged to work together to combat drug trafficking.

The shared border was shut in March 2020 as both governments looked to curb the spread of coronavirus. The controlled reopening, complete with epidemiological measures, will bring greater security and economic activity to the zone.

France

A fifth COVID-19 wave kicked off “at a blazing speed” even though France is better off than many other European countries thanks to early adoption of so-called health passes and high vaccination levels, government spokesman Gabriel Attal said on Europe 1 on Sunday. 

France reported 19,749 cases in the past 24 hours, up from 12,496 the previous Sunday. There were 15 new deaths, bringing the total number to 118,461. 

Authorities are already bolstering checks to make sure that health passes are checked at restaurants, cafes and other venues given that citizens had started “being relaxed” about the rules of late, Attal said. 

Attal also said that special police forces are being sent to Guadeloupe amid persisting protests against health passes in the French oversea territory. He called the violence of the past days “intolerable and unacceptable.” 

Hungary

People were lining up for COVID-19 shots outside Budapest's main hospitals on Monday as Hungary for the first time offered vaccinations without prior registration amid a surge in new infections.

Hungary reported a record high tally of 11,289 new cases on Friday and on Monday reported 27,209 new cases for Friday to Sunday and 392 deaths.

Hungary, with a population of 10 million, has reported 33,172 coronavirus deaths in total.

Despite people lining up for shots, Hungary's vaccination rate lags the EU average, with about 5.8 million people having had the two shots.

The government imposed mandatory mask wearing in closed spaces last week and said it would make COVID-19 shots mandatory for all healthcare workers.

Janos Szlavik, of Budapest's main COVID-19 hospital, said late on Sunday on commercial television ATV that further measures could soon be necessary to curb infections.

He was cited as saying that 80-90 percent of COVID-19 patients requiring intensive care were unvaccinated, and the intensive care unit in his hospital was full.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 257.64 million while the global death toll topped 5.15 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Medical workers remove the body of a coronavirus patient who had died, past others as they lie on their beds, in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Machakos, Kenya on Aug 20, 2021.  (BRIAN INGANGA / AP)

Kenya

Kenya will require people seeking government services to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus from Dec 21 as authorities move to increase inoculation before the year-end holiday season.

The government will restrict in-person services at the revenue, transport, ports, immigration and education agencies, Health Secretary Mutahi Kagwe said. 

The state will also limit access to hospitals, prisons, game parks as well as hotels, bars, restaurants and businesses that attend to 50 people or more in a day, Kagwe said in a statement.

President Uhuru Kenyatta wants at least 10 million people in the nation of about 53 million to be vaccinated against Covid-19 before the end of the year — as part of plans to support the recovery of East Africa’s largest economy. So far, only about 6.4 million vaccinations have been administered, with about 2.4 people fully inoculated.

Kenya’s virus cases have dropped, with the positivity rate ranging from 0.8 percent to 2.6 percent over the past two weeks. The government is, however, wary of new spikes over the Christmas season next month and as political gatherings increase ahead of next year’s general elections.

A 10-day mass vaccination campaign will be rolled out from Nov 26 to boost the number of inoculated people. Kenya’s Pharmacy and Poisons Board has also given emergency authorization for the use of Pfizer Inc’s vaccines on teenagers.

Kenya has reported a total of 254,629 COVID-19 cases and 5,325 deaths since March 2020.

Thousands take part in a demonstration against COVID-19 restrictions in Amsterdam, Netherlands on Nov 20, 2021. (PETER DEJONG / AP)

Netherlands

Riots broke out in cities across the Netherlands on Sunday, the third night in a row that police clashed with mobs of angry youths who set fires and threw rocks to protest COVID-19 restrictions.

Unrest was reported in locations including Leeuwarden and Groningen in the north, the eastern town of Enschede and Tilburg in the south. 

In Enschede, where an emergency ordinance was issued, police used batons to try to disperse a crowd, according to video on social media. In Leeuwarden, police vans were pelted with rocks and black-clad groups chanted and set off flares.

Responding to the worst disturbances since a full lockdown led to widespread disorder and more than 500 arrests in January, police said five officers had been injured overnight Saturday and at least 64 people detained in three provinces, including dozens who threw fireworks and fences during a soccer match at Feyenoord Rotterdam's stadium.

The latest unrest began on Friday night in Rotterdam, where police opened fire on a crowd that had swelled to hundreds during a protest that the city's mayor said had turned into "an orgy of violence".

Four people believed to have been hit by police bullets remained in hospital on Sunday, a statement by the authorities said. read more

The protests were sparked by opposition to government plans to restrict use of a national corona pass to people who have either recovered from COVID-19 or have been vaccinated, excluding those with a negative test result.

The Netherlands reimposed some lockdown measures on its 17.5 million population last weekend for an initial three weeks in an effort to slow a resurgence of the virus, but daily infections have remained at their highest levels since the start of the pandemic.

Some youths were also angered by a New Year's Eve firework ban to avoid added pressure on hospitals that have already been forced to scale back care due to a surge in COVID-19 patients. 

Pfizer

Pfizer Inc said on Monday its COVID-19 vaccine provided strong long-term protection against the virus in a late-stage study conducted among adolescents aged 12 to 15 years.

A two-dose series of the vaccine was 100 percent effective against COVID-19, measured seven days through over four months after the second dose, the company said.

The long-term data will support planned submissions for full-regulatory approval of the vaccine in the age group in the United States and worldwide.

Pfizer and BioNTech will seek clearance for a 30 micrograms dose of the vaccine for those aged 12 and above.

The vaccine was authorized for emergency use in people aged 12-15 years by the US Food & Drug Administration in May, and granted full approval for use in people aged 16 and above in August.

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Denis Logunov, Deputy Director of the Russia's Gamaleya research center, during a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia on Nov 21, 2021. (MIKHAIL METZEL / KREMLIN POOL PHOTO VIA AP)

Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Sunday that he had received a booster shot using the country's one-dose Sputnik Light vaccine.

Putin said he was feeling well after the third shot during a meeting with Denis Logunov, deputy director of the Gamaleya Scientific Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, which creates the Sputnik vaccines.

Putin was inoculated with the first jab of Sputnik V vaccine on March 23 and the second on April 14.

In his televised comments Sunday, Putin said he’d be willing to participate in clinical trials of a nasal-spray version of the vaccine that’s now under development.

Rwanda

Rwanda will start administering COVID-19 vaccine to adolescents aged between 12 and 18, the Rwandan health ministry said in a statement on Sunday.

In order to intensify preventive measures against COVID-19 in Rwanda, the government will on Tuesday start vaccinating adolescents aged between 12 and 18 years of age, said the statement.

The vaccination exercise will begin in the capital city Kigali and later expand to other areas countrywide, it added.

Slovenia

Slovenia on Sunday reported 2,245 new COVID-19 cases in the latest 24-hour span, taking the national tally to 400,667.

On Saturday, 4,739 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests were performed, of which 47.4 percent came back positive, according to the National Institute of Public Health (NIJZ).

Nineteen new deaths took the national death toll to 5,378, government data showed.

The 7-day average of new cases was down by 18 to 3,203. NIJZ estimates there are currently 44,629 active infections in the country.

South Africa

South African coronavirus cases are beginning to climb, the positivity rate of tests is increasing and an analysis of wastewater shows that the disease is once again becoming more prevalent in some areas. 

On Nov 20, the number of confirmed cases over a 24-hour period rose to 887, the highest since Oct 14, and on Nov 21, 3.4 percent of tests returned a positive result, according to government data. 

If maintained over a seven-day period, that would be the highest proportion of people testing positive since the week ended Sept 26.

The rise in cases comes days after the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said that the incidence of COVID-19 was increasing in wastewater samples of some areas of Gauteng, the most populous province. 

South African Medical Research Council data show that excess deaths, the number of deaths over an historical average, have been rising in recent weeks.

Scientists working with the government have predicted that a fourth wave of coronavirus infections could begin in December. Still, they said it will likely be less severe than previous resurgences because about a third of South African adults are fully vaccinated and between 60 percent and 70 percent of the population may have already been infected.

The number of confirmed daily infections peaked at almost 20,000 in July, during the third and most severe wave the country has experienced.

Tunisia

Tunisia on Sunday started the seventh national open day for COVID-19 vaccination across the country's 24 provinces for citizens aged 18 and over.

A total of 354 vaccination centers across the North African country were set up for the open day, and the vaccination started from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. local time.

As of 4 pm, 174,004 people have been vaccinated, the Health Ministry said in a statement.

Anthony Fauci, US President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser, responds to questions by Senator Rand Paul during the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on July 20, 2021. (J SCOTT APPLEWHITE / POOL / AFP)

United States

Anthony Fauci urged vaccinated adults to get booster shots now that health regulators have approved them for everyone 18 years and older, as US infections trend upward and the holidays near.

President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser sought to clear up what has been criticized as confusing guidance around booster shots. 

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded the approval for booster doses from Pfizer Inc./BioNTec SE and Moderna for all adults, regardless of medical condition or possible elevated exposure to the virus.  

“There’s no ambiguity,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We really hope that people go out there and utilize this very important tool.”

He said on CNN’s State of the Union that 60 million eligible Americans have yet to be vaccinated. Asked if a booster shot would be needed to be fully vaccinated, Fauci said experts would “let the data guide” any future recommendations.