Virus: Germany considers more contact limits as infections jump

Medical staff wearing personal protective equipment prepare to assist a patient infected with the COVID-19 in the COVID-19 ICU of the University hospital in Bochum, western Germany on Dec 16, 2021.
(INA FASSBENDER / AFP)

WASHINGTON / BERLIN / STOCKHOLM / BRUSSELS / MONTERREY / LONDON / PARIS – Germany needs to consider further restrictions on social contact and must ramp up the number of people who have had booster vaccinations as the Omicron variant takes hold, the health minister was quoted as saying on Wednesday.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz is due to meet regional leaders on Friday to discuss how to respond to the spread of the highly-infectious Omicron variant

Chancellor Olaf Scholz is due to meet regional leaders on Friday to discuss how to respond to the spread of the highly-infectious Omicron variant.

"Tightening will unfortunately be necessary to counter the heavy wave that is coming our way," Karl Lauterbach told the RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland media group, without giving details.

Daily infections had been declining in Germany in December after the country introduced measures such as demanding proof of vaccination for many indoor activities, but they started rising again a week ago.

The Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases reported 58,912 new infections on Wednesday, up 47 percent from a week ago. The country recorded another 346 deaths, taking the total to 112,925.

Lauterbach, a Harvard-educated epidemiologist, said current restrictions in Germany meant people had 50 percent fewer contacts than before the pandemic.

Finance Minister Christian Lindner was quoted as saying that Germany does not want to impose another lockdown.

"We want to avoid blanket and area-wide closures in the future," Lindner told 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."

Lauterbach said he wanted more than 80 percent of those who are fully vaccinated to receive a booster – or about 56 percent of the population: "The booster shot is the best protection from the Omicron variant," he said.

Germany has a relatively low rate of vaccination compared with other western European countries: 71.3 percent of the population is fully vaccinated and 39.3 percent have received a booster shot.

This file photo taken on Dec 4, 2021 shows French President Emmanuel Macron briefing reporters at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah. (JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA)

France

France's lower house of parliament has again suspended debates over a bill to make it mandatory for people to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to go to a restaurant or cinema or take the train, French media report on Wednesday.

Members of the opposition to President Emmanuel Macron's majority party in Parliament asked for a suspension after Macron's comments saying he wanted to "piss off" the five million French people who are not vaccinated, France Info radio reported. 

Review of the new law, which would remove the option of showing a negative test result instead of having the inoculations, will resume at 1400 GMT on Wednesday, the National Assembly said on its website

The legislation has faced fierce resistance from anti-vaccination campaigners, as well as far-right and far-left groups.

Tense discussions in parliament on the new law were halted a first time Monday after midnight after a majority of deputies voted to suspend the session. Pro-government lawmakers were caught by surprise, and were not present in the chamber in sufficient numbers to block the motion. 

In this file photo taken on Oct 22, 2019,
Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg arrives at the Imperial Palace for the court banquet in Tokyo. (PIERRE EMMANUEL DELETREE / POOL / AFP)

Luxembourg 

Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg has tested positive for COVID-19, the Grand Ducal Palace said on Tuesday.

Following a self-test that turned out to be positive, the Grand Duke "placed himself this morning in self-isolation," it said in a press release, adding that a PCR test carried out subsequently confirmed the result.

The Grand Duke, now in isolation, shows mild symptoms currently and will continue to perform his duties, according to the press release. 

Mexico

Mexico registered 15,184 coronavirus cases and 130 more deaths on Tuesday, according to health ministry data, bringing the overall death toll to 299,711 and the total number of confirmed cases to 4,008,648.

Authorities have said the real number of cases and fatalities are likely significantly higher than the official tally.

In this file photo taken on Nov 30, 2021, customers watch toys inside a store with measures to limit the COVID-19 spread as Sinterklaas celebration approches in Utrecht, Netherlands. (ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN / AFP)

Netherlands

Despite an anti-pandemic lockdown currently in force, the number of positive COVID-19 tests in the Netherlands increased by 35 percent in the past week, compared to the previous week, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment announced on Tuesday.

The number of positive tests between Dec 28, 2021 and Jan 4, 2022 grew to a total of 113,554, compared to 84,398 in the week before that. It is the first increase after a month of decline in the weekly infection figures.

The RIVM also reported that the downward trend in hospital admissions continued, but flattened out. There were 14 percent fewer new hospital admissions of patients with COVID-19 last week, compared to the week before. ICU admissions were also down by 16 percent compared to the previous week.

"Since late December 2021, the Omicron variant has caused the most SARS-CoV-2 infections in the Netherlands," the RIVM said. "This virus variant spreads considerably faster than the Delta variant. In the next few weeks, as infections rise rapidly due to Omicron, the number of hospital admissions may start increasing again."

Out of fear for the rise of the Omicron variant in the country, the Dutch government has introduced a lockdown since Dec 19 last year. Only essential shops like supermarkets, medical contact professions, and car garages remain open, while non-essential shops and the catering industry, restaurants, museums, theaters and zoos have to close their doors.

Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia attend a ceremony to pay tribute to the 2021 Nobel Prize laureates at the Stockholm City Hall in Stockholm, Sweden on Dec 10, 2021. (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP)

Sweden

King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden have tested positive for COVID-19, the Royal Court said here on Tuesday.

Both have had three vaccine doses and their symptoms are reportedly mild.

"The royal couple have isolated themselves at home in accordance with the rules, and contact tracing is ongoing," the Royal Court said in a statement.

Crown Princess Victoria and her husband Prince Daniel tested positive for COVID-19 in March last year. In November 2020, Prince Carl Philip and his wife Princess Sofia also tested positive.

On Dec 23, Sweden tightened restrictions in response to the rising number of new infections. During the week of Dec 20, the Omicron variant of coronavirus was already the dominant strain in some of Sweden's regions.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosts a virtual press conference to update the nation on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Downing Street briefing room in central London on Jan 4, 2022. (JACK HILL / POOL / AFP)

UK

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday said that England could withstand a surge in COVID-19 infections without shutting down the economy as Britain reported another record daily high in cases, fuelled by the Omicron variant.

Johnson has resisted imposing stringent lockdown measures in England, betting that a vaccine booster drive and caution among the population would be enough to constrain the latest wave.

Johnson said he was sticking to the "Plan B" measures introduced in England last month, which included the wearing of face coverings on public transport and in shops but did not restrict gatherings or close businesses.

"Together with the Plan B measures that we introduced before Christmas, we have a chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country once again. We can keep our schools and our businesses open, and we can find a way to live with this virus," Johnson said.

"But the weeks ahead are going to be challenging, both here in the UK and across the world. There is no escaping the fact that some services will be disrupted by staff absences."

Johnson has warned that hospitals would face considerable pressure in coming weeks and on Tuesday announced daily COVID-19 testing for 100,000 critical workers.

While admissions have risen since mid-December, they have not tracked the trajectory of daily cases, possibly reflecting the impact of vaccines and booster shots, the likely lower severity of Omicron and the time lag in people going into hospital.

In this April 23, 2020 file photo, a sign is seen by the entrance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. (TAMI CHAPPELL / AFP)

US

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday backed its week-old guidance for people seeking to end their COVID-19 isolation at five days, adding they could take a rapid antigen test if they want to and can access one, but is not requiring that.

The agency had been pressured by health experts to institute a test requirement after it cut in half its guidance last week for people to isolate after a COVID-19 infection to 5 days from 10. It said the move was based on science around transmission of the virus.

On Tuesday, the CDC added an explanation on its website, saying that a review of 113 studies from 17 countries showed that most transmission occurs early in the course of infection. It said the average period of infectiousness and risk of transmission was "between 2-3 days before and 8 days after symptom onset."

Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease official and US President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser, in television interviews on Sunday said officials were considering asking people to get tested after a five-day quarantine period.

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The agency's new advice stops short of mandating or recommending the test.

"If an individual has access to a test and wants to test, the best approach is to use an antigen test towards the end of the 5-day isolation period," the agency said.

The isolation period should be followed by strict mask use for an additional five days, the CDC said last week and again on Tuesday. However, if an individual tests positive after 5 days, they should isolate for the full 10 days, it said.

The highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus has spread rapidly, leading to worker shortages at airlines, schools and businesses. Delta Airlines and others had publicly pressured the CDC to cut the isolation period. The CDC subsequently shortened the recommended isolation time.