Virus: UK calls in military to help with hospital staff crunch

A Union Flag flies in front of the clock face on Elizabeth Tower, commonly known by the name of the bell Big Ben, at the Palace of Westminster while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke during Prime Minister's Questions  on Jan 5, 2022. (JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP)

MEXICO CITY / SANTIAGO / ROME / BRUSSELS / DUBIN  / BRASILIA / NEW YORK / LONDON – Britain's Ministry of Defense on Friday said that it had begun the deployment of the military to support hospitals experiencing staff shortages and extreme pressures due to record COVID-19 cases in the country.

The government said that 200 Armed Forces personnel had been made available to support the National Health Service in London for the next three weeks.

Britain has seen a surge in coronavirus cases due to the Omicron variant, and has reported over 150,000 new cases each day over the last week.

The government said that 200 Armed Forces personnel had been made available to support the National Health Service in London for the next three weeks

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that England can withstand the surge without new restrictions thanks to vaccination and the lower severity of the variant, but has warned of a challenging few weeks, as staffing is disrupted as people self-isolate.

The government has also deployed armed forces to assist with COVID-19 testing and vaccination programs.

"Once again they are stepping up to assist NHS workers who are working round the clock across the capital, helping the health service through this difficult winter period where the need is greatest," health minister Sajid Javid said.

Britain has reported nearly 150,000 deaths from COVID-19, and, two years into a pandemic, its state-run health service was already facing a morale and staffing crisis even before the recent surge in Omicron, a lawmaker report published on Thursday said.

The report said that the staffing crisis could derail efforts to catch-up with record waiting lists for elective treatment caused by COVID-19 disruption.

Chaand Nagpaul, Chair of the Council of the British Medical Association, said that there were unprecedented levels of staff absence in the NHS.

"Although the government has resorted to the army helping out in London, let's not forget we actually have a national problem at the moment," Nagpaul told Sky News.

"This is a national problem and we've never known this level of staff absence before."

A medical staff member assists a patient infected by COVID-19 at the intensive care unit of the Center Hospitalier Regional de la Citadelle in Liege on Dec 21, 2021.(JOHN THYS / AFP)

Belgium

Belgian kindergartens, primary and secondary schools will reopen fully on Jan 10, said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo on Thursday.

However, protective measures against coronavirus will continue to be enforced, including permanent ventilation in classrooms, obligatory masks from the age of six, and compliance with testing and quarantine measures.

The country's consultative committee on coronavirus also announced at its first meeting of 2022 on Thursday that all current measures to stop the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, which was causing a sharp increase in the number of infections in Belgium, will remain in place.

So far, 80 to 90 percent of new infections were due to the Omicron variant, Belgian virologist Steven Van Gucht said Thursday at a press conference.

Belgium has so far recorded 2,179,710 infections and 28,429 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during a press conference at the Vila Nova Star Hospital after he was discharged, in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Jan 5, 2022.  (NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP)

Brazil

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro criticized Brazil's health regulator Anvisa on Thursday for authorizing the vaccination of children aged 5 to 11 years against COVID-19, one day after his health minister unveiled plans to inoculate that age group.

Bolsonaro, who has bragged about not being vaccinated himselfand has consistently cast doubt on the efficacy and safety of coronavirus vaccines , said in a radio interview that he had not heard of children dying of COVID-19 and repeated that his daughter Laura, 11, would not be vaccinated.

Bolsonaro said vaccines could have side effects on children, but gave no evidence. Anvisa and health regulators around the world have found that COVID-19 vaccines are safe for those from age 5 and up.

Meanwhile, Brazil recorded the first death from the Omicron variant of COVID-19 Thursday in the city of Aparecida de Goiania of Goias state.

The municipality reported that the victim was a 68-year-old man with high blood pressure suffering from "chronic obstructive pulmonary disease," who was admitted to a local hospital.

The patient was a contact of a confirmed Omicron case, and had received three vaccine doses.

A worker loads a syringe with a dose of an experimental vaccine against COVID-19 made by the Zoetis veterinary laboratory during a vaccination drill at the Buin Zoo in Buin, Chile on Dec 28, 2021. (JAVIER TORRES / AFP)

Chile

Chile will begin offering a fourth shot of the coronavirus vaccine next week to immunocompromised citizens, the government said on Thursday, the first country in Latin America and one of the first in the world to offer the extra dose.

"Starting next Monday, Jan 10, we are going to start a new mass vaccination process with a fourth dose or a second booster dose," said Pinera in a press conference. 

Chile has one of the world's highest vaccination rates and has been hailed as a model for its response to the pandemic, having administered two doses to over 85 percent of the population. About 57 percent have received a third booster shot, according to Our World in Data.

Chile's announcement comes as the highly contagious Omicron variant is spreading worldwide, with several countries reporting all-time high COVID-19 case loads even among vaccinated populations. Cases in Mexico have more than doubled in the past week, while Peru imposed new restrictions this week.

In this file photo taken on July 18, 2021, the pack rides past the Louvre Pyramid inside the museum courtyard during the 21st and last stage of the 108th edition of the Tour de France cycling race, 108 km between Chatou and Paris Champs-Elysees. (YOAN VALAT / POOL / AFP)

France

The current COVID-19 wave engulfing France could reach its peak in around 10 days time, said Professor Alain Fischer, an official responsible for France's COVID vaccine strategy.

"I think we are coming to the peak of this new wave," Fischer told LCI TV, adding that this peak could come "primarily towards the beginning of the second fortnight of January, so if we work it out this would be in around 10 days time."

France reported 261,481 new coronavirus infections on Thursday, less than the record of more than 332,000 set on Wednesday, but the seven-day moving average of new cases rose above 200,000 for the first time since the start of the health crisis.

The French health ministry also reported 204 new deaths, taking the total COVID-19 death tally to over 125,000.

French President Emmanuel Macron is banking that enough people will take up COVID-19 vaccine booster shots to mitigate the effects of the virus, and thereby allow Macron to avoid enforcing major new restrictions to tackle the pandemic.

A sign for COVID-19 testing is seen at a public school in Los Angeles, California, Jan 5, 2022. (ROBYN BECK / AFP)

Global tally

Global COVID-19 cases topped 300 million on Thursday, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

The United States reported 58,449,898 cases and 833,957 deaths, both the highest counts around the world, accounting for more than 19 percent of the global cases and more than 15 percent of the global deaths.

The global caseload reached the grim milestone of 100 million on Jan 26, 2021 and rose to 200 million on Aug 4.

Maria van Kerkhove, technical lead for the World Health Organization's Health Emergencies Program, said Thursday that current COVID-19 vaccines do work against all variants that are circulating and are highly effective against preventing severe diseases and death.

"I think that's really important for the public to know … when it is your turn, get vaccinated because it's really critical," she said.

Ireland

The Irish Department of Health on Thursday reported an additional 23,817 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the highest daily figure ever recorded since the pandemic began.

There were 941 COVID-19 patients being treated in hospitals, of whom 90 were in ICU, said the department in a statement.

Officials from the Health Service Executive, a state agency responsible for public health service, said at a weekly briefing that the surging cases have put huge pressure on the local health system.

Paul Reid, chief executive of HSE, said that an estimated 8,500 healthcare workers working in the public health sector in the country were currently out of work either because they have been infected with COVID-19 or because they were close contacts of confirmed cases.

HSE chief operations officer Anne O'Connor said that hospitals across the country were coming under pressure due to rising COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations as well as the shortage of healthcare workers and hospital beds.

Visitors wearing face masks line up at the entrance to the Altare della Patria monument in Piazza Venezia on Dec 05, 2021 in Rome. (VINCENZO PINTO / AFP)

Italy

Italy recorded 219,441 new cases of coronavirus infections on Thursday, surpassing the 200,000 mark for the first time.

The country had never recorded more than 100,000 new cases in a single day until Dec. 30. But the situation had gotten worse almost every day since then.

The Ministry of Health also announced 198 coronavirus deaths over the previous 24 hours, down from 231 a day earlier.

Though the death toll from the latest wave of the pandemic is on the rise, it remains well below the all-time one-day peaks that regularly topped 750 in late March and early April of 2020, during the pandemic's initial wave, and again between late November to mid-December 2020.

The number of patients in intensive care units in Italy continued to inch higher, reaching 1,467 on Thursday, an increase of 39 over the previous day.

A woman receives her COVID-19 test results on the parking lot of the Via Vallejo shopping center in Mexico City on Jan 5, 2022. (ALFREDO ESTRELLA / AFP)

Mexico

Mexico is likely to surpass 300,000 deaths from COVID-19 this week – the fifth highest death toll worldwide – as infections rise after the holiday season, fueled by the Omicron coronavirus variant and largely unrestricted tourism.

Infections have more than doubled to 20,000 during the last week when many tourists visited Mexico from the United States and Canada. Eleven of Mexico's 32 states decided not to resume in-person school classes this week with cases climbing fast.

The arrival of the highly contagious Omicron variant reversed a downturn in infections during the autumn, when the widespread application of vaccines provided relief.

Some Mexicans said people had dropped their guard as the holidays came.

As of Wednesday, Mexico had registered 299,805 confirmed deaths from COVID-19, a figure that is likely significantly below the real toll, officials say.

The CEO of Moderna St├ęphane Bancel is seen in this video frame grab as he speaks during an interview with AFP on Nov 17, 2020. (IVAN COURONNE / AFP)

Moderna

The efficacy of boosters against COVID-19 is likely to decline over the next few months and people may need another shot in the fall of 2022, Moderna Inc Chief Executive Officer Stephane Bancel said at a Goldman Sachs-organized healthcare conference on Thursday.

Bancel said the company is working on a vaccine candidate tailored to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, but is unlikely to be available in the next two months.

"I still believe we're going to need boosters in the fall of '22 and forward," Bancel said.

His comments on needing a fourth shot come on the back of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett citing a study on Tuesday that a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine boosts antibodies five-fold a week after the shot is administered.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari addresses troops at airforce base Maiduguri on Dec 23, 2021. (AUDU MARTE / AFP)

Nigeria

Nigeria is working to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, President Muhammadu Buhari said in a televised interview on Thursday, as the country battles growing cases of the virus.

Health experts say Nigeria needs to triple its vaccination drive from just over 100,000 doses a day to meet its target of inoculating more than half its population by the end of next year.

The West African country has been exploring options to acquire or purchase vaccines through the COVAX facility to enable it to inoculate at least 70 percent of its population.

It received vaccine donations some of which had a shelf life that left only weeks to administer the shots. Nigeria destroyed more than one million expired vaccines last month.

"We are working very hard with the ministry of health to develop vaccines," Buhari said on state television. "We shouldn't make noise about it until we succeed."

Nigeria, which has not tested widely for COVID-19, has recorded 245,404 COVID-19 cases 

People line up for COVID-19 screening at a testing and vaccination site at a public school in Los Angeles, California on Jan 5, 2022. (ROBYN BECK / AFP)

US

The White House said on Thursday the decision to enact vaccine mandates for schools is up to local school districts.

"Those decisions related to schools …. will always be up to local school districts in terms of what steps need to be taken," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

The White House also said it would continue to make the case for schools to be kept open, including in Chicago, where officials canceled classes in the nation's third-largest school district on Wednesday amid a dispute with the teachers' union.

A picture taken on May 8, 2021 shows a sign of the World Health Organization  at the entrance of their headquarters in Geneva amid the COVID-19 outbreak. (FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP)

WHO

The more infectious Omicron variant of COVID-19 appears to produce less severe disease than the globally dominant Delta strain, but should not be categorized as "mild", World Health Organization officials said on Thursday.

Janet Diaz, WHO lead on clinical management, said early studies showed there was a reduced risk of hospitalization from the variant first identified in southern Africa in November compared with Delta.

There appears also to be a reduced risk of severity in both younger and older people, she told a media briefing from WHO headquarters in Geneva.

The remarks on the reduced risks of severe disease chime with other data, including studies from South Africa and England, although she did not give further details about the studies or ages of the cases analyzed.

The impact on the elderly is one of the big unanswered questions about the new variant as most of the cases studied so far have been in younger people.

"While Omicron does appear to be less severe compared to Delta, especially in those vaccinated, it does not mean it should be categorized as mild," director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the same briefing in Geneva.

"Just like previous variants, Omicron is hospitalizing people and it is killing people."

He warned of a "tsunami" of cases as global infections soar to records fueled by both Omicron and Delta, healthcare systems are overwhelmed, and governments struggle to tame the virus, which has killed more than 5.8 million people.

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Tedros repeated his call for greater equity globally in the distribution of and access to vaccines.

Based on the current rate of vaccine rollout, 109 countries will miss the WHO's target for 70 percent of the world's population to be fully vaccinated by July, Tedros added. That aim is seen as helping end the acute phase of the pandemic.

"Booster after booster in a small number of countries will not end a pandemic while billions remain completely unprotected," he said.

WHO adviser Bruce Aylward said 36 nations had not even reached 10 percent vaccination cover. Among severe patients worldwide, 80 percent were unvaccinated, he added.

In its weekly epidemiological report on Thursday, the WHO said cases increased by 71 percent, or 9.5 million, in the week to Jan 2 from a week earlier, while deaths fell by 10 percent, or 41,000.

Another variant B.1.640 – first documented in multiple countries in September 2021 – is among those being monitored by the WHO but is not circulating widely, said the WHO's technical lead on COVID-19, Maria van Kerkhove.

There are two other categories of greater significance the WHO uses to track variants: "variant of concern", which includes Delta and Omicron, and "variant of interest".