South Africa says it may be entering fifth COVID-19 wave

A healthcare worker speaks with a woman queuing for a PCR Covid-19 test at the Lancet laboratory in Johannesburg on Nov 30, 2021. (EMMANUEL CROSET / AFP)

WASHINGTON /ROME / LOS ANGELES / QUITO / SAO PAULO /JOHANNESBURG – South Africa may be entering a fifth COVID wave earlier than expected after a sustained rise in infections over the past 14 days that seems to be driven by the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron sub-variants, health officials and scientists said on Friday.

South Africa has reported more than 3.7 million COVID-19 cases and over 100,000 deaths during the pandemic

The country that has recorded the most coronavirus cases and deaths on the African continent only exited a fourth wave around January and had predicted a fifth wave could start in May or June, early in the southern hemisphere winter.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla told a briefing that although hospitalizations were picking up there was so far no dramatic change in admissions to intensive care units or deaths.

ALSO READ: Study: Over half of Americans have had COVID-19 infections

He said at this stage health authorities had not been alerted to any new variant, other than changes to the dominant one circulating, Omicron.

Infectious disease specialist Richard Lessells told the same briefing that waning immunity from previous waves could be contributing to the earlier-than-expected resurgence in cases.

He said the rising share of infections attributed to the BA.4 and BA.5 sub-lineages of Omicron suggested they had a growth advantage over other Omicron sub-variants like BA.2.

But so far there was no sign that BA.4 and BA.5 were causing significantly more severe disease, said Waasila Jassat from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

South Africa has reported more than 3.7 million COVID-19 cases and over 100,000 deaths during the pandemic. On Thursday, the WHO's Africa office flagged the rise in South Africa's infections as the main driver of an uptick on the African continent. 

Senior health official Nicholas Crisp also said on Friday that the country had enough vaccine doses and was not planning to procure more. He added the government was not intending to buy Pfizer's COVID-19 treatment pill Paxlovid for public sector patients, partly because it was very expensive.

A health worker poses with a syringe with dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at the Museum of Tomorrow where adults and children between the ages of five and eleven are being vaccinated against the novel coronavirus in Rio de Janeiro on Jan 18, 2022. (CARL DE SOUZA / AFP)

Brazil

Brazil on Thursday reported 19,916 new COVID-19 infections and 114 more related deaths in the past 24 hours, raising the national counts to 30,418,920 and 663,225 respectively, according to the Ministry of Health.

Brazilian Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga has signed a decree on April 22 ending the COVID-19 public health emergency, which has been in force since February 2020, as COVID-19 hospitalizations, deaths and cases have fallen to their lowest levels since January, when a record number of infections had been reported due to the spread of the Omicron variant.

As of Thursday, around 163.8 million Brazilians, or 76.2 percent of the population, had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 85.7 million people had received a booster shot, according to official data.

Brazil has the world's third largest caseload, following the United States and India.

COVID-19 study

Family members of patients in the intensive care unit with COVID-19 often experience abrupt change in circumstance and thus may have PTSD symptoms needing emotional support, a new study has found.

These family members often have to make difficult decisions quickly and feel a loss of control, and hence they come away from the experience with symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD, according to the study published this week in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Dr. Timothy Amass, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and his team surveyed family members in the months after a loved one was admitted to the ICU with COVID-19 in 12 hospitals across the United States.

The study found out of the families that responded to the survey, about 63 percent had significant symptoms of PTSD, according to a CNN report citing the study.

"Having a loved one admitted into the ICU has always been an inherently stressful – and often traumatic — process, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed researchers to look even more closely at the impacts," Amass, who is first author of the study, told CNN.

The author suggested the health care community make efforts to help these families, saying that small acts of kindness from the health care team will make families feel the sense of involvement and be kind of helpful.

Ecuador 

The use of masks will no longer be mandatory in both open and closed spaces in Ecuador starting from Thursday, announced Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso together with the National Emergency Operations Committee.

Removing his face mask as a symbolic act, Lasso said that this day had been longed for by Ecuadorians for a long time and that a normality had finally come with the "successful" vaccination drive started from January 2021.

In recent weeks, five out of every 100 PCR tests in Ecuador came out positive, "a clear sign that we have practically defeated COVID-19," said Lasso.

Ecuadorian Health Minister Ximena Garzon said that Ecuador had registered no outbreaks after the recent Carnival and Easter holidays and that the 5-percent positivity rate in PCR tests had been maintained for four consecutive weeks in the country.

"We are in the epidemiological transition phase, that is, we are going from an epidemic to endemic indicators, and we want to continue like this," Garzon said.

In the past four weeks, 1,073 COVID-19 infections and one related death had been reported, indicating a drop in the epidemiological curve, according to the health minister.

Ecuador has reported a total of 869,124 cases and 35,588 deaths from the disease as of Thursday, according to the Ecuadorian health ministry.

Over 34 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered throughout the South American country, where 13.8 million people, or 82.9 percent of the population, have completed the two-dose schedule.

China's pharmaceutical company Sinovac is Ecuador's leading supplier of COVID-19 vaccines, having provided around 19 million doses of vaccines, according to the company.

IMF

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva has tested positive for COVID-19, the IMF said Thursday.

"She is experiencing mild symptoms and is working remotely while isolating at home. She is fully vaccinated and boosted," Gerry Rice, IMF spokesperson, said in a statement.

"Standard IMF and CDC (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) COVID-19 protocols are being followed," the statement read.

The latest news came just a few days after the conclusion of the 2022 Spring Meetings of the IMF and the World Bank Group, which took place on April 18-24 and brought together central bankers, ministers of finance and development, and private sector executives, among others, to discuss issues of global concern. 

People wait at an Italian Red Cross anti COVID-19 vaccination hub in Rome on Nov 29, 2021. (GREGORIO BORGIA / AP)

Italy

Italy has extended the obligation to wear face masks on public transport and in some indoor venues until at least June 15, the country's minister of health said on Thursday.

According to official figures, 34.3 percent of children aged 5-11 and more than 90 percent of the population over the age of 12 in Italy have completed the vaccination cycle 

The country has been steadily peeling back coronavirus health restrictions as hospitalizations and mortality statistics are decreasing due to high vaccination rates and improved medical therapies.

But Health Minister Roberto Speranza said on Thursday that it was still too early to completely remove the face mask mandate.

ALSO READ: WHO: Africa seeing uptick in COVID cases driven by S.Africa

Mask use will continue to be mandatory in schools and universities, hospitals, nursing homes, cinemas, theaters, sports arenas, as well as on long-distance and local transport.

In all other workspaces, whether public or private, the wearing of masks will be "strongly recommended," Speranza said.

Italy reported 69,204 new COVID-19 infections on Thursday. The daily number of coronavirus-related deaths has remained below 200 in recent weeks.

According to official figures, 34.3 percent of children aged 5-11 and more than 90 percent of the population over the age of 12 have completed the vaccination cycle.  

In this file photo taken on April 16, 2021 a medical staff member prepares a syringe with a vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a pop up vaccine clinic at the Jewish Community Center in the Staten Island borough of New York City. (ANGELA WEISS / AFP)

Moderna

A shareholder proposal calling on Moderna Inc  to study transferring production of COVID-19 vaccines to less-developed countries won 24 percent support from investors on Thursday after it received a rare endorsement from the World Health Organization.

Proponents say production shifts could help combat the global pandemic. Moderna of Cambridge, Mass. opposed the measure, saying among other things it already maximized its manufacturing capacity with partners, and that poorer countries have declined millions of doses that Moderna was prepared to deliver. read more

In a statement giving the vote tally from its virtual annual meeting, Moderna said the result "indicates that the significant majority of our shareholders are supportive of the approach we have taken, and we will continue to address issues related to vaccine access."

The result was still a good showing for a first-time shareholder proposal, said Paul Hodgson, an independent corporate governance expert, and considering that Moderna insiders own 17% of the company's shares.

Meanwhile, Moderna said on Thursday it asked US regulators to authorize its COVID-19 vaccine for children under the age of 6, which would make it the first shot against the coronavirus available for those under 5-years-old.

Airline passengers, some not wearing face masks following the end of Covid-19 public transportation masking rules, wait to board an American Airlines flight operated by SkyWest Airlines at Los Angeles International Airport  in Los Angeles, California, on April 19, 2022. (PATRICK T. FALLON / AFP)

US

New COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles, the most populous county in the United States, rose by 40 percent over the past week and hospitalizations have started to creep up as well, local media reported on Thursday.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported 2,335 new COVID-19 cases and 8 new related deaths on Thursday, bringing the countywide tallies to 2,869,785 and 31,959 respectively

The renewed surge in coronavirus infections underscored "how important it is for people to be up-to-date on their vaccines and boosters, as well as wear masks in indoor public settings," reported The Los Angeles Times, citing public health officials.

Although neither the number of infections nor the patient census are setting off alarm bells as yet, the trendlines illustrate that the county is contending with reinvigorated coronavirus transmission, the report noted.

Over the last week, the county, home to over 10 million residents, has reported an average of about 1,764 new coronavirus cases per day — up from 1,261 a week ago, compared with 879 cases a day in early April, according to The Los Angeles Times, which is one of the largest newspapers in the country.

Officials said that the Omicron BA.2 variant is the primary culprit behind the uptick in cases in the county, accounting for at least 88 percent of cases here, the newspaper reported.

The number of reported infections still remains an important indicator of where the pandemic is heading, and it's not a guarantee that the coronavirus is now destined to mainly result in milder illness, Barbara Ferrer, the county's director of public health, was quoted as saying.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported 2,335 new COVID-19 cases and 8 new related deaths on Thursday, bringing the countywide tallies to 2,869,785 and 31,959 respectively.