Emergence of the Omicron Variant, New Lockdown Rules, and Flight Restrictions: COVID-19 Global Weekly Highlights

Medscape, Univadis, & MediQuality Staff

December 02, 2021

In the UK, the total number of confirmed cases of the new Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 rising to 22, as of Tuesday, November 30, the Government put a number of measure in place: compulsory mask wearing in shops and public transport, as well as expanding the vaccination programme.

Booster doses will be expanded to include all adults aged 18 and over, and the Government promised that all eligible for a booster dose would be offered one by the end of January, which would involve giving out about 30 million doses in the next 2 months. In addition, children aged 12-15 should be offered a second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech, also 3 months after their first dose. Some severely immunocompromised people may also be offered a fourth dose.

In England approximately 34.3% of the population have received a booster dose - mostly those aged over 50 years, as this was the target before the changes were announced, Scotland reports 38.0% have received a third dose, while Northern Ireland is at 26.8%.

At least 400 military personnel would be brought in to assist the vaccination effort, and more than 1500 community pharmacies would be offering booster jabs, while temporary vaccination centres would be "popping up like Christmas trees," according to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

In addition, all travellers arriving in the UK will be required to take a PCR test on or before day 2, and self-isolate until they have received a negative test result.

For the UK in total, COVID-19 cases stand at around 40,000 per day, at a rate of 439.4 per 100,000 population. The number of deaths have decreased by 14.9% and there has been a 7.1% reduction in hospital admissions. So far, 80.6% of over-12s have received two doses and 31.7% have received a third vaccine dose or booster.

The growth rate, the daily speed at which COVID infections grow, has also risen. The latest growth rate is estimated to be between -1% and +2%, compared to previous week figures which were between -2% and 0%. This suggests that the number of new infections remain at a stationary level, but daily cases can spread rapidly by up to 2% or shrink by 1%. For the week ending November 19, the number of deaths involving COVID-19 in the UK was 1088, which was 110 fewer than the previous week.

The first confirmed case of infection with the Omicron variant has been detected in the Reunion Island, concerning experts. Meanwhile, the fifth wave of the epidemic continues to rise sharply in France. More than 47,000 new cases were recorded on November 30, compared to 30,500 a week ago. As of November 27, the national incidence was 306.9 per 100,000 population with a reproduction rate of 1.6. Also, 10,249 people were admitted to hospital due to COVID-19 on November 30, compared to 9860 the day before. Regarding infection in children, last Wednesday, November 24, 357 classes were closed in Paris and 119 children under 19 were hospitalised due to COVID-19. The High Authority for Health (HAS) recommended vaccinating at risk children aged 5 to 11 years, with the possible expansion to all children.

Due to tensions in Martinique and Guadeloupe, the Government postponed the vaccination requirement for healthcare workers from November 15 to December 31. Listening and discussion groups have been set up to meet individually with each professional affected by a suspension for non-compliance with the vaccination obligation, the Government stated. In Pointe-à-Pître, health professionals have great difficulty maintaining care standards in hospital s.

In Germany, the Robert-Koch-Institut (RKI) reported 67,186 new COVID-19 cases within 24 hours – about the same number as a week ago. The RKI gave the factor of new infections per 100,000 inhabitants and week on Wednesday, December 1, with 442.9 (previous week: 404.5; previous month: 118.0). The 7-day R-value is currently 0.89, compared with 1.01 a week ago. The first cases of the Omicron variant are emerging  in Germany.

At least 57 million people are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. That is 68.6% of the total population. The goal of the federal and state governments to provide up to 30 million first, second and booster vaccinations by Christmas would not be achievable at the current rate of vaccinations. At about 800,000 vaccinations per day, a total of only about 20 million would be reached by Christmas.

Chancellor-designate Olaf Scholz (SPD) and Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) had agreed on Tuesday, with the heads of federal provinces, that new actions would be decided in the coming days. Plans include contact restrictions for the unvaccinated, stricter requirements at major events, and access only for vaccinated and recovered for other areas such as retail. A general vaccination requirement is also to be introduced and is expected to begin in spring 2022.

In Austria, 70,34% of the vaccine-eligible population had received an active vaccination certificate by November 30. 71.07% have been vaccinated at least once against COVID-19. The 7-day incidence was 894.2 as of November 29. The Austrian government's draft for a "COVID-19 Vaccination Protection Act," which would take effect February 1, 2022, is causing heated debate. Currently, the country is in a lockdown. The Ministry of Health plans to decide next week whether this will end on December 12 for vaccinated and recovered people.

In Switzerland the Federal Office of Public Health (BAG) reported 10,466 new infections with coronavirus within 24 hours on Wednesday, December 1. Currently, 1335 people are being treated in hospital for COVID-19. Intensive care beds in Swiss hospitals (including ad hoc beds) are at 81% capacity as of Wednesday. For the whole country, just under 68% of the population is currently vaccinated. For events in culture and sports, people must show a certificate of vaccination in order to enter; manditory vaccination is being discussed.

All hospitals in Belgium have been told to immediately postpone all non-urgent care for 2 weeks to free up beds for coronavirus patients, the Hospital and Transport Surge Capacity (HTSC) committee announced. Since the start of the week, the rise of new COVID-19 cases has slowed down slightly for the first time in weeks, a trend which should soon also be reported in the number of hospitalisations and patients being treated in ICU.

Portugal will enter a dire state again on December 1. The use of masks will be kept indoors, and a digital vaccination certificate will be mandatory in hotels, restaurants, and events. The Government also defined restrictive measures for the end of the year festivities. The week of January 2-9 will be of "contact contention", after the Christmas and New Year period. One measure will be a week of confinement in early January. Schools will only go back into operation on January 10. Bars and clubs will also be closed in the first week of the year, and working from home will be mandatory. In addition to other measures, the Government recommended regular testing before family reunions at the end of the year.

The country has more than 87% of the population with complete vaccination but has already detected 13 cases of the Omicron variant on Monday, November 29, in players and technical staff of the Belenenses-SAD team, a Lisbon soccer club that recently returned from South Africa. On Saturday, the team played a game in the Portuguese Championship against Benfica.

The nationwide incidence as of 30 November was 325.9 cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection per 100,000 population, with a nationwide transmission rate of 1.17.

In Italy, the first cases linked to the Omicron variant were reported in a family whose father travelled to Mozambique and South Africa. But the number of cases of the Delta variant  is also rising. The Friuli Venezia Giulia region, together with the North-Eastern province of Bolzano, near Austria, have been declared "yellow zones" (the second level of concern, going from white to yellow, orange, and red). In fact, last week the threshold of 100 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants was breached, with 112: reaching numbers similar to last spring. The rate of occupancy of intensive care beds is also rising (from 5.3% to 6.2%). A new decree from the Government is in force, which extends the mandatory vaccine to teachers, military, and the police. It restricts access to malls, movies, theaters, restaurants, and gyms to only those vaccinated or recovered; this group will receive the so-called "re-enforced Green pass", which is valid now for 9 months (it was previously 12 months). A "normal" Green pass (requesting an antigenic test) will only allow users to go to work, do basic shopping, and use public transportation.

The number of vaccine doses is increasing mainly due to booster shots. There is also an increase in the number of first doses, back to more than 20,000 per day, as it was the previous month, with a growth of 40% compared to last week. To date, almost 85% of over 12s are vaccinated: adding those who got at least one dose and those who recovered from the natural infection less than 6 months ago, 9 out of 10 Italians over 12 now benefit from some form of virus protection, according to the Ministry of Health.

In Spain, the pandemic continues to increase after exceeding 10,000 cases in the last 24 hours, according to official data on Tuesday. Incidence at 14 days reached 208.5 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, a figure that has not been seen since the beginning of September.

The Ministry of Health recommended limiting the capacity during public and social events, "especially during the celebrations of the Christmas holidays", and has appealed to "the uncertainties associated with the Omicron variant" and the "possible decrease in vaccine effectiveness" among the population. As of Wednesday, two cases of the Omicron variant were reported in Spain, both in Madrid in people that had visited South Africa and were fully vaccinated.

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Health approved an agreement establishing exceptional measures to contain the spread of the variant B.1.1.529 (Omicron), by limiting flights between Spain and South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.

In the general population, the progress of vaccination has barely advanced: 79.3% have the complete schedule of the vaccine, and 80.8% have at least one dose.

Last week, 753,000 new cases of COVID-19 and more than 13,000 related deaths were reported in the Region of the Americas.

News of the Omicron variant broke just as Americans were trying to enjoy their Thanksgiving holidays. In the US, the first case of the variant was reported today. In response to the variant, the US issued new travel bans to South Africa and strengthened its recommendation that all adults should get booster shots of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Otherwise, Delta is still causing plenty of havoc in the midwest and northeast, and most models have predicted a further surge in cases after the holiday, which is one of the busiest travel periods of the entire year. For now, COVID-19 cases in the US appear to be flat, averaging about 85,000 daily cases and 900 deaths, due to reporting lags over the Thanksgiving holiday.

In Mexico, there was an 8% increase in the number of estimated cases of COVID-19 compared to the previous week and the Secretary of Health does not rule out a fourth wave. According to health authorities, 85% of the people vaccinated against COVID-19 are fully vaccinated. The President of Mexico assured that the third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine will be a fact, with the elderly and teachers being the first to receive the booster dose.

According to PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne, 54% of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean is fully vaccinated. So far (December 1st) the Omicron variant has been detected in Canada and Brazil.

In Central America, the number of cases and deaths decreased last week in all countries except Panama. In South America, the number of cases has been steadily increasing for several weeks in the countries of this region. In the Andean region, the number of cases is stabilizing. In the Caribbean, cases are increasing in the Cayman Islands and Anguilla.

Dr. Etienne also called for respecting public health measures, such as the use of masks, social distancing and frequent hand washing, defining them as the "most efficient actions to reduce the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, reduce hospitalizations and save lives. It is important to note that these measures are effective against all variants, including omicron."

In Brazil, the National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa) confirmed this Tuesday two cases of Omicron had been detected in the country. Before the announcement, mayors of eight capitals had already announced the cancellation of events to celebrate the end of the year due to the risks posed by the emergence of the new variant. Until the 30th, the city of Rio de Janeiro, one of the country's favorite tourist destinations, and the city of São Paulo, maintained their New Year's Eve schedule but said they would monitor the progress of the pandemic.

On Saturday, after disagreeing with Anvisa, which recommended restrictions on flights from some African countries, the government finally decided to prohibit the entry of people from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.

Until November 30, more than 62.44% of Brazilians had taken the second dose or single dose of any anti-COVID-19 vaccine, completing the vaccination schedule. It's the equivalent of 133,190,157 people. Another 74.46% of the population took at least the first dose (158,839,084 people). The booster dose was given to 16,067,524 individuals (7.53% of the population). The data is from the consortium of press vehicles that monitors the pandemic.

In South Africa the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) registered 2963 new cases on Monday, with an increase in positives infections of 15.2 % (the previous day it was 10.6 %), placing the incidence at 4.9 per 100,000 inhabitants. The cases have multiplied in 2 weeks by more than four (330 %) in Gauteng province, the region where omicron was first detected, with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country (less than 40% have the full vaccine schedule).

On Tuesday, South Africa's Aspen Pharmacare announced that they had signed a licensing deal to package and sell Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine in Africa.

On Wednesday, Nigerian health authorities reported three cases of the Omicron variant in passengers from South Africa. The African CDC has ensured that a retrospective sequencing of confirmed cases among travelers in Nigeria has identified the new variant in samples collected in October.

Morocco suspended on Monday and for 2 weeks all incoming air travel from around the world because of the rapid spread of the new Omicron variant.

Only 7% of the population is already fully vaccinated in Africa. The World Health Organization on Sunday urged countries around the world not to impose flight bans on southern African nations due to concerns over the new Omicron variant. WHO's regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, called on countries to follow science and international health regulations in order to avoid using travel restrictions.

Authorities in Australia are on alert after five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant. All cases have been quarantined and remain either asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic. In response to the threat from the new variant, the country has delayed its plans to relax border restrictions by at least 2 weeks. 

New Zealand has decided to go ahead with its plans to ease restrictions in Auckland, despite threat from the Omicron variant. Bars, restaurants, and gyms in Auckland will re-open on December 2. However, travel to New Zealand has been restricted from nine southern African countries in response to the Omicron threat. 

Despite the current threat from the Omicron variant, the Pacific island nation of Fiji has resumed tourism for international visitors after more than 600 days. 

Japan has reported two confirmed cases of the Omicron variant. The first case is a young diplomat traveling from Namibia and the second one is a man in his 20s who was staying in Peru. Both cases are unrelated. On November 29, Japan announced a ban on the entry of all foreign arrivals to curb the spread of the Omicron variant. 

South Korea reported a record increase in daily COVID-19 infections, with 5123 new cases reported on December 1. On the same day, the country also reported its first five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant.

China has offered to provide one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to Africa in a recent China-Africa summit in Senegal. China has expressed concerns that the rapidly spreading Omicron variant may create serious challenges for the 2022 Winter Olympics to be conducted in Beijing. 

The United Arab Emirates has approved the Russian Sputnik Light COVID-19 vaccine as a universal booster dose.

See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.

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