New travel restrictions and other steps to curb the spread of the Omicron variant were put in place world-wide as further evidence emerged of just how rapidly the new strain spreads.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Omicron had overtaken the Delta variant of the coronavirus in the U.S., accounting for an estimated 73% of infections for the week ending Dec. 18. Updated CDC data for a week earlier showed Omicron had caused about 13% of infections.
Harris County Public Health in Texas on Tuesday reported the first Covid-19 death in the county caused by the Omicron variant. The patient was an unvaccinated man between the age of 50 and 60 who had been infected with Covid-19 in the past, the agency said. The person was also at higher risk of severe complications due to underlying health conditions, which the agency didn’t specify. The CDC declined to comment on the Harris County death and said it doesn’t have a comprehensive death or hospitalization count for Omicron because sequencing isn’t done for every Covid-19 case.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday, citing a “critical staffing shortage” and high level of patients—many for non-Covid reasons—activated up to 500 members of the National Guard to assist hospitals and ambulance providers and directed healthcare centers to postpone elective surgeries likely to result in hospital stays.
The Republican also issued a mask advisory, recommending that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear face coverings in indoor public spaces.
The variant, first reported less than a month ago in southern Africa, has reached at least 89 nations around the world. It is also dominant in the U.K., and was estimated to be responsible for more than 87% of cases in London on Friday and Saturday. Cases across the country have risen by more than 50% over the past week.
New York state reported a record number of Covid-19 infections for the fourth consecutive day Monday, when officials said 23,391 people had tested positive for the virus. Just over 4,000 people were hospitalized around the state, compared with peak levels of almost 19,000 in April last year.
Despite Omicron’s surge, U.S. carriers have said they expect bustling flight activity even as countries clamp down on travel. Some airlines expect flights to be even fuller than they were over the Thanksgiving holiday, when daily passenger volumes hit their highest since the start of the pandemic.
The pursuit of Omicron in the U.S. has been hampered by faltering local Covid-19 tracking efforts that have atrophied in much of the U.S. over the course of the pandemic. Gaps in the availability of tests and limited ability to sequence variants is also obscuring the picture public-health experts have of Omicron’s spread.
President Biden is due Tuesday to outline plans to distribute 500 million free at-home Covid-19 testing kits to Americans and take steps to deploy federal medical personnel to overburdened hospitals this winter.
An annual New Year’s Eve celebration in downtown Los Angeles was canceled Monday for in-person attendees amid fears over Omicron, following similar steps in other cities, including Paris and London.
Sweden announced fresh restrictions as it faces a surge in coronavirus cases. The government asked everyone to work from home and advised high schools and higher-education institutions to begin remote teaching from Dec. 23.
There are also fresh limitations on how many people can gather as the country prepares for Christmas: no more than 20 people at a table privately if everyone has a vaccine pass, and only eight if they don’t have proof of vaccination. In restaurants and bars, only table service will be allowed.
In Denmark, where new restrictions went into effect Sunday, daily coronavirus infections reached a record. Omicron is now the predominant variant there, according to Health Minister Magnus Heunicke and the Danish Serum Institute.
Thailand, which relies heavily on tourism revenue, announced Tuesday that it would suspend a program that allows quarantine-free entry for visitors, citing a rising number of cases of the Omicron variant in the country. Those wishing to travel to Thailand will have to enter through more restrictive government programs, such as one called “Happy Quarantine” that requires lengthy stays in state-approved facilities for both vaccinated and unvaccinated visitors, according to the nation’s tourism ministry.
The policy change is a major setback for Thailand’s struggling hospitality industry, which was hoping for relief from a spurt of foreign visitors during the end-of-year holidays.
New Zealand’s plan to gradually reopen its border has been delayed until March to slow the arrival of Omicron, the government said Tuesday.
The country, which closed its border in March last year as part of measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus, had planned to allow vaccinated citizens to return from mid-January without undergoing quarantine.
The virus “keeps throwing new curveballs,” said Chris Hipkins, the Covid-19 response minister. The delay in reopening the border will increase New Zealand’s overall protection and slow Omicron’s eventual spread, he said.
Germany on Tuesday announced tighter curbs on social life to stem the spread of the new variant. According to the new measures, private gatherings will be limited to 10 people, night clubs will be closed and soccer games will be played in empty stadiums. The new restrictions, decided at a Covid-19 summit between Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Germany’s 16 state governors, will come into force after Christmas, on Dec. 28, and apply to vaccinated people and those who have recovered from Covid-19.
Germany also shortened the recommended amount of time between a second vaccine dose and a booster to three months, from previously five to six months, depending on the state.
German authorities warned that critical infrastructure, such as healthcare, supply chains, police and firefighting, could come under threat as large segments of workers in those sectors may have to isolate at the same time.
Bavaria State Premier Markus Söder said that while Germans could celebrate Christmas with confidence, Omicron would be a serious challenge shortly thereafter. After suffering a large wave in recent months, Germany has in recent days seen a slow decline in new cases and hospitalizations.
“It doesn’t seem to be a wave, but a wall that is coming towards Germany,” he said Tuesday.
The U.K. Treasury said it would provide £1 billion, equivalent to $1.32 billion, of funding for restaurants, theaters and other businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors affected by Omicron’s rapid spread at what is usually a profitable time of year. The package includes cash grants for businesses and rebates for employers to cover the cost of sick pay for staff ill with Covid-19, the Treasury said.
—Jennifer Levitz, Stephen Wright, Georgi Kantchev, Jon Emont, Jason Douglas and Sarah Toy contributed to this article.
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