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Coronavirus Update: South Africa offers grounds for cautious optimism on omicron variant, and Israel rolls out fourth vaccine dose to vulnerable groups

There were grounds for cautious optimism on the omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 on Wednesday in news from South Africa that suggests its case surge has already peaked and was not severe in terms of hospitalizations and deaths.

Omicron is far more transmissible than other variants, including delta, but if it proves less lethal, and creates shorter waves of illness, it could help the effort to rein in the pandemic that has cost more than 5 million lives globally.

Doctors from South Africa were first to bring the omicron variant to light in late November, although it was already circulating in European countries at the time. The variant hit a high of nearly 27,000 new cases in South Africa last Thursday, but that number fell to 15,424 on Tuesday, as the Associated Press reported.

In Gauteng province — South Africa’s most populous with 16 million people, including the largest city, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria — the decrease started earlier and has continued.

“The drop in new cases nationally combined with the sustained drop in new cases seen here in Gauteng province, which for weeks has been the center of this wave, indicates that we are past the peak,” Marta Nunes, senior researcher at the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics department of the University of Witwatersrand, told the AP.

“It was a short wave … and the good news is that it was not very severe in terms of hospitalizations and deaths,” she said. It is “not unexpected in epidemiology that a very steep increase, like what we saw in November, is followed by a steep decrease.”

A study conducted in South Africa by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases found that people diagnosed with omicron between Oct. 1 and Nov. 30 were 80% less likely to require hospitalization that other variants. The study has not yet been peer-reviewed. It also found that people who were hospitalized were 70% less likely to develop severe COVID.

Nunes cautioned, however, that the data and research are preliminary for now and that omicron may behave differently in other countries and regions. It is not known for now how much omicron has spread in South Africa without causing symptoms and the country may have developed some natural immunity in earlier waves.

“Each setting, each country is different. The populations are different. The demographics of the population, the immunity is different in different countries,” she said. South Africa’s population, with an average age of 27, is more youthful than many Western countries, for instance.

Most of the patients currently being treated for COVID-19 in hospitals are unvaccinated, said Professor Veronica Uekermann, head of the COVID-19 response team at Steve Biko Academic Hospital. About 40% of adult South Africans have been inoculated with two doses.

“All my patients in ICU are unvaccinated,” Uekermann said. “So our vaccinated people are doing better in this wave, for sure. We have got some patients who are very ill with severe COVID, and these are unvaccinated patients,” she said, bolstering the case for people to get their shots.

Read also: Canceling your Christmas travel plans because of COVID-19? How to avoid wasting time — and money

President Biden outlined plans to expand Covid-19 testing sites, distribute a half-billion free at-home test kits and deploy emergency medical personnel to hospitals, as cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant surge in the U.S. Photo: Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

The U.S. is averaging more than 1,350 COVID deaths a day, according to a New York Times tracker, and cases and hospitalizations are rising again to their highest levels since late summer.

Cases are rising especially fast in the Northeast, with New York cases up more than 80% in the last two weeks. In Florida, cases are averaging about 5,000 cases a day, up from 1,300 at the beginning of December.

Experts agree that the best protection against omicron is to be fully vaccinated and have a booster shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that of the roughly 205 million people living in the U.S. that are fully inoculated, just 62.2 million have received a booster.

See now: Biden plans to distribute 500 million at-home COVID-19 test kits. Here are the states and cities already providing free tests

 California will require healthcare workers to get a booster, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday, pledging to make sure hospitals are prepared as omicron spreads, the AP reported.

Last week, Newsom, who imposed the fist statewide shutdown order in March 2020, warned that cases would likely rise and re-imposed a rule requiring everyone to wear masks at public indoor gatherings. Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest city, once again canceled its in-person New Year’s Eve celebration.

The Omicron variant caused more than 70% of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. registered the week ending Dec. 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The surge comes as the holidays approach and some people reconsider travel plans. Photo: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg

Elsewhere, Israel has started to roll out a fourth dose of a COVID vaccine for people aged 60 and over, taking no chances with the omicron variant, as CNN reported. The fourth shot will also be offered to medical workers and people with compromised immune systems.

Don’t miss:To detect omicron, take an at-home COVID-19 test right before a holiday gathering, experts say

Finland has started vaccinating children aged 5 to 11, Reuters reported. The Finnish Health Institute earlier this month recommended that children aged five and over should be vaccinated against COVID-19 if they or someone in their household were at high risk of severe infection.

France has also started vaccinating children in that age group, France 24 reported. France’s Health Minister Olivier Véran said omicron cases could exceed 100,000 a day by month-end, according to modeling, with France recording almost 73,000 cases on Tuesday.

Russia has passed the grim milestone of more than 300,000 COVID deaths, the most of any country in Europe, the Moscow Times reported. Russia’s total excess fatality count since the start of the coronavirus pandemic is at least 810,000.

Read: COVID jitters prompt Amazon, Meta and Twitter to pull out of CES tech show

Latest tallies

The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness climbed above 276.3 million on Wednesday, while the death toll edged above 5.37 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. continues to lead the world with 51.3 million cases and 810,338 deaths. 

 India is second by cases after the U.S. at 34.8 million and has suffered 478,325 deaths. Brazil has second highest death toll at 617,948 and 22.2 million cases.

In Europe, Russia has the most fatalities at 294,322 deaths, followed by the U.K. at 147,897.

China, where the virus was first discovered late in 2019, has had 113,170 confirmed cases and 4,809 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively understated.

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