JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s new cases of COVID-19 nearly doubled in a day, authorities reported Wednesday, signaling a dramatic surge in the country where scientists detected the omicron variant last week.
New confirmed cases rose to 8,561 Wednesday from 4,373 a day earlier, according to official statistics.
Scientists in South Africa said they are bracing for a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases following the discovery of the new omicron variant.
“There is a possibility that we are going to see a vast increase in number of cases being identified in South Africa,” Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, regional virologist for the World Health Organization, told The Associated Press.
The omicron variant has been detected in five of South Africa’s nine provinces and accounted for 74% of the virus genomes sequenced in November, the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases announced Wednesday.
HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TODAY ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC:
— The world faces weeks of uncertainty as more countries restrict travel
— Spain and Portugal are stepping up efforts to vaccinate residents, despite having inoculation figures that are the envy of the world
— Singapore’s COVID-19 strategy appears to be on track despite the new variant
— U.S. moves to toughen testing requirement for travelers
— More cases linked to the new omicron variant are surfacing, prompting countries to impose restrictions.
Go to https://APNews.com/coronavirus-pandemic for updates throughout the day.
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING TODAY:
PORTLAND, Maine – The burden of COVID-19 on hospitals in Maine, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, grew more acute in the last two weeks, the head of the state’s public health agency said.
There were 334 people hospitalized in the state on Wednesday, said Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Nirav Shah. That was a new record and an increase from 280 two weeks ago, he said.
Maine has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccine rates in the U.S. at 73% and had been spared the burden experienced by other states until recent months. Shah said about 60% of the people in hospitals are not vaccinated.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. recorded its first confirmed case of the omicron variant Wednesday — a person in California who had been to South Africa — as scientists around the world raced to establish whether the new, mutant version of the coronavirus is more dangerous than previous ones.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert, made the announcement at the White House.
“We knew it was just a matter of time before the first case of omicron would be detected in the United States,” he said.
The infected person was identified as a traveler who had returned from South Africa on Nov. 22. The person, who was fully vaccinated but had not had a booster shot, tested positive on Monday and had mild symptoms that are improving, officials said.
UNITED NATÎONS — The United Nations chief is accusing countries that have restricted air travel from some African nations because of South Africa’s discovery of the COVID-19 omicron variant of “travel apartheid.”
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged countries that have imposed travel restrictions to adopt testing measures instead, saying pre-departure and post-arrival tests have allowed thousands of people to fly in conditions where the transmission of COVID-19 is “highly unlikely.”
What is unacceptable, he said, is to have Africa, “one of the most vulnerable parts of the world economy, condemned to a lockout” for revealing a new variant that already existed in other parts of the world.
Guterres spoke at a news conference following a meeting Wednesday with the African Union Commission chair, Moussa Faki Mahamat, who vigorously condemned “the unfair measures” imposed on Africa by a growing number of mainly Western countries which he called “a form of stigmatization” and “injustice.”
The U.N. chief said he was launching a very strong appeal “to common sense: We have the instruments to have safe travel. Let’s use those instruments to avoid this kind of, allow me to say, travel apartheid, which I think is unacceptable.”
Mahamat echoed Guterres saying: “It’s immoral to condemn Africa in that way.”
BEIRUT— Lebanon has declared a nighttime curfew for the unvaccinated ahead and during the holiday seasons. Its health minister on Wednesday called it one of the measures to stem a recent rise in coronavirus infections and a precaution against the new variant.
Lebanon has not recorded any infections with Omicron, but the small country enduring a severe financial crisis is concerned its health care system won’t be handle a new peak of infections.
Lebanon’s Health Minister Firass Abiad said the COVID committee wants to avoid imposing a full lockdown and hopes to encourage more people to get vaccinated.
GENEVA — The World Health Organization says travel bans by countries are having an impact on global cooperation against the new omicron variant by causing “challenges” to the sharing of laboratory samples from South Africa that can help get better grips on the new variant.
The comments Wednesday came at the first press briefing by the U.N. health agency since it christened omicron as a “variant of concern” after being brought to light by researchers in South Africa last week. Many countries responded by suspending flights from seven southern Africa countries.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for “tailored” intervention by countries, including testing travelers before and after they arrive in a country, and advised against “blanket travel bans” that “place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.”
GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization says at least 23 countries have reported cases of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus, “and we expect that number to grow.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the U.N. health agency “takes this development extremely seriously, and so should every country, but it should not surprise us. This is what viruses do, and it’s what this virus will continue to do as long as we allow it to continue spreading.”
Tedros, citing the early stages of global response to omicron, said efforts were ongoing to determine the severity of disease, transmissibility and the effectiveness of tests, treatments, and vaccines in the face of omicron. He said the delta variant remains by far the most common
RIO DE JANEIRO — Health officials on Wednesday confirmed Brazil’s third known case of the omicron coronavirus variant as the government examined possible new measures to contain the virus, such as suspending some flights and requiring arriving passengers to show proof of vaccination.
A passenger from Ethiopia tested positive for Covid-19 upon landing in Sao Paulo on Nov. 27, the state’s health secretariat said in a statement. The 29 year-old man is vaccinated with two doses of the Pfizer shot and is in good health, officials said.
The news came a day after Brazilian health officials reported confirmed cases of the omicron variant in two travelers arriving from South Africa –– the first such cases in Latin America.
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Slovakia’s government has proposed a plan to give people 60 and older a 500-euro ($568) bonus if they get vaccinated against COVID-19, the finance minister said Wednesday.
The measure, announced by Finance Minister Igor Matovic, should boost inoculations in the European Union country with one of the bloc’s lowest vaccination rates. So far, only 46.1% of the nation’s 5.5 million people have been fully vaccinated.
The current four-party ruling coalition in Slovakia has been split over the issue. The pro-business Freedom and Solidarity opposed it, saying it was ready to support a 150-euro ($170) bonus only. But the party didn’t veto it, making the approval possible.
The bill will now go to Parliament. It would need some opposition support to be approved.
The bonus would be a voucher that could be used in restaurants, cafes, hotels or to buy tickets for sports, theater, cinema, exhibitions or concerts. It could be also used to pay hairdressers or fitness centers.
BUENOS AIRES — Fear of the new variant also caused a scene reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic: a cruise liner turned away from port.
Argentina’s Ministry of Health said Tuesday it had isolated the German-based cruise ship Hamburg following two confirmed positive cases of the new coronavirus.
The vessel, whose trip originated in Hamburg, Germany, touched in at Africa’s Cape Verde islands en route to South America and Antarctica.
On Wednesday, it was at sea off Argentina’s Buenos Aires province with 285 passengers and 156 crew aboard. Officials said they were waiting for tests to determine what variant of the virus had been detected.
Officials initially had allowed some passengers off the ship when it arrived, causing a local controversy.
Plantours said Wednesday the ship was continuing its planned journey toward South Georgia Island and Antarctica and was not stranded.
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea on Wednesday confirmed its first five cases of the new omicron coronavirus variant in people linked to arrivals from Nigeria, prompting the government to tighten the country’s borders.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said Wednesday the cases include a couple who arrived from Nigeria on Nov. 24 and a friend who drove them home from the airport. The two other cases were women who also traveled to Nigeria and returned to South Korea on Nov. 23.
Health workers earlier said they were conducting genetic sequencing tests on a child of the couple and relatives of the man who drove them home to determine whether they were infected.
Following the confirmation of the omicron infections, South Korea announced it will require all passengers arriving from abroad over the next two weeks to quarantine for at least 10 days, regardless of their nationality or vaccination status.
PARIS — A spokesperson says France’s government will allow flights carrying French and European Union citizens back from Southern Africa to resume under very strict conditions starting Saturday.
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said the move will lift for “very few” travelers a suspension on flights from the region that France imposed last week as a precaution after the identification of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Trips for family visits, professional reasons or tourism still won’t be allowed, Attal said.
Only passengers who are returning home to France or who work as diplomats or for airlines will be permitted into the country, he said.
Under the rules taking effect Saturday, travelers departing from 10 countries, including South Africa and neighboring nations, Zambia and Mauritius, will need to get tested for the virus both before their flights and after arrival.
MIAMI — The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami is making face coverings optional for unvaccinated and partially vaccinated students whose parents sign opt-out paperwork.
The archdiocese made the announcement Tuesday, citing community COVID-19 statistics and the advice of physician advisors, the CDC and the Miami-Dade County Department of Health.
The CDC recommends mask-wearing in public indoor settings, including schools, in areas of substantial or high community transmission. As of Wednesday, Florida was the only state in the U.S. where transmission was low in nearly every county, according to the CDC’s COVID-19 data tracker.
Face masks were already optional for fully vaccinated students and teachers.
WARSAW, Poland – Poland’s prime minister got a booster shot against the coronavirus and made an emotional appeal to citizens to get vaccinated as 570 new deaths in one day were reported from COVID-19.
Mateusz Morawiecki’s appeal on Wednesday was made to a nation with a vaccination rate of just 54%. The numbers of those fully vaccinated have risen very slowly in recent weeks, though fears of the new omicron variant have appeared to spur some to finally get vaccinated.
Poland also reported over 29,000 new infections, the highest infection rate since a virus wave in the spring made central Europe a global hot spot.
GENEVA — The World Health Organization says the rate of increase of coronavirus cases held steady over the last week, though its African, Western Pacific and European regions all reported gains.
At the same time, new weekly deaths linked to COVID-19 fell by 10% worldwide.
The U.N. health agency said in its latest weekly epidemiological report on the pandemic that case counts shot up 93% in Africa, though it cautioned about interpreting too much from that high figure because it was largely due to “batch reporting” of antigen tests by South Africa.
The report, issued Wednesday, referred for the first time to the new omicron variant that WHO named on Friday. WHO said the variant, which was first detected in South Africa and Botswana, had been reported in a “limited number” of countries in four of health agency’s six regions.
As of Sunday, more than 280 million cases and more than 5.2 million deaths have been tallied due to the pandemic, WHO said.
BERLIN — Germany’s intensive care association is calling for nationally uniform restrictions to be imposed immediately and warning that the number of COVID-19 patients requiring intensive care will hit a new high before Christmas.
German federal and state leaders are expected to decide Thursday on new measures to curb a sharp recent rise in coronavirus infections. Chancellor-designate Olaf Scholz says he will back a proposal to mandate coronavirus vaccinations for everybody next year.
The DIVI association said Wednesday that more than 6,000 patients with COVID-19 will need intensive care treatment before Christmas and the all-time high from last year will be exceeded. It said that more than 2,300 new patients were admitted to ICUs in the last week alone, and that transferring patients within Germany isn’t a long-term solution.
GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization is hailing steps by its member states to launch work toward an international agreement to help prevent and prepare for future pandemics in the wake of the coronavirus.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the consensus decision during a long-planned special session of the U.N. health agency’s members was “cause for celebration.” It sets off work toward creating an “intergovernmental negotiating body” to draft an agreement, which is likely to take months if not years to be finalized.
“Of course, there is still a long road ahead. There are still differences of opinion about what a new accord could or should contain,” he said.
LISBON, Portugal — Portugal is entering a so-called state of calamity — the second this year — to curve an upward trend in coronavirus infections despite having one of the strongest vaccination records in Europe.
The state of calamity is one step below the country’s top level of alert.
The country is tightening passenger control in airports, seaports and land borders, requiring negative coronavirus tests for most incoming visitors as part of the new set of rules that kick in Wednesday.
Face masks are again required in enclosed spaces and coronavirus vaccination or COVID-19 recovery tests are required to enter restaurants, cinemas, gyms and hotels.