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US, UK see record-smashing COVID case numbers as Omicron rampages

Sweden also sets new daily record as top WHO official says low hospitalization rates in South Africa are no guarantee Omicron will hit other countries as mildly

A health worker speaks tests a toddler for COVID-19, in Albigny-sur-Saone, outside Lyon, central France, on Tuesday, January 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)
A health worker speaks tests a toddler for COVID-19, in Albigny-sur-Saone, outside Lyon, central France, on Tuesday, January 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

The United States reported more than one million new COVID-19 cases on Monday after the long New Year’s weekend, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, as the Omicron variant spread at a blistering pace.

Also on Tuesday, the United Kingdom reported 200,000 new COVID cases in the past 24 hours, breaking its own previous record for virus transmission.

In the US, there were 1,080,211 new cases, a global record, although the number of cases reported on a Monday is usually higher than other days because of delays in weekend tallying, especially after a three-day holiday weekend.

Still, the figure is double the number of daily cases compared to the previous Monday.

The rolling average over seven days — which experts see as more reliable — was 486,000 cases per day as of Monday evening, the university said.

The new figure comes a day after top US pandemic adviser Anthony Fauci said the country was experiencing “almost a vertical increase” in COVID-19 cases, adding that the peak may be only weeks away.

Cars line up at a COVID testing site across the river from downtown Cincinnati in Covington, Kentucky, on Monday, January 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

The heavily-mutated Omicron strain — the most transmissible to date — accounted for around 59 percent of US cases in the week ending December 25, according to government modeling.

Fauci said the experience of South Africa — where the strain was first detected in late November and peaked quickly, then subsided nearly as quickly — offered some hope.

But a top World Health Organization official warned Tuesday that low hospitalization and death rates in South Africa due to the Omicron variant cannot be considered a template for how the variant will fare as it surges in other countries.

Dr. Abdi Mahamud, COVID-19 incident manager at the United Nations health agency, notes a “decoupling” between case counts and deaths in the country, which first announced the emergence of the fast-spreading new variant.

Mahamud said Tuesday that in terms of hospitalizations, South Africa remains “very low, and the death has remained very, very low.” But he said that phenomenon “cannot be extrapolated from South Africa to other countries, because each is country is unique on its own.”

By its latest count, WHO says 128 countries had confirmed cases of the new variant that first emerged in southern Africa in November, but many other places — which may not have complete testing capabilities — are believed to have it too.

Sandile Cele, a researcher at the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, South Africa, works on the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus, on Wednesday December 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Mahamud notes that Omicron has shown nearly unprecedented transmissibility for a virus.

He notes a “remarkable increase” in cases in the US, where “we are seeing more and more hospitalizations coming along.” But he did cite an increasing number of studies showing Omicron affects the upper part of the respiratory system, whereas other versions devastated lung function and caused severe pneumonia that led to many deaths.

Mahamud said that could be “good news,” but that more studies are needed to get a full picture.

Rates of death and hospitalization in the US have been lower in recent weeks than during previous COVID surges. With 9,382 deaths over the past seven days, the nation’s death toll has fallen by 10%, week on week.

On Tuesday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off on two measures to increase access to additional doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.

The CDC recommended shortening the recommended interval of time between when people who had an initial series of Pfizer vaccinations and when they receive a Pfizer booster shot, from six months to five months.

Medics administer the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in the Cypriot capital Nicosia, on January 2, 2022, as the country begins vaccinations for children between the ages of five and eleven, amid a sharp surge in coronavirus cases. (Iakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP)

The agency has not changed the recommended booster interval for people who got other vaccines. The Johnson & Johnson booster interval is two months and the Moderna vaccine can be given six months after initial doses.

The CDC’s decisions followed moves by the US Food and Drug Administration on Monday. The FDA also approved Pfizer booster shots for kids ages 12 to 15. The CDC has not announced a recommendation about that, but a CDC expert advisory committee is expected to take up the matter during a meeting on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia tested positive for COVID-19 and have self-isolated at home with mild symptoms in accordance with current regulations.

The Swedish royal house said in a statement that the king and the queen — both fully vaccinated with three jabs — tested positive late Monday evening and “feel well under the circumstances.”

It wasn’t immediately known where or when the royal couple was infected, but officials said they were tracking possible sources.

The news comes after Swedish health officials reported that Sweden, a country of 10 million, had set a new daily record for COVID-19 cases with 11,507 new infections on December 30. The previous daily record of 11,376 cases was recorded over a year ago in late December 2020.

Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf is pictured during a visit at the Beaumont house in Pau, southwestern France, on October 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)

Germany meanwhile has relaxed restrictions on travel from the UK, South Africa and seven other southern African countries that were imposed following the emergence of the new Omicron coronavirus variant.

The nine nations were removed Tuesday from Germany’s list of “virus variant areas.” Airlines and others are restricted largely to transporting German citizens and residents from countries on that list. All arrivals must self-isolate for 14 days, regardless of vaccination status.

Omicron is advancing in Germany but authorities say official statistics currently show a very incomplete picture because of patchy testing and reporting over the holiday period.

The German disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, said Tuesday that 30,561 new coronavirus cases were reported over the past 24 hours, over 9,000 more than a week earlier. The officially recorded infection rate was 239.9 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week. The health minister has said the real rate is probably two or three times higher.

COVID-19 has killed at least 5,441,446 people globally since the outbreak emerged in December 2019, according to an AFP tally compiled from official sources on Monday.

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