Countries tighten COVID-19 restrictions as Omicron spreads
NUR-SULTAN. KAZINFORM - Just when we thought the COVID-19 pandemic is nearing its end, the world was shocked by another variant Omicron, first identified in South Africa. Countries around the world continue to see rising cases that force many, including Kazakhstan, to adopt tighter restrictions. More about how different countries respond to this is in the latest analytical article of Kazinform.
Globally, over the past week, the new weekly COVID-19 cases increased by 55 percent, reaching more than 15 million new cases and over 43,000 new deaths. As of January 14, over 320 million confirmed cases and over 5.5 million deaths have been reported.
The Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa. It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible compared to other variants, including Delta. The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors.
It is also not yet clear whether Omicron causes more severe implications compared to infections with other variants, including Delta. Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of a specific infection with Omicron.
«While omicron does appear to be less severe compared to delta, especially in those vaccinated, it does not mean it should be categorized as mild. Just like previous variants, omicron is hospitalizing people and it's killing people. In fact, the tsunami of cases is so huge and quick that it is overwhelming health systems around the world. Hospitals are becoming overcrowded and understaffed, which further results in preventable deaths from not only COVID-19 but other diseases and injuries where patients cannot receive timely care,» said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a press briefing on January 6.
He said that people should continue practicing preventive measures as well as vaccinate. Some, however, do not comply with even basic rules of how to wear a mask.
«When you put a mask on your face you need to have clean hands. It needs to cover your nose and your mouth. Wearing a mask below your nose, wearing a mask off your ear, wearing a mask below your chin is useless and it gives you a false sense of security that you have something on and it's protecting you. It will not. It needs to be well-fitted over your nose and your mouth,» he said.
In the United States, 62.8 percent of the total population are fully vaccinated, while at least 20.6 percent of the eligible population has not received any dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. 1,291,013 doses are being administered each day.
Around 23 percent of the total population is now fully vaccinated and boosted.
Despite this, the country is going through the biggest spike in cases. The number of patients with COVID-19 in U.S. hospitals was above last winter’s peak over the past weekend and the country reported a record 1.5 million Covid cases on Monday.
The US also had a weekly average of more than 750,000 cases per day, which is 47 percent more compared to the week before.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked President Joe Biden’s initiative to mandate large business employees to get vaccinated or test weekly. It explained that it is «instead a significant encroachment on the lives – and health – of a vast number of employees.»
As Omicron continues to cause rising cases in Europe, Italy announced that all citizens 50 years and older must now be vaccinated starting from February 15.
Like other European countries, Italy requires a green pass from its citizens, which will now be extended to banks, public offices, and shops. The green pass, which comes in two types - super and basic - is a document showing either proof of vaccination or recent recovery or negative PCR test (only for basic pass). Most of the places, however, require a super green pass, including for visiting restaurants, both indoors and outdoors, as well as hotels, museums, gyms, and swimming pools, and other activities.
«We want to slow down the growth of the contagion curve and push Italians who still aren’t vaccinated to do so,» Prime Minister Mario Draghi said during a cabinet meeting on Tuesday. «We are acting in particular on age groups that are most at risk of hospitalization, to reduce pressure on hospitals and save lives.»
Starting December 23, unvaccinated citizens cannot access public spaces and mas is required outdoors, including only special FFP2 masks required on public transport, in cinemas, theatres and stadiums.
In France, the Senate passed a bill on January 13 that made their COVID-19 pass even stricter. A negative PCR test will no longer be enough to visit public venues.
The country mandated its citizens to present a health pass to visit leisure and culture venues and events of more than 50 people starting from August. The same rule applies when visiting bars, restaurants, malls, hospitals, retirement homes, residential care homes, and is also required for long-distance travel by plane, or train. The health pass is a document that confirms either full vaccination or a recent recovery from COVID-19, at least 15 days and no more than 6 months old.
France confirmed more than 13 million cases and over 127,000 deaths. Nearly 75 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, while only 79 percent have received at least one dose.
In November 2020, after the Omicron variant was identified, the country suspended flights from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini and in December, introduced a ban on arrivals from the United Kingdom which was lifted on January 14.
At the beginning of the year, Kazakhstan has confirmed the Omicron variant. Starting from January 15, it tightened entry requirements and now all arriving passengers, including the Kazakh citizens, must present a negative PCR test, otherwise, they will not be allowed boarding.
Kazakhstan also tightened its COVID-19 restrictions requiring citizens to have green status (recent PCR test, recent recovery, or full vaccination) in the Ashyq system to visit shopping malls, gyms, swimming pools, and saunas both on weekdays and weekends.
The officials also urge companies to send their employees home for remote work.
Kazakh Minister of Health Azhar Giniyat said at the government meeting this week that the epidemiological situation in the country is worsening. Over the past 24 hours, the country confirmed its record 10,418 new daily cases, the highest since the pandemic began.
«In Kazakhstan, the incidence over the past two weeks has increased by 41 percent. The epidemiological situation is sharply deteriorating,» she said.
At the same time, the reproductive rate has increased by 2.4 times since January 1 and equals 2.2 in the country.
She noted that the deterioration of the epidemiological situation is due to the circulation of the Omicron variant as well as the traveling of people within the country.
»At the beginning of January, the Omicron variant was detected in the cities of Almaty and Nur-Sultan. The Omicron variant has high contagiousness, increased risk of reinfection. In the upper respiratory tract, Omicron multiplies 70 times faster than the variant Delta,» said Giniyat.
The minister stressed that interim preliminary studies show that revaccination, which continues in Kazakhstan, restores protection against severe forms of the disease, hospitalizations, and deaths up to 70 percent.
More than 9 million people have been vaccinated with the first component, and more than 8.5 million people have been fully vaccinated.
«To protect the most vulnerable population group, the choice of vaccines for revaccination has been expanded. For example, Comirnaty/Pfizer vaccine will be additionally offered for revaccination to people over 60 years of age,» said Giniyat.
She urged the citizens to refrain from visiting places of mass gathering, hold or attend mass events as well as refrain from visiting relatives and receiving guests at home.
«Wear masks not only in public places but also in the street. Citizens who have not been vaccinated are urged to get the first dose and those who were vaccinated 6 months ago - to revaccinate. The lives and health of our loved ones, colleagues, friends, and acquaintances directly depend on our shared commitment to basic preventive measures,« said Giniyat.
Article by Assel Satubaldina
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