Daily COVID-19 infections have hit record highs in the US, parts of Europe and Australia as the new Omicron variant of the virus runs out of control, keeping workers at home and overwhelming test centers.
New Year’s Eve will mark the second anniversary of China’s warning to the WHO of 27 cases of “viral pneumonia” of unknown origin in the city of Wuhan.
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More than 281 million people have since been reported to be infected with the new coronavirus globally, and more than five million have died, according to a Reuters poll.
The regularly mutating coronavirus is still wreaking havoc in many parts of the world, forcing governments to reconsider quarantine and testing rules.
Although some studies have suggested that the Omicron variant is less deadly than some of its predecessors, the huge number of people testing positive means that hospitals in some countries may soon be overwhelmed, while companies may struggle to continue operations due to workers to be quarantined.
France, Britain, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Malta all registered a record number of new cases on Tuesday.
The average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the United States has also hit a record high over the past seven days, according to a Reuters survey.
The previous peak was in January this year.
New daily infections in Australia rose to almost 18,300, on Wednesday the previous pandemic height of around 11,300 hit a day earlier.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his country needed “a gear shift” to deal with congested labs, with long walk-in and drive-in queues reported in a number of areas.
Test bottlenecks have also emerged in European nations, including Spain, where demand for free COVID-19 test kits supplied by Madrid’s regional government far exceeded supply on Tuesday, with long queues forming outside pharmacies.
A number of governments were also increasingly concerned about the huge number of people being forced into self-isolation because they had been in contact with a corona sufferer.
“We just can not get everyone to be taken out of circulation because they happen to be in a certain place at a certain time,” said Mr. Morrison to journalists.
Italy was expected to ease some of its quarantine rules on Wednesday due to fears that the country will soon stall given the number of people to isolate themselves protectively, with cases doubling on Tuesday from a day earlier to 78,313.
However, China showed no failure in its policy of zero tolerance for outbreaks and kept 13 million people in the city of Xian under rigid blockade for a seventh day as new COVID-19 infections continued, with 151 cases reported on Tuesday.
“I just want to go home,” said a 32-year-old mechanic who was in Xian last week on a business trip when the city was effectively closed off from the outside world.
No case of Omicron has been announced in Xian so far.
Many countries are still struggling with the former Delta variant, including Poland, which on Wednesday reported 794 COVID-related deaths – the highest number in the fourth wave of the pandemic.
Deputy Health Minister Waldemar Kraska said more than 75 percent of those who died were unvaccinated.
Early data from the UK, South Africa and Denmark suggest that there is a reduced risk of hospitalization for Omicron compared to the Delta variant, the World Health Organization said in its latest epidemiological report released overnight.
However, the report said further data were needed to understand how the severity of the disease could be affected by vaccination and, or, previous infection.
Prepare for a ‘tsunami of cases’
The simultaneous circulation of the Delta and Omicron variants of coronavirus creates a “tsunami of cases”, says World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“Delta and Omicrom are now twin threats, driving cases up to record numbers, leading to increases in hospitalization and deaths,” Tedros told a news briefing on Wednesday.
“I am very concerned that Omicron, which is highly transferable and spreading at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases.”
Tedros reiterated its call on countries to share vaccines more fairly, warning that the weight of boosters in richer countries could leave poorer nations short of jabs.
He said the WHO was campaigning for each country to reach a target of 70 percent vaccine coverage by mid-2022, which would help end the acute phase of the pandemic.
The increase in cases coincides with the New Year holidays, usually a period of parties and travel.
Some countries, such as Italy, have canceled public festivities, while Japanese authorities urged residents to hold small gatherings at the end of the year.
“The highest risk is meeting people without taking appropriate precautions to prevent infection,” said Norio Ohmagari, director of the Disease Control and Prevention Center and a top health adviser to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.