Covid-19 news today: flight cancellations, tests, vaccine, Omicron, travel restrictions... | summary 24/12

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Covid-19 news today: flight cancellations, tests, vaccine, Omicron, travel restrictions... | live updates

Covid-19 Omicron variant: latest news

Headlines:

- WHO investigating mysterious illness in South Sudan

- Biden administration lifts US travel ban on southern African countries

- CDC reduces quarantine requirement from 10 to 7 days for health care workers who test positive for covid-19 but are asymptomatic 

- Pfizer and Merck receive Emergency Use Authorization for their anti-viral pills to fight covid-19

- Omicron incubation is possibly faster than previous strains

- Small businesses close during their busiest season as Omicron sickens their staff and customers

- Bill Gates urges people to get vaccinated and take the booster

- Moderna could be ready to develop Omicron booster 'in weeks', states CEO

- Omicron's global spread prompts renewed lockdowns

Travel News 

- Delta and United Airlines cancel hundreds of flights as Omicron leads to staffing shortages 

- Risk of infection on airplanes increases with Omicron

Useful information & links:

- Can a PCR test tell me which variant of covid-19 I have?

- What are the Omicron symptoms in children?

- What countries have the highest and lowest covid-19 vaccination rates?

For domestic and international public health information:

- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

- The World Health Organization

- The Lancet

Browse our latest stories on covid-19:

Omicron disrupts travel as millions head to airports

Millions of travelers hoping to make it to their final destinations this holiday weekend could experience delays or cancellations because of the Omicron variant. Hundreds of flights have been canceled this holiday weekend, and with snow storms expected to hit the West on Sunday, more could be coming. 

When will the south Africa travel ban be lifted?

As experts learn more about the severity of covid-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant, some are reporting that the US' travel ban from south Africa will soon be lifted. 

Omicron will spread in days not weeks

It is not time to panic, rather public health experts advocate vigilance as Omicron begins to lead to an increase in cases in California.

Omicron leads to hundreds of flight cancellations

Omicron has infected many airline workers which has forced various major companies like Delta and United to cancel hundreds of flights over the holiday weekend. 

Delta Airlines 

Christmas Eve: 169 flights

Christmas Day: 219 flights

United Airlines 

Christmas Eve: 190 flights

Christmas Day: 149 flights

Read more on the cancellations in our full coverage.

Italy reports record 50,599 coronavirus cases and 141 deaths

Italy reported a second successive record daily tally of Covid-19 cases on Friday, with new cases hitting 50,599 against 44,595 a day earlier, the health ministry said. The number of coronavirus-related deaths fell to 141 from 168 on Thursday.

Italy has registered 136,386 deaths linked to Covid-19 since its outbreak emerged in February last year, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the ninth-highest in the world. The country has reported 5.57 million cases to date. Patients in hospital with Covid-19 -- not including those in intensive care -- stood at 8,812 on Friday, up from 8,722 a day earlier.

There were 102 new admissions to intensive care units, against 93 on Thursday. The total number of intensive care patients increased to 1,038 from a previous 1,023. Some 929,775 tests for Covid-19 were carried out in the past day, compared with a previous 901,450, the health ministry said.

Omicron could be the beginning of the end of the pandemic

Many health officials believe that the emergence of the Omicron variant could possible be the start of the end of the pandemic because it looks like the virus is running out of steam. Adolfo García Sastre, epidemiologists at New York's Monte Sinai hospital, the new variant is less severe than previous ones. He told Antena 3's 'Espejo Público' programme, "If Omicron had arrived with the same severity as Delta or the previous strains, it would have been much worse".

Those sentiments are shared by Doctor Javier Zulueta who tweeted, "The number of infections is brutal, but the great majority of cases are very very light. Cases are going down in South Africa as quickly as they rose. It's coming to an end".

France

France posts new record daily Covid-19 infections

France hit another Covid-19 infection record on Friday, with the daily figure getting close to 100,000, a trend that prompted the government to convene a special meeting on the pandemic on Monday which could trigger new restrictions on movement.

Health authorities reported 94,124 new daily Covid-19 cases on Friday while the number of people hospitalised for the disease reached a seven-month high at close to 16,200, according to official data. The seven-day moving average of new cases, which evens out weekly data reporting irregularities, also reached a new record of 66,417, a total that has tripled in just one month.

The number of Covid-19 related deaths climbed by 167 over 24 hours, bringing the total to 122,462. France's total number of cases since the outbreak of the pandemic stands at 8.98 million, the seventh highest in the world.

Earlier in the day, the French presidential palace said President Emmanuel Macron would convene a Covid-19 meeting on Monday at 15:00 GMT, which will be followed immediately by a cabinet meeting. France plans to pass a law transforming its health pass needed to do some jobs and to go to cinemas and bars into a 'vaccination' pass in the first half of January. The main aim of a vaccination pass will be to do away with the option of obtaining a valid certificate by testing negative instead of having the vaccine shots. The government is hoping that measure will be enough to contain the rapidly spreading Omicron variant of the disease, which already accounts for 20% of new infections in France.

United Airlines and Delta cancel over 200 flights

NPR - As if this second holiday season of the pandemic wasn't hard enough, many looking forward to seeing family and friends for Christmas were informed at the last minute that their flights had been canceled. A main reason is that the highly contagious omicron variant of coronavirus has left airlines short-staffed.

"The nationwide spike in Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation," said United Airlines in a statement to NPR.

The airline said it had canceled more than 120 flights for Friday and was notifying customers before they arrived at the airport. "We're sorry for the disruption and are working hard to rebook as many people as possible and get them on their way for the holidays."

Likewise, Delta Air Lines canceled around 135 flights for Friday. It said some were due to potential bad weather, but also noted the impact of the omicron variant on its crews.

Full story

Millions of travelers alter holiday plans over Omicron

COVID-19 NEWS

Is Omicron leading to flight cancellations? How can I find out if my flight is canceled?

Thousands of people have received notifications that their Christmas flights have been canceled.

Many airlines had been struggling to staff up to their pre-pandemic levels and now Omicron and severe winter weather are straining the fragile system more. But in recent days, more staff have begun to test positive, and some airlines including American, Delta, and United have begun to cancel holiday flights.

In a statement released by United Airlines, the company said, "the nationwide spike in omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation. As a result, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some flights.” United is working to rebook customers as soon as possible, but with so many flights, and a dwindling number of employees, it could take time.

Read more

LaGuardia

Travelers walk to a security check point at LaGuardia Airport in New York on Friday. Over 2,000 flights have been cancelled globally on Christmas Eve - with around 500 involving flights to, from or within the US - as airlines struggle with the Omicron variant of covid-19.

(Photo by Yuki IWAMURA / AFP)

Over 500 flights into, from or within US now cancelled today

According to Flight Aware’s live tracker, the number of flights within, to or from the United States cancelled so far today has now crossed the 500 mark. As of 11:20am ET, 512 such flights had been cancelled, with United the US airline to have suffered the most disruption. The company has had to call off 176 flights today, Flight Aware says.

Flight Aware's live tracker

COVID-19 NEWS

What are the symptoms of Omicron in children?

Children have been a particular focus of infectious disease researchers since the outbreak of Omicron, with many examining if the covid-19 variant can lead to more severe infection.

Full details

Chinese officials punished over covid outbreak that led to Xian lockdown

Officials in the northwestern Chinese city of Xian are facing punishment after a covid-19 outbreak led to the lockdown of its 13 million residents, authorities said on Friday.

All domestic flights out of Xian and most trains originating from the city scheduled for Friday were cancelled.

Officials in Xian, which is famed for its terracotta warriors buried with China's first emperor, say the outbreak has been traced to the arrival of a plane from Pakistan.

(Reuters)

US to lift travel ban on eight southern African countries

The Biden administration is to lift a travel ban imposed on eight southern African countries amid the rise of the Omicron covid-19 variant, the White House says.

Spokesman Kevin Munoz tweeted on Friday: “On Dec. 31, @POTUS will lift the temporary travel restrictions on Southern Africa countries. This decision was recommended by @CDCgov. The restrictions gave us time to understand Omicron and we know our existing vaccines work against Omicron, esp boosted.”

At the end of November, the United States barred non-US travellers from entering the country if they have been in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique or Malawi in the previous 14 days.

WORLD NEWS

What disease does WHO say is causing deaths in South Sudan?

A mysterious disease is spreading in a South Sudan which is claiming the elderly and young, causing almost 100 fatalities so far. Cholera has been ruled out.

Read more

Flight Aware

Nearly 500 flights to, from or within US cancelled so far today

According to Flight Aware, a total of 475 flights travelling within, into or out of the United States have so far been cancelled today, with United and Delta among the global airlines to have suffered the largest number of call-offs.

(Image: flightaware.com)

Do rapid tests immediately before meeting loved ones this Christmas - expert

Speaking to CNN show 'New Day', an infectious disease expert has offered advice to those gathering with loved ones this Christmas on how to help avoid the spread of covid-19, as the highly contagious Omicron variant rips through the US.

Do rapid tests right before meeting, Professor Erin Bromage of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth says: "The day before doesn't really work with the rate at which this virus goes from non-detectable to detectable and infectious. So testing immediately before if you can get your hands on rapid tests; the day before, if you can only do PCR and then turning them around in 24 hours.”

Read more

Overall, we find evidence of a reduction in the risk of hospitalization for Omicron relative to Delta infections, averaging over all cases in the study period.

However, these reductions should be balanced against the much larger risk of infection with Omicron, due to reduction in protection acquired from both vaccination and natural infection.

Summary of analysis, Imperial College London.

Several studies find Omicron less severe

Omicron spreads more easily than delta but isn’t as dangerous.

That idea is gaining steam in the scientific community after studies in England, South Africa and Scotland found the omicron variant of the coronavirus causes milder covid-19 symptoms and is less likely to result in hospitalization.

But there is still a great deal of caution around because as huge numbers of people become infected, health systems could become overwhelmed. And no one is discounting the chances of another variant emerging. Pi anyone?

Thailand reports first Omicron cluster

Thailand has reported its first domestic cluster of coronavirus infections from the Omicron variant in Kalasin province in northeastern Thailand, officials said. “From the Kalasin cluster, there are 21 new infections,” said country’s covid-19 taskforce spokeswoman Apisamai Srirangsan.

The infections stem from a couple who travelled from Belgium through the country’s Test & Go scheme that waived quarantine for vaccinated arrivals, she said. Both had tested negative for infections before travelling and after arrival in Thailand in early December.

“By December 15, they started having symptoms and tested positive and were later confirmed to have the Omicron variant,” she said.

The announcement comes as Thailand’s capital city Bangkok cancelled government-sponsored New Year activity, including midnight prayers Fireworks and countdown events organised by malls were still going forward and would require proof of vaccination and antigen test results.

The health ministry also previously said it would introduce a fourth booster dose for medical personnel. So far, Thailand has 205 infections from the Omicron variant, mostly in foreign arrivals.

Covid testing: know your locations

As journalist Ileana Diaz reports from Miami, there are more and more testing facilities opening up.

Find out all the ways you can get tested and let's all stay ahead of this rapidly spreading Omicron variant.

Delta and United cancellations

More reaction on Twitter to the news that both United and Delta Airlines have pre-emptively cancelled several flights.

Across social media we are seeing a lot of outrage being fired in numerous directions. That's not getting people home for Christmas though.

WHO investigating South Sudan mysterious illness

The World Health Organization is investigating a mysterious illness in South Sudan that has killed dozens of people, reports ABC News.

So far, 97 people have died of the unknown disease in Fangak, Jonglei State, in the northern part of the country.

Deaths have mostly been reported among the elderly and children ages 1 to 14, according to a statement from South Sudan’s Ministry of Health.

Omicron could delay Indian elections

An Indian court urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government to suspend political rallies and election campaigns in poll-bound states amid the rising number of Omicron cases, a variant of covid-19.

Judges of the Allahabad High Court in the country's most populous Uttar Pradesh (UP) state said on Thursday the number of people infected with Omicron is on the rise and could result in a third wave of the coronavirus. Elections to the state assembly in UP , home to over 220 million people, are scheduled for early next year but final dates are yet to declared. Three other states are also scheduled to hold local elections at the same time.

UP is a key battleground for Modi and opposition parties because of its size and because the performance of political parties there will be a barometer for the 2024 national elections. Political parties, including Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, have started holding rallies and meetings where crowds continue to ignore pandemic protocols. The judges said, if possible, the elections that are expected to be held in February next year be postponed by a couple of months.

'The court requests the honourable prime minister that looking at the situation of this frightening pandemic, to take strong steps and stop rallies, gatherings and cancel or postpone (the) upcoming election,' the judges said. 'Because only if there is life, we have our world,' they stated. India's overall tally of the fast-spreading Omicron variant has reached 358 cases, across 17 states, authorities said on Friday, although no deaths have been reported so far.

Modi addressed large crowds in a Hindu pilgrimage city in UP on Thursday.

CDC cuts quarantine for healthcare workers

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) made a controversial change to its covid-19 guidelines allowing healthcare workers who test positive but are asymptomatic to return to work after a seven-day quarantine. This is down from ten days, recommended for everyone else. 

The airline industry is pushing for their workers to operate under the same guidelines as they struggle with severe staffing shortages.  

The move was criticized by the National Nurses United "called it a dangerous decision to weaken isolation guidance for employers and demanded the CDC maintain its existing guidance."

Flight attendants begin receive news of cancellations

As Christmas Eve arrived, social media began to fill up with messages of flight cancellations due to the incredible spread of Omicron.

This is looking like it will have a huge impact on many plans for tomorrow.

Omicron already begins to cause travel disruptions

United Airlines has already canceled 100 flights scheduled for Christmas Eve as their staff becomes infected with the Omicron variant and they suffer debilitating staffing shortages. Delta Airlines made a similar move, canceling over sixty flights.

A representative from Delta told Nexstar that “Delta teams have exhausted all options and resources — including rerouting and substitutions of aircraft and crews to cover scheduled flying — before canceling around 90 flights for Friday. We apologize to our customers for the delay in their holiday travel plans. Delta people are working hard to get them to where they need to be as quickly and as safely as possible on the next available flight.”

A lobbying group representing airlines has also called on the CDC to reduce the amount of time those with breakthrough cases must quarantine. 

Risk of contagion on flights increases

Bloomberg is reporting that the likelihood of becoming infected with covid-19 on an airplane has increased due to the Omicron variant. Those in the economy may face greater risk as they are surrounded by more people.

At this point there are no limits on the number of passengers that can fly on a single plane and it does not seem that lawmakers will enact any restrictions before travel picks up in the coming days. 

COVID-19 NEWS

Is Omicron leading to flight cancellations? How can I find out if my flight is canceled?

Thousands of people have received notifications that their Christmas flights have been canceled.

Many airlines had been struggling to staff up to their pre-pandemic levels and now Omicron and severe winter weather are straining the fragile system more. But in recent days, more staff have begun to test positive, and some airlines including American, Delta, and United have begun to cancel holiday flights.

Covid spread could make West Australia's hard border policy redundant

Western Australian has had in place one of the strictest border policies anywhere and until now it has provided a nearly covid-free bubble. However, an unvaccinated covid-19 positive backpacker will test the state's preparations for living with the virus. 

The government had planned to reduce the restrictions in February giving it time to vaccinate 90 percent of the population, currently 83 percent are vaccinated. However, they are now doing extensive contact tracing of all the potential casual interactions the backpacker may have had at a long list of bars and nightclubs.

Administration's response behind the covid-19 curve

Biden announced plans to distribute 500 million at-home coronavirus test kits, unfortunately it may be too litlle, too late. The tests won't arrive until January and represent just one or two kits per American.

The Omicron variant is building on top of a early winter Delta surge and health officials are worried about holiday gatherings causing infection rates to rise even higher.

CORONAVIRUS

How long is the covid-19 Omicron variant incubation period? How long does it last?

Data on the Omicron variant is still very slim having only been discovered in a testing sample from Botswana 11 November. The first case was discovered in the US at the beginning of December and a CDC analysis of testing data has calculated that it could now make up over 70 percent of new cases. It has also claimed its first fatality in the US, an unvaccinated Houston-area man in his 50s who had underlying health conditions.

Symptoms may appear in three days or less as opposed to a week. However, according to Dr Anita Gupta, an anaesthesiologist and critical care physician at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, several factors determine how long an incubation period could be saying “there is no hard and fast rule.”

Greg Heilman explains.

Omicron fears drive in-person trade show cancellations

The Consumer Electronics Show is due to take place early next month in Las Vegas, but several big name companies have announced that their employees will not attend the event out of an abundance of caution. 

GM had planned to give the first showing of its new electric Silverado pickup truck and CEO Mary Barra was scheduled to give the keynote speech. The company announced that she will now do both virtually.

Several other companies said on Thursday they will now do virtual presentations if possible including Google, Waymo and TikTok's ByteDance. They join Amazon, Facebook and Twitter among other who earlier this week announced they will not attend in person.

Slamdance Film Festival goes virtual due to Omicron

The Slamdance Film Festival started in 1995 takes place annually in Park City, Utah to showcase emerging talent. It had been scheduled to begin on 20 January this year.

But due to the developing situation with the Omicron covid-19 variant in Park City and around the world, organizers have decided to make the festival 100 percent virtual. In order to make preparation for the completely virtual format, the festival will be postponed with the kickoff now on 27 January.

US NEWS

Fourth stimulus check: Will Congress pass another payment as Omicron sparks an increase in cases? 

During President Biden’s address to the nation on Tuesday, he warned that in the coming days and weeks the country could experience a surge in covid cases. This increase could result in the collapse of some hospital systems and a tragic number of deaths.

Additionally, many business owners worry that while lockdowns may not be imposed, customers may avoid dining out or shopping to lower the risk of contracting the virus.

Our Maite brings you more on potential movements in Congress.

White House boosted by Trump admission

The White House is grateful that former US President Donald Trump received and promoted getting the Covid-19 vaccine booster shot, press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday.

The Republican former president recently said in an interview that he received a booster shot, and called the Covid-19 vaccines "one of the greatest achievements of mankind."

"The ones that get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones that don't take the vaccine," Trump said in an interview with conservative commentator Candace Owens. "If you take the vaccine, you're protected."

Psaki responded to those remarks today, telling reporters in today's press briefing, "We're grateful that the former president got the booster, and we're also grateful that he made clear in a recent interview that they work and they're safe".

Just 62% of Americans are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates among rich nations, thanks in part to a Republican-led pushback against Democratic President Joe Biden's year-long vaccination campaign.

CORONAVIRUS

Coronavirus: what has Bill Gates said about Omicron & vaccines?

"We all have to look out for each other, especially the most vulnerable, whether they live down the street or in another country. That means wearing masks, avoiding big indoor gatherings, and getting vaccinated. Getting a booster gives the best protection."

Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft and man who became a target for anti-vaxers and conspiracy theorists around the globe, has taken to social media to share his thoughts on the shifting landscape of the coronavirus pandemic.

In his Twitter thread, Gates warned about the spread of the new variant, Omicron, calling it potentially ‘the worst surge’ and explained that the current uncertainty around the virus has caused him to cancel his Christmas plans.

Covid-19 blog: a Christmas Eve welcome

Good morning and welcome to our daily live blog for Friday 24 December 2021, in which we’ll be bringing you the latest news on the impact of the Omicron covid-19 variant and its knock-on effect on daily life.

If you were following our coverage over the past few days, you will have seen President Biden's address to the nation on the current situation and we'll continue to look at the measure and restrictions that are being implemented in the US and other parts of the world as nations look to confront the havoc being created by the latest strain.

We'll also provide you with the latest information on vaccines and booster jabs as a means to counter the impact of infection along with the latest news from South Africa, where the variant was first discovered, and elsewhere with testing and understanding of Omicron at a more advanced stage.

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