Lower hospitalizations in the United States; Austrian Experience: Virus Update

(Bloomberg) – U.S. hospital admissions for Covid-19 are falling in 34 states and the nation’s capital, easing healthcare staffing crises that were widespread at the start of the year.

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New studies are emerging that suggest the latest version of omicron spreads even faster than the original, and mild cases of the former may not offer much protection against future infections.

South Africa has dropped a requirement for people who test positive but show no symptoms to self-isolate. Meanwhile, Austria has launched a dramatic public health experiment, with a divisive new law making Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory.

Key developments:

  • Virus Tracker: Cases Exceed 378 Million; deaths exceed 5.6 million

  • Vaccine Tracker: more than 10.1 billion vaccines administered

  • What we now know about the omicron variant: QuickTake

  • Sign up for the free Coronavirus Daily newsletter here

New version of Omicron not more severe: WHO (10:30 NY)

The emerging omicron subvariant does not appear to be more severe than the original form, a World Health Organization official said, according to Reuters.

Vaccines also continue to provide similar protection against different forms of omicron, Boris Pavlin of the WHO’s Covid-19 response team told an online briefing, according to the news service.

Portuguese Prime Minister Tests Positive (9:50 a.m. NY)

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa is self-isolating after testing positive for Covid-19, the Prime Minister’s Office said in an emailed statement. Costa, 60, who won the general election on Sunday, has no symptoms and will self-isolate for seven days.

US Hospital Admissions Drop (9:32 a.m. NY)

U.S. hospital admissions for Covid-19 are falling in 34 states and the nation’s capital. Last week, the number of new Covid-19 patients fell 31% in New Jersey and Maryland, the largest declines in the country, according to data from the US Department of Health and Human Services.

The fast-spreading omicron variant swept across the United States for much of December and early January, sending cases to a weekly peak more than three times as severe as the previous worst period last winter. The number of infections meant that hospitals were again overwhelmed, even with a less virulent variant for the average infected person.

European Covid Spending Detailed (9:26 a.m. NY)

European Union states have spent only about a third of the more than 3 trillion euros ($3.4 trillion) in aid they had budgeted to save their economies from the pandemic, said EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager.

New Version of Omicron Studied (6:55 p.m. HK)

The omicron subvariant BA.2 of omicron is even more contagious than BA.1 and is likely to become the dominant virus, based on data from Denmark and the United Kingdom, said Sam Fazeli, senior pharmaceutical analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

Early data from the UK suggests that vaccine efficacy against symptomatic disease does not differ between subvariants.

“Although BA.2 does not cause more severe disease, we believe its increased transmissibility could lead to high and sustained levels of infections and associated effects on society,” Fazeli said. Data from the UK suggest a 30% increase in transmissibility.

Hong Kong Faces Epidemic (6:10 p.m. HK)

Hong Kong reported the highest daily number of unrelated infections in its fifth Covid outbreak on Tuesday as the government scrambles to contain community transmission. The city had 129 new confirmed cases – 102 were local cases and 22 currently have no known source, authorities said.

South Africa relaxes isolation rule (6 p.m. HK)

South Africa has dropped the requirement for people who test positive for Covid-19 but show no symptoms to self-isolate, a marked reversal from its initial approach to the virus when it implemented one of the strictest lockdowns in the world.

Austria Vaccination Mandate Goes into Effect (5:30 p.m. HK)

Austria has embarked on a dramatic public health experiment, with a divisive new law that makes vaccinations against Covid-19 compulsory. Police will start checking people’s vaccination status on the street and at roadside checks, and from mid-March violators who have not been vaccinated will face fines of up to 3,600 euros (4,050 $).

It’s a risky political move that has already led to tens of thousands of protesters regularly hitting the streets of Vienna.

Start of vaccine requirements in Italy (4:12 p.m. HK)

Vaccination will be compulsory in Italy for citizens over 50 from Tuesday. People in this age group who have not received at least one vaccine can be fined 100 euros, and later this month will have to show a so-called “enhanced green pass”, which cannot be obtained only with the vaccine or after recovering from Covid, to go to work.

Pandemic Trash Cited in Report (3 p.m. HK)

The pandemic response has produced tens of thousands of tons of additional medical waste, challenging disposal systems and threatening human health and the environment, according to a World Health Organization report.

Overwhelmed waste systems, especially in low-income countries, mean healthcare workers are at risk of needlestick injuries and burns, as well as exposure to pathogenic microorganisms, said WHO. People living near poorly managed landfills and waste disposal sites are exposed to contaminated air and poor water quality.

Effective Shionogi Pill (2:30 p.m. HK)

Shares of Japanese drugmaker Shionogi & Co. rose the most in more than 20 months after it revealed its antiviral pill for Covid-19 was effective in a study.

Omicron Variant and Reinfection (1:15 p.m. HK)

New studies are emerging that suggest the latest version of the highly infectious omicron variant transmits even faster than the original, and mild cases of the former may not offer much protection against future infections.

The findings cast doubt on hopes that the omicron wave sweeping the world could help hasten the end of the pandemic. Calls for governments to treat Covid-19 as endemic like the flu are growing around the world as people tire of pandemic restrictions, vaccines become more accessible and deaths remain relatively low.

Thailand Tourism Without Quarantine (1 p.m. HK)

Thailand expects to welcome hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers a month with the launch of a quarantine-free visa program that should serve as a model for tourism-reliant countries by balancing safely reopening borders with economic recovery.

From Tuesday, visitors of any nationality can apply for quarantine-free entry into Thailand, provided they are fully vaccinated. The government expects between 200,000 and 300,000 travelers to take advantage of the so-called Test & Go scheme in February alone, and the numbers are expected to rise in the following months.

Germany New Cases (11:20 a.m. HK)

Germany reported 162,613 new cases of Covid-19, down from 78,318 the day before, according to the country’s public health authority RKI. New reported deaths associated with the virus rose by 188, bringing the total to 117,974 while the seven-day incidence rate hit a record 1,206.2 per 100,000 people

Slow Beijing local transmissions (11:15 a.m. HK)

Local transmissions in Beijing slowed as neighboring city of Tianjin reported seven new local infections on Monday and Hangzhou, home of e-commerce giant Alibaba, reported 13 new cases, all in currently isolated areas.

Beijing has reported two locally transmitted cases. There were 16 new confirmed cases among Olympic athletes and team officials arriving in a ‘closed loop’ system via the airport, little change from the previous two days.

Hong Kong Quarantine Hotels (10:30 a.m. HK)

Hong Kong has removed three hotels that are currently used to quarantine newly arrived air travelers and converted them into quarantine centers for people who have been in close contact with a Covid-19 patient. The move adds 1,000 more rooms to the 5,200 currently available.

Pfizer to seek approval for under-fives (10 a.m. HK)

Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine could be available for children under five by the end of February as part of a two-shot regimen, The Washington Post reported, citing people briefed on the situation as he did not identify. Pfizer can submit an emergency use authorization request as early as Tuesday.

Japan Emergency Guidelines Set (9:50 a.m. HK)

New daily cases in Japan fell for a second day to 60,838 on Monday after peaking at 84,967 on Saturday, according to data compiled by national broadcaster NHK.

Separately, Tokyo plans to establish new guidelines for requesting a Covid-19 state of emergency, TV Asahi reported on Tuesday, without saying where it got the information from. Tokyo will take into account the number of mildly and critically ill patients, in addition to daily new cases and hospital bed occupancy rates, the broadcaster said.

Tokyo’s hospital bed occupancy rate was 49.2% on Monday, approaching the 50% level that Governor Yuriko Koike earlier gave as the rate at which Tokyo could consider requesting a state of emergency.

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