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COVID-19 Around the World

Weekly COVID news at a glance

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(AUS) Regional community centre has vaccine success

A community centre in Wodonga on the New South Wales-Victoria border is being acknowledged as having run a successful regional COVID vaccination program, especially with its multicultural residents. The Albury-Wodonga region currently has a vaccination rate among the highest in the country, with the community centre partnership key in achieving this. 

The initiative is a partnership between the Albury-Wodonga Ethnic Communities Council and Albury-Wodonga Health, funded by the Victorian government. Community leaders are able to speak in many languages other than English, including Swahili, Nepali, Hindi, French and dialects of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Multicultural residents of the area and participants of the program say they have found it important to have questions answered and misinformation dispelled in their native languages, overall making vaccination more accessible.

 

(AUS) Review vaccine booster time

Health Minister Greg Hunt has asked the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation to review health advice on vaccine boosters as uncertainty grows over Omicron, a new variant of COVID-19.

To be eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot, you must be aged 18 and over and have had a second dose of a COVID-19 at least six months ago. The Australian government will seek advice about whether the six-month timeframe for a booster shot should be shortened.

The UK has already brought forward the eligibility for booster shots to five months after the second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in an effort to speed up the program.

 

(AUS) Funding for vulnerable vaccine groups

The Victorian Government has announced new funding to help vulnerable Victorians get vaccinated. Eligible community organisations and neighbourhood houses can apply for up to 20,000-dollars to make it easier for people to get vaccinated and to reduce COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. 

The funding will help address any practical efforts such as assisting vaccination appointment booking or arranging childcare for parents during appointments.

The program will assist Victorians from vulnerable groups, such as people living with disability, seniors, multicultural communities, social housing residents and those affected by domestic violence. Funding is also available for organisations and programs to increase vaccination rates by addressing vaccine misinformation. 

Minister for Multicultural Affairs Ros Spence announced the two and a half million-dollar package on Monday. For more information, visit the Victorian government website and search for the local community access grants program.

 

(Worldwide) Israel seals borders

Israel is barring entry to all foreign nationals, in one the most drastic of travel restrictions imposed by countries around the world in an attempt to slow the spread of the new Omicron variant of coronavirus.

Israel’s coronavirus cabinet has authorised a series of measures including banning entry by foreigners, red-listing travel to 50 African countries, and making quarantine mandatory for all Israelis arriving from abroad. The entry ban came into effect at midnight local time (10pm GMT) on Sunday.

 

(Worldwide) US could face ‘fifth wave’

Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, said on Sunday the US has “the potential to go into a fifth wave” of coronavirus infections amid rising cases and stagnating vaccination rates. He also warned that the newly discovered Omicron variant shows signs of heightened transmissibility.

On Sunday evening, shortly after the first Omicron cases in North America were confirmed in Canada, the White House said Biden met Fauci and other advisers on returning to Washington from holiday in Nantucket.

Fauci, a statement said, “informed the president that while it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity, and other characteristics of the variant, he continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of Covid”.

 

(Worldwide) Calls for lifting of Omicron travel bans

South Africa’s president has condemned travel bans enacted against his country and its neighbours over the new coronavirus variant Omicron.

Cyril Ramaphosa said he was “deeply disappointed” by the action, which he described as unjustified, and called for the bans to be urgently lifted. The UK, EU and US are among those who have imposed travel bans.

Omicron has been classed as a “variant of concern”. Early evidence suggests it has a higher re-infection risk. The heavily mutated variant was detected in South Africa earlier this month and then reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) last Wednesday.

The variant is responsible for most of the infections found in South Africa’s most populated province, Gauteng, over the last two weeks, and is now present in all other provinces in the country.

 

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(Worldwide) World Bank Grants $750M to South Africa

The World Bank approved the South African government’s request for $750 million to support efforts to offset the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The loan was agreed almost two years after the National Treasury first approached the Washington-based lender for help financing a 500 billion-rand ($33 billion) relief package after the onset of the pandemic.

The low-interest loan “will contribute towards addressing the financing gap stemming from additional spending in response to the Covid-19 crisis,” Treasury Director-General Dondo Mogajane said in a statement Friday. “It will assist in addressing the immediate challenge of financing critical health and social safety net programs.

Covid-19 has killed almost 94,000 people in South Africa, the most on the continent. Restrictions imposed by the government to stop the spread of the disease led to the biggest economic contraction in almost three decades in 2020 and led to a surge in job losses in a country with the world’s highest unemployment rate.

(Worldwide) Fourth dose raises resistance for over-60s

A fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine given to people over 60 in Israel made them three times more resistant to serious illness than those who have had three vaccinations in the same age group, Israel’s Health Ministry said on Sunday.

The ministry also said the fourth dose, or second booster, made people over 60 twice as resistant to infection than those in the age group who received three shots of the vaccine.

A preliminary study published by Israel’s Sheba medical centre last Monday found that the fourth shot increases antibodies to even higher levels than the third but “probably” not to the point that it could completely fend off the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

(Worldwide) NZ PM cancels her wedding amid new COVID-19 rules

The prime minister was due to marry long-term partner Clarke Gayford later this month in a ceremony near Gisborne, on the North Island’s eastern coast. However, on Sunday, when announcing New Zealand’s first confirmed community spread of the infectious COVID-19 variant, she confirmed the nuptials were off.

As of midnight on Sunday, New Zealand will shift from “orange” to the stricter “red” settings on its traffic light-style system for COVID-19 management. Red settings require additional mask use in public settings, require hospitality venues to cap indoor patrons at 100 and seat them all, a cap that also applies to events and gatherings.

(AUS) Vaccines for Children

There will be an additional 2.4 million vaccine doses available next week for children aged 5 to 11. A significant number of bookings are available through state systems and Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt urged parents to try other options such as pharmacies if their local clinic had no appointments left.

A patchy start to the vaccine distribution for children has hampered the rollout and caused appointment delays and GP deferrals. Parents have been anxious about children returning to school not fully vaccinated. Mr Hunt repeated Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly’s assurance that the impact of COVID-19 on children is mild.

(AUS) Retired teachers asked to assist

Retired and inactive teachers are urged to return to school in term 1 to fill gaps in a COVID-19 staff shortage. Health professionals and people with administrative experience will also be recruited. A central pool of qualified school staff will be recruited to stand by when current staff must isolate due to COVID-19 exposure or infection.

However, only government schools, which educate two-thirds of Victorian schoolchildren, can access this pool. Local schools will employ staff on a fixed-term basis, filling in for teachers, school leaders and education support staff isolating due to COVID-19. The government will release return-to-school plans in the next few days.

(AUS) Older Victorians hit hardest by latest wave

New data has shown that the Omicron variant of COVID has had a bigger impact on older Victorians. The health data shows that those who have been hospitalised during the current outbreak have an average age approximately two decades older than those who were hospitalised during the Delta wave. It also indicates that Victorians who have received their booster dose are being admitted to hospital at extremely low rates.

 

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(Worldwide) COVAX scheme delivers 1B vaccine

The COVAX scheme aimed at equitable global access to COVID-19 vaccines hit a “key milestone” on Saturday when it delivered its one billionth dose, one of its key backers said.

The COVAX facility was set up in 2020 by the World Health Organization, Gavi the Vaccine Alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to ensure that poorer countries can access the vaccines needed to battle the pandemic.

COVAX hit the one-billionth mark less than a year after delivering its first vaccine dose late last February – to Ghana. All countries have been permitted to order doses through the mechanism, but lower-income countries have received the jabs free of charge.

 

(Worldwide) France must now be vaccinated

France’s parliament has approved a law that will exclude unvaccinated people from all restaurants, sports arenas and other venues as the central measure of government efforts to protect hospitals amid record numbers of COVID-19 infections driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

The National Assembly adopted the law by a vote of 215-58. Centrist president Emmanuel Macron had hoped to push the bill through faster, but it was slightly delayed due to resistance from politicians both on the right and left and hundreds of proposed amendments.

More than 91 per cent of French adults are already fully vaccinated, and some critics have questioned whether the “vaccine pass” will make much of a difference.

 

(Worldwide) Italian nurse giving fake jabs to anti-vaxxers

Italian police have arrested a nurse in Palermo for allegedly pretending to give Covid vaccines to anti-vaxxer activists so they could benefit from official health certificates to travel and access bars, restaurants and public transport in the country.

Investigators used a hidden camera to film the nurse, a 58-year-old woman working at an inoculation centre in the Sicilian capital. The clip, released on Saturday on Twitter, shows the health worker apparently loading up a dose of Covid-19 vaccine and then emptying the syringe into a tissue before pretending to inject it into the arms of anti-vaxxers. Police said the woman’s own booster dose was fake and arrested her on charges of forgery and embezzlement.

 

(AUS) NSW COVID cases expected to plateau

COVID-19 hospitalisations in New South Wales are expected to plateau next week. The state’s current numbers track “better than the best case scenario” predicted by modelling, the Premier has said. Health authorities warn that although numbers are likely to stabilise, the health system will remain under pressure for weeks.

New South Wales recently recorded its deadliest day of the pandemic so far, with 29 deaths. The number of people in hospital with COVID-19 is now 2,525, of which 184 are in ICU. Modelling predicts these numbers will peak next week at 273 ICU patients and 4,700 hospitalisations.

 

(AUS) RAT supply caught up in transport delays

Rapid Antigen Tests are self-administered COVID-19 tests often referred to as RATs. Transport delays and staff shortages caused by the rapid spread of the Omicron strain are slowing the supply of Rapid Antigen Tests in Australia

Federal and state leaders are being pressured to act quickly to address the shortage. The government expects to distribute 10 million RATs nationwide in the next two weeks with another 80 million units on order. Victoria has ordered 44 million to be supplied during January. RATs are in high demand globally with other countries recently ordering at least a billion test kits.

 

(AUS) Temporary widening of telehealth

The Morrison government says it will provide additional funding to assist the temporary widening of telehealth consultations through GPs and other specialists due to the high infection rate from the Omicron outbreak.

The $24 million will also cover the continued supply of personal protective equipment, such as masks, respirators, face shields and gowns for face-to-face consultations including patients that have tested positive through a rapid antigen test.

The latter aligns with national cabinet’s 5 January decision that RAT tests no longer need to be confirmed by a PCR test. Health Minister Greg Hunt said telehealth had been a vital support during the pandemic, providing greater flexibility in healthcare delivery at the most critical time and continues to be a fundamental part of the pandemic response.

 

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(Worldwide) China’s Tianjin to test 14M people

The northern Chinese city of Tianjin on Sunday advised its nearly 14 million people to stay home while it conducted mass COVID-19 testing after a spate of recent cases, including two caused by the Omicron variant, state-controlled media reported.

Tianjin emerged as a new area of concern after more than 20 COVID-19 cases were reported there in the last few days, most of them imported from abroad, according to the National Health Commission.

They include at least two cases of the Omicron variant, as well as 15 infections among elementary and middle school students, according to various state media reports.

 

(Worldwide) UK soldiers to help hospitals

Troops are to begin deploying in London amid growing medical staff shortages due to COVID-19 in the United Kingdom.

Around 200 armed forces personnel are being made available to hospitals across the capital, which has been the centre of the Omicron outbreak with a huge upsurge in cases.

The announcement comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week ministers hoped to “ride out” the latest wave without the need for further restrictions in England.

 

(Worldwide) US hospitals cracked down

In the US, the current explosion of omicron-fuelled Covid-19 cases is causing a breakdown in basic functions and services, diminishing the ranks of healthcare and essential workers. Hospitals are overwhelmed, turning away incoming patients.

In New York City, subways and trash collection services are delayed due to out of commission employees infected with Covid, while schools across the nation are struggling to find teachers for their classrooms.

Elsewhere, in the state of Texas, the growing case numbers has led to an acute shortage of Covid-19 tests. Long queues can be seen outside pharmacies, which are already sold out of testing kits.The need for testing is so high that people sometimes have to wait for hours at large, dedicated “mega” facilities.

 

(AUS) RATs accepted for disaster payment

The federal government announced in a statement on Saturday that from 10 January it would accept rapid antigen tests (RATs) as well as PCR tests from those who are seeking to claim the support payment.

Currently, $750 per seven-day period is available for those directed to self-isolate or quarantine, who are caring for someone with COVID-19, or meet the definition of a close contact, providing they are not earning income from work or certain other sources.

But from 18 January the payment will be scaled based on the number of hours of work an individual has lost or expects to lose over a seven-day isolation period.

 

(AUS)  New regulations for RATs

Under new rules, health authorities now recognise a positive result from a Rapid Antigen test indicates a person has COVID-19. It is NO longer required to have a standard PCR test if a positive result comes from using the RAT kit at home.  

If positive, it is required that people immediately isolate for 7 days from the day of the test. However, Victorians MUST immediately report a positive rapid antigen test result to the Department of Health through an online form or by phone. Reporting a positive RAT will allow the infected person to access care, information and financial support.

People can still go to a GP or testing clinic if they cannot purchase the home RAT kit, if they have symptoms or are a close contact. Since the emergence of the Omicron variant, Victoria’s standard testing capacity has been hit by a surge in cases, so the new rule will reduce testing queues and waiting times. It also means PCR tests can be prioritised for critical workers such as nurses and people in vulnerable settings. 

 

(AUS)  Calls for translated RAT instructions

Community leaders say there is a desperate need to translate the instructions of rapid antigen tests into languages other than English, amid fears people may be using them incorrectly and reporting false negatives.

There are growing calls for state and federal governments to ensure instructions about how to use these tests are widely available to people of all backgrounds and in all languages. 

More than 1.5 million Australians come from non-English speaking backgrounds and the issue is not isolated to one specific community. 

 

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