Covid Live Updates: England Cuts Isolation Period for People Who Test Positive

The new rule comes as rising case numbers lead to staff shortages in critical sectors, and as other European nations bring in new measures to curb widening outbreaks. Israel offers fourth vaccine doses.

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Outside the Royal London Hospital on Monday. The latest wave of coronavirus cases is putting severe pressure on Britain’s health care system.Credit…Tolga Akmen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

England said on Wednesday that it was reducing the number of days that people are required to isolate after showing Covid-19 symptoms to seven days from 10 days — a change that officials said was based on updated guidance from health experts, and that could help alleviate staff shortages in several critical sectors as more people test positive.

Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said the move was based on guidance from the government’s Health Security Agencys that a weeklong isolation period along with two negative test results had “nearly the same protective effect as a 10-day isolation period.”

A surge in coronavirus cases has winnowed the staffs of hospitals, clinics, rail services, fire departments and ambulance services across England, where most pandemic restrictions have been lifted since the summer. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has resisted adding new restrictions before Christmas, although he has said that he “would not hesitate to act” after the holiday if needed.

People in England will be allowed to end their quarantines if they can produce negative tests on days six and seven. That creates a more lenient policy than in the United States, where people can end their isolation periods 10 days after showing symptoms if they have not had a fever for 24 hours and if their other Covid-19 symptoms are improving.

“This new guidance will help break chains of transmission and minimize the impact on lives and livelihoods,” Dr. Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the government’s Health Security Agency, said in a statement. She emphasized that people must continue to follow public health advice.

People who are not fully vaccinated are still required to isolate for 10 days if they come into contact with an infected person.

Elsewhere in Europe, governments have announced additional restrictions this week as cases spike. Germany, Portugal and Sweden said they were putting in place new restrictions on gatherings, and Finland is instructing restaurants to close early starting on Friday, though France has held off on introducing further restrictions before Christmas.

In Britain, the wave of infections has put severe pressure on the National Health Service, which was already under strain from worker shortages caused by funding cuts, Brexit and the exhaustion from nearly two years of facing the pandemic.

Data projections from theHealth Service Journal, a trade publication, indicated that one in three workers in the National Health Service could be absent from work by New Year’s Eve if the current case rate continues.

Britain is not currently experiencing the kind of dire shortage of beds that hospitals faced during earlier peaks of the pandemic, but the pressure on the system caused by staff illnesses is evident across the country. One London-based doctor who is responsible for scheduling said that so many of his colleagues were calling in sick from the virus that he was unable to update the work roster fast enough.

As cases surge in their communities, many health care workers are contracting the virus outside their workplaces, from contact with family members or in their day-to-day lives.

Although some evidence suggests that the Omicron variant may produce less severe symptoms than Delta, it also appears to be up to twice as transmissible.

Israel is at the beginning of a fifth wave of infections.Credit…Ahmad Gharabli/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

JERUSALEM — Israel, which late last year was an early trailblazer in its efforts to administer a first coronavirus vaccine dose to its citizens, now plans to offer fourth doses in a bid to curb the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, officials said on Tuesday.

It is believed to be the first country to offer a fourth round of doses. And as with its earlier inoculation efforts, countries around the world will be looking to Israel for clues about how their own campaigns might fare.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett hailed the move as “wonderful news that will assist us in getting through the Omicron wave that is engulfing the world.” He added, “The state of Israel is continuing to stand at the forefront of the global effort to deal with the pandemic.”

At least one person in the country is confirmed to have died from the Omicron variant — an older man who had received two vaccine doses but not a third one, health officials said on Tuesday.

The United States has also reported at least one death from the variant. Health officials in Texas said that an unvaccinated Houston-area man who died on Monday had Omicron. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in October that some adults with compromised immune systems would be eligible for a fourth shot of the vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.

Israel was one of the first nations to return its society to a semblance of normality after rolling out a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine far faster than most other countries.

Mr. Bennett, who succeeded Benjamin Netanyahu in June, was then among the first world leaders to approve third vaccine doses this summer. He also allowed for the vaccination of children aged 5 and up last month, and held a “war game” in which the government tested out possible state responses to a hypothetical new virus variant.

On Tuesday, he said that medical teams would begin giving fourth vaccine doses to people over 60 and to medical workers.

His other efforts to slow the rise of Omicron have included enforcing more stringent entry requirements for incoming travelers, banning the entry of all foreigners without a special exemption and barring Israelis from traveling without special permission to 58 countries, including the United States, Canada and Britain.

The number of Omicron cases in Israel doubled on Tuesday to 340, the health ministry said, while the total number of coronavirus cases rose to 1,306 — the highest daily figure in nearly two months, though still proportionally lower than in many developed countries.

Mr. Bennett has said that Israel is at the beginning of a fifth virus wave, and has called on people in the country to vaccinate themselves and their children, to work from home and to increase their wearing of masks.

Rapid at-home Covid-19 test kits at the Chelsea Community Connections in Chelsea, Mass.Credit…Joseph Prezioso/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Even as President Biden on Tuesday outlined new plans for battling the highly contagious Omicron variant, public health experts warned that the measures would not be sufficient to prevent a rise in infections and hospitalizations over the next few weeks.

The administration’s strategy includes doubling down on vaccination campaigns and propping up hospitals as they confront a large influx of patients. Federal officials will direct resources, including Army doctors, to support health care systems and distribute rapid tests to Americans.

But Mr. Biden explicitly ruled out lockdowns and other harsh measures of the kind put in place as the pandemic first unfolded in early 2020. In interviews on Tuesday, some scientists argued that the variant’s rapid spread requires more vigorous mitigation measures.

Some expressed frustration and alarm about what they described as a timid public health response, and bemoaned the apparent lack of will among politicians and society at large for more aggressive steps.

The crisis is brewing just as Americans prepare to travel to holiday gatherings, college students return home for vacation, and young and old converge for New Year’s parties or set off on trips that may further spread the virus.

Federal health officials asked health care providers on Monday to advise their patients to conduct rapid home tests for Covid before holiday gatherings, and ask their guests to do the same. But while the tests are sold over the counter, prices start at $14 for a two-pack, and many stores are sold out.

And in sharp contrast with the advice given out last year, Mr. Biden encouraged people to gather and celebrate the holidays, so long as they were vaccinated and took standard precautions.

At the same time, he warned that the variant was spreading at unprecedented speed, and said there would be Omicron infections among the vaccinated, apparently resigned to the fact that even those who have received boosters may get infected with the highly contagious variant.

“I still can’t quite wrap my head around how quickly this is moving,” said Joseph Fauver, a genomic epidemiologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “I think it’s going to be really bad. I don’t know how else to put it.”

It is not yet clear whether the variant causes milder illness than earlier variants. But there is a concern among some scientists that the notion has gained wide circulation and that the pandemic-weary public has let down its guard.

“This is an incredibly contagious pathogen, and we don’t know yet its impact on severity and death,” said Galit Alter, an immunologist and virologist affiliated with the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, M.I.T. and Harvard.

“We have to reestablish the importance and rigor of the first wave,” she added. “We are back in ‘flatten the curve’ mode.”

A passenger at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia before flying to Singapore last month.Credit…Mohd Rasfan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Singapore said on Wednesday that it would halt flight and bus ticket sales for passengers coming from two dozen countries with which it had established vaccinated travel lanes — a setback for a program that the island nation had hoped would rev up its pandemic-battered economy.

It joined other countries in the Asia-Pacific region in suspending quarantine-free entry amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The pause will start on Thursday and last until Jan. 20, Singapore’s Civil Aviation Authority said. Travelers who already hold tickets will be exempt from the freeze, but others must follow current border rules, including 14-day quarantines, the agency said. After Jan. 20, the government said, it will cap the number of ticket sales at half of current levels.

Under the program, fully vaccinated travelers from countries including Australia, Britain, India, Malaysia and the United States have been allowed into Singapore via flights or buses and have been required to have regular Covid tests. But Malaysia, too, on Wednesday announced a freeze until Jan. 20 on ticket sales to vaccinated travelers hoping to enter from Singapore.

Singapore was a leader in establishing vaccinated travel lanes to help restart tourism, but the program has had fits and starts. Last year, Singapore’s travel bubble with Hong Kong was halted amid a spike in virus infections.

Thailand suspended a program begun last month to attract tourists when it reinstated its quarantine requirement for foreign visitors, effectively from Wednesday. The government said that for everywhere except the island of Phuket, it would temporarily halt new applications for the so-called sandbox program, which has allowed visitors to move around freely as long as they stayed within the island or region where they had arrived.

Cambodia is still allowing quarantine-free entry for travelers who are fully vaccinated. It also removed a travel ban it had imposed on countries in southern Africa.

In other global news:

Japan said on Wednesday that it had detected the first community cases of the Omicron variant. Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura of Osaka said at a news conference that the three residents of the prefecture who had tested positive for the variant had no history of traveling abroad.

In Australia, which has recorded more than 500 Omicron cases, Prime Minister Scott Morrison stopped short on Wednesday of mandating mask wearing in indoor spaces, as some medical experts had urged. Instead, he said at a news conference that it was “highly recommended” and “common sense.” Western Australia became the first Australian state to announce that workers in industries with vaccine mandates — including health care, retail and mining — must receive a booster shot to be considered fully vaccinated.

Experts advise getting tested as close to the day of a gathering as possible.Credit…Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Even as the number of coronavirus cases is skyrocketing in some parts of the United States, largely driven by the Omicron variant, the holiday travel rush appears unstoppable. On Friday, Los Angeles International Airport reported its busiest day since early 2020, and on Sunday, 2.1 million people passed through airports in the United States, nearly twice as many as at this time last year.

For people who are determined to keep their travel plans, figuring out how to do so responsibly remains confusing. So what can travelers do?

Get a booster. Only one in six Americans have received a booster, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fully vaccinated people without a booster are at least twice as likely to test positive as those who received a booster.

Consider the worst-case scenario. When deciding what is responsible in terms of holiday travel, Kelly Hills, a co-founder of Rogue Bioethics, a consulting firm in Boston, advises thinking about “moral injury” and asking whether you are mentally prepared for the consequences if you infect a vulnerable person.

Test as close to the gathering as possible. Many pharmacies and online retailers have sold out of at-home tests. The White House plans to make 500 million free at-home tests available, but that won’t happen until January. For those who do manage to get a kit, use it as close to your departure date as possible, several experts said.

Boxes of BinaxNow home Covid-19 tests made by Abbott Laboratories on sale in November at a CVS store in Lakewood, Wash.Credit…Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Despite a bungled start to the United States’ coronavirus testing rollout, by the end of last year, people who needed a test were able to get one.

But when vaccines arrived, the focus shifted. Many vaccinated people felt that they didn’t need tests, and demand took a nosedive. Testing sites were closed or converted into vaccination sites, and Abbott Laboratories, a major test manufacturer, wound up destroying millions of tests.

Now, however, with the surge of the new Omicron variant, demand for testing is back — and is outstripping supply.

This episode of “The Daily” explore where the country is with testing and how the Biden administration can address it.

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