Covid Live Updates: European Nations Add Restrictions as Cases Surge
China sets out elaborate precautions for February’s Winter Olympics. One measure: Spectators must clap, not shout, in support of athletes.
France began vaccinating children aged 5-11 on Wednesday.Credit…Sebastien Bozon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
In Spain, officials said they would announce an outdoor mask mandate on Thursday, shortly after the country reported almost 50,000 new coronavirus cases, its highest daily total since the pandemic began.
In Italy, a similar mask requirement is under consideration. And the French authorities said on Wednesday that Covid vaccinations would be offered to children aged 5 to 11, the same day that a vaccine advisory committee in Britain recommended inoculating children in certain risk groups.
European officials hope that new restrictions and greater access to vaccines will blunt the latest rising wave of coronavirus cases reported in the days leading up to Christmas and New Year’s. The mix of cold temperatures and holiday traditions are expected to bring people from different households together indoors, leading some health experts to brace for a wave of infections.
Vaccinations for children have been part of the focus in efforts to curb the spread, and inoculations for those under 12 started last week in most of Europe.
In Italy, most recent cases have been detected among people aged 20 to 30 and in schoolchildren, experts there said.
In France, recent data suggests that the spread has been partly driven by unvaccinated children. The incidence among children aged 6 to 10 is twice that of the total population, according to a study published last week by the French health authorities.
“Vaccination of children is a necessity,” Prime Minister Jean Castex of France said last month. “It was my 11-year-old daughter who gave me the virus a few weeks ago.”
An average of 54,256 cases per day were reported in the last week in France, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. The country’s vaccination rate is about 73 percent of those who are eligible, according to Our World in Data.
European nations like Germany, Greece and Spain already offer vaccination for younger children, as does the United States. In Britain, government scientists have advised giving children a dose that is about one-third what an adult receives.
Other countries are also expanding access to vaccines. In Turkey, government officials on Wednesday granted emergency-use approval for a domestically developed Covid vaccine, called Turkovac, making it the third inoculation option for residents there.
Israeli officials plan to offer fourth vaccine doses to people over 60 and to medical workers. But Israel is also barring most international travelers from entering the country or the West Bank until at least the end of December. That restriction is leaving holy sites in Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Old City of Jerusalem devoid of foreign visitors for a second consecutive Christmas season.
Reporting was contributed by L?ontine Gallois, John Yoon, Yan Zhuang, Isabel Kershner, Raphael Minder and Patrick Kingsley.
ZHANGJIAKOU, China — Spectators at the Winter Olympics next February should clap but not shout in support of athletes. Waiters, cleaners and other support staff will not be allowed to leave Olympic venues to visit their families. And any Olympic participants leaving the vicinity for the rest of China will be required to spend at least one week in quarantine, followed by at least two weeks of isolation at home.
As the Omicron variant spreads rapidly around the globe, China is taking elaborate precautions to prevent the coronavirus from reaching its own population or participants in the Winter Games. Chinese officials are also bracing the public for the inevitability that some infections will emerge at the Olympics, where everyone will face daily P.C.R. tests.
“A certain number of positive cases will become a high probability event,” Han Zirong, the secretary general of Beijing’s Winter Games organizing committee, told reporters on Thursday.
China has barred overseas spectators from entering the country. It is allowing vaccinated foreign athletes, trainers, coaches, referees, journalists and a few others to enter without enduring the usual two or more weeks of quarantine followed by a week of home confinement.
The exemption, however, comes with a stringent requirement that foreigners not leave a “closed loop” of hotels and sports venues, linked by special buses and trains.
“We must never go outside the closed loop, let alone reach the city level — this is our bottom line,” said Huang Chun, deputy director of the Olympic organizing committee’s Office of Epidemic Prevention and Control.
China has reported dozens of coronavirus cases daily this week. On Thursday, the local authorities locked down Xi’an, a city of 13 million people that is famed for its ancient Terracotta warriors. At least 242 cases have occurred there in an outbreak this month. Beijing has not divulged how many involve the Omicron variant.
The country has been mostly successful in controlling the virus by quarantining hundreds of close contacts of infected people, and in some cases contacts of contacts. But similarly broad measures at the Olympics could make it hard to hold the Games.
Some precautions are already visible at a ski resort in the mountains near Zhangjiakou, about 100 miles northwest of Beijing, where nearly half of the Olympic events will be held. Thick, clear plastic sheeting from floor to ceiling separates bus drivers from their passengers.
At the resort’s high-speed-rail station, visitors must provide proof of a negative P.C.R. test in the preceding 48 hours. Also required is proof on a smartphone app that the traveler has not visited any Chinese city in the previous two weeks that has had a recent infection.
For construction workers putting the finishing touches on the venues, the authorities already do nucleic acid tests once every three days, Jia Maoting, the general manager of the Olympic Sports Construction and Development Company, told reporters during a visit to the Olympic ski jump venue.
Mr. Han, the secretary general of the Olympic organizing committee, cautioned that further measures may be added in the weeks to come. “Everything depends on the changes in the global and Chinese epidemic situation,” he said, “especially the infectiousness of the new mutant strain, Omicron.”
Liu Yi and Li You contributed research.
As people in wealthy nations snap up booster shots amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the World Health Organization’s leader warned that universal access to extra doses in highly inoculated countries could worsen global vaccine inequality and prolong the pandemic.
That imbalance, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O.’s director-general, said on Wednesday, will give “the virus more opportunity to spread and mutate.”
“It’s important to remember,” he said, “that the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths are in unvaccinated people, not unboosted people.” Later, he added: “No country can boost its way out of the pandemic.”
Since Covid vaccines were developed about a year ago, rich countries have had greater access to them despite global efforts to shrink that disparity. About 73 percent of shots that have gone into arms worldwide have been administered in high- and upper-middle-income countries, according to a New York Times tracker. Only 0.9 percent of doses have been administered in low-income countries.
“It’s frankly difficult to understand how a year since the first vaccines were administered, three in four health workers in Africa remain unvaccinated,” Mr. Ghebreyesus said.
He did not criticize specific countries by name on Wednesday but did say that “there is no doubt that the inequitable sharing of those vaccines has caused many lives” and questioned “why some countries are now rolling out blanket booster programs.”
Governments in Europe and elsewhere are accelerating booster shots as the scientific evidence accumulates that two vaccine doses are insufficient to stop infection from the highly transmissible Omicron variant, though the vaccines appear to reduce the risk of hospitalization and serious illness. Some public health experts who had opposed a boosters-for-all approach have changed their minds since the variant emerged.
This week, Israeli leaders said they would offer a fourth round of vaccines to people over 60 and to medical workers. France has shortened the wait before people can receive a booster shot to four months, from five. Britain will offer all eligible adults booster shots by the end of the year, a month earlier than planned.
And in the United States, where health officials have recommended booster shots for all adults, the Omicron variant is motivating more than half of vaccinated adults to get a booster shot, according to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Although health officials and epidemiologists are urging Americans to get vaccinated and boosted, however, the going has been slow. Just over half of Americans 65 and older — the population most vulnerable to a severe outcome from the virus — have received a booster.
Public health experts worry that socioeconomic disparities in U.S. vaccination rates will be exacerbated as booster shots roll out. Difficulty in taking time off work and disconnection from health care systems have contributed to a persistent gap in vaccination rates between the most and least socioeconomically vulnerable counties.
Looking ahead to the holiday celebrations, Mr. Ghebreyesus warned that people who have received booster shots should not rely on them as a substitute for other safety measures like wearing masks and avoiding crowded indoor gatherings.
“Boosters cannot be seen as a ticket to go ahead with the planned celebrations without the need for other precautions,” he said, adding that the new year “must be the end of the Covid pandemic” as well as “the beginning of something else: a new era of solidarity.”
President Biden has promised to make 500 million coronavirus tests available free of charge, but help is at least weeks away — if not longer — as new cases surge in the United States.
As a candidate, Mr. Biden excoriated the Trump administration for what he called “a failure of planning, leadership and execution” where tests were concerned. But the Omicron variant caught the White House off guard, as this president has acknowledged, and cases have far outstripped available tests.
The president’s pledge, which he made on Tuesday, was the centerpiece of a new aggressive effort, announced as Americans scramble to locate the hard-to-find tests for use over the holidays. Purchase contracts for tests could be completed as soon as next week, officials said.
“That’s not a plan — it’s a hope,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which tracks testing trends. She said that if tests arrived in January and February, they might be useful. But if they trickle in over months, she said, “I’m not sure what kind of impact it is going to have.”
Whether manufacturers can ramp up production quickly enough is unclear. John M. Koval, a spokesman for Abbott Laboratories, said he was seeing “unprecedented demand” for its tests, “and we’re sending them out as fast as we can make them.”
Colleges across the United States are facing a mental health crisis among students, driven in part by the pandemic.
After almost two years of remote instruction, restricted gatherings and constant testing, many students are anxious, socially isolated, depressed — and overwhelming mental health centers. And the swell of new coronavirus cases, driven by the Omicron variant, threatens to make life on campus worse.
In the last few days, the list of universities that will hold classes remotely at least for a few weeks in January has grown, while other colleges and universities have moved exams online and urged students to go home for winter break as soon as possible. These steps and others raise the question of what campus life will look like in January, and whether there will even be campus life.
Loneliness and isolation, along with loss of motivation or focus, are among the top concerns of college students who have sought counseling during the pandemic, according to national data collected by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.
Some administrators worry that there is a conflict between protecting students’ physical health and their mental health.
“Restricting the ability to interact — there’s a price to pay for all that,” said Eli Capilouto, president of the University of Kentucky. “Somebody said, ‘If we’re not careful, we’re going to trade one epidemic for another,’ and in many ways I think we are.”