The World Health Organization has warned that the Omicron coronavirus variant could lead to overwhelmed healthcare systems even though early studies suggest it sparks milder disease, as daily case records fell across Europe and the US while China, South Africa and Germany brought back tough restrictions to stamp out infections.
Covid-19 surges have wreaked havoc around the world, forcing many nations to make tough choices between economically punishing restrictions and controlling the spread of the virus.
The United States has halved the isolation period for asymptomatic cases to try and blunt the disruption, while France has ordered companies to have employees work from home at least three days a week.
Contact restrictions were in place in Germany for the second year in a row heading into the New Year, as Europe’s biggest economy shuttered nightclubs and forced sports competitions behind closed doors.
Despite facing a much smaller outbreak compared with global virus hotspots, China has not relaxed its “zero Covid” strategy, imposing stay-at-home orders in many parts of the city of Yan’an.
The hundreds of thousands of affected residents there joined the 13 million people in the city of Xi’an, who entered a sixth day of home confinement as China battled its highest daily case numbers in 21 months.
“I’m about to be starved to death,” wrote one Xi’an resident on the Twitter-like Weibo platform.
“There’s no food, my housing compound won’t let me out, and I’m about to run out of instant noodles … please help!”
Many Xi’an residents have similarly complained on social media about the restrictions, which include a ban on driving and only one member of a household permitted to go outside for groceries every three days.
This lockdown is the most sweeping in China since the similar-sized city Wuhan was cut off from the world in the early days of the pandemic.
South Africa said it would reinstate efforts to trace the contacts of people infected with coronavirus after a backlash over plans to scrap the measure.
Health authorities said on Thursday they would stop contact tracing everywhere except places like prisons and schools, as they believed most of the population had already been exposed to the virus through vaccination or infection.
Those protocols will be recalled after the Department of Health was inundated with media, stakeholders and public enquiries and comments following the release of the revised regulations.
The surges in many countries have been propelled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, with the Netherlands and Switzerland both saying Tuesday that it has now become the dominant strain in their countries.
Greece meanwhile reported a new daily record of 21,657 cases, which health authorities said was linked to the rise of Omicron.
The WHO warned against complacency even though preliminary findings suggest that Omicron could lead to milder disease.
“A rapid growth of Omicron … even if combined with a slightly milder disease, will still result in large numbers of hospitalisations, particularly amongst unvaccinated groups, and cause widespread disruption to health systems and other critical services,” warned WHO Europe’s Covid incident manager, Catherine Smallwood.
However, the WHO highlighted the 29% decrease in the incidence of cases observed in South Africa – the country which first reported the variant to the WHO on 24 November.
It said early data from Britain, South Africa and Denmark – which currently has the world’s highest rate of infection per person – suggested there was a reduced risk of hospitalisation for Omicron compared to Delta.
However, further data was needed to understand Omicron’s severity in terms of clinical markers, including the use of oxygen, mechanical ventilation and death. More data was also required on how the severity might be being impacted by previous Covid infection, or vaccination.
To hold back the tide, European nations brought back curbs with painful economic and social consequences.
Facing record-high infections, France stopped short of issuing a stay-at-home order but called on employers to make staff work from home three days a week where possible.
Finland on Tuesday said it would bar unvaccinated foreign travellers from entering. Only residents, essential workers or diplomats will be exempt.
Sweden had begun requiring negative tests for incoming non-resident travellers from Tuesday, a day after Denmark – which currently has the world’s highest rate of infection per capita – applied the same measure.
In Germany, private gatherings are now limited to 10 vaccinated people – or two households where any unvaccinated people are present – and nightclubs have been closed. All sports competitions will now be held behind closed doors.
“Something has to be done to bring the infection figures down,” a Berlin resident told AFP TV.
But not all accepted the measures.
Thousands of protesters went on the march across Germany late Monday against the curbs, with some hurling fireworks or bottles at police and leaving at least 12 officers injured.
Beyond social strife, the pandemic has been punishing economically, in particular for sectors like travel.
Some 11,500 flights have been scrapped worldwide since Friday, and tens of thousands more delayed, during one of the year’s busiest travel periods.
Multiple airlines have blamed staffing shortages caused by spikes of Omicron cases.
The surge in the US has been fuelled by the Omicron variant, as well as large pockets of unvaccinated residents and a lack of access to quick and easy testing.
President Joe Biden said Monday some US hospitals could be “overrun” but that the country was generally well prepared.
He stressed that Omicron would not have the same impact as the initial Covid outbreak or the Delta variant surge this year.
“Omicron is a source of concern, but it should not be a source of panic,” Biden said.
In an effort to prevent mass labour shortages during the surge, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday cut the isolation period for asymptomatic cases from 10 to five days.
The US is the nation hit hardest by the pandemic, and is closing in on its daily high of 250,000 cases recorded last January.