German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach warned Friday of a "massive fifth wave" of the coronavirus the country is facing with the arrival of the omicron variant.
At a press conference in Hanover, Lauterbach said, "We must prepare for a challenge that we have not yet had in this form."
Although omicron may be milder than other variants, this might "keep deaths low for two to three weeks, before the growth of the virus would eat up this advantage," Lauterbach said, underlining that a difficult period ahead was "inevitable."
With an eye toward the approaching Christmas holiday, Lauterbach appealed to those traveling this holiday season to get tested frequently.
Germany has reimposed health restrictions following high case numbers, barring unvaccinated individuals from restaurants and non-essential commerce. The government has also placed an advance order for 80 million doses of omicron-specific vaccines being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.
Here is a roundup of more coronavirus news from around the world
Germany's Robert Koch Institute registered a continuing decline in infections. On Friday, 50,968 new infections were reported, making that over 10,000 less than one week ago.
The nationwide seven-day incidence rate also dropped further to 331.8 from 340.1 the previous day. Germany recently implemented a number of new restrictions, particularly applying to unvaccinated people.
Germany also registered neighboring France and Denmark as well as Andorra, Lebanon and Norway as "high-risk" areas. The classification means people who are not vaccinated or have not recently recovered from a COVID-19 infection are required to quarantine for a minimum of five days.
In Austria, the health ministry said it was tightening rules on entry to the country. As of Monday, only those with proof they have received three jabs or recovered from COVID-19 will be pernitted to enter the country.
Those lacking a third booster will have to show negative PCR test results or quarantine for five days on arrival in Austria
Denmark announced it will close all cinemas, theaters and concert halls, and restrict restaurant opening hours over a record number of daily cases. The government also plans to close other gathering places such as amusement parks and museums.
"Theaters, cinemas and concert halls, they will have to close," Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told a press conference. "We need to limit our activity. We all need to limit our social contacts," she added.
Portugal said it estimated infections due to omicron were doubling every two days and could account for 80% of all news cases by the end of December. "It may be of 50% in the Christmas week and 80% in the last week of the year," health minister Marta Temido told a news conference.
The country, which has one of the world's highest rates of vaccination against COVID-19, reported 5,800 new infections on Wednesday in the highest daily jump since early February. Deaths and hospitalizations, however, remain far below levels seen during that period.
France banned concerts and fireworks displays on New Year's Eve.
Prime Minister Jean Castex called on people to limit the size of holiday gatherings this Christmas during a news conference in a bid to curb rising "fifth wave" infections.
The Australian state of New South Wales reported a record 2,213 new infections on Friday, the highest number since the pandemic began. However, state Premier Dominic Perrottet said he had no plans to return to the lockdowns and restrictions that were previously imposed to keep the spread of the virus in check, now that 93.3% of the eligible population is vaccinated.
The new peak followed the 1,742 cases reported in New South Wales state on Thursday, which had topped the previous record set in September.
The state government is using hospital admissions, particularly the number of patients in intensive care, as a gauge of the pandemic's severity. There were 24 people in ICUs on Friday.
New South Wales on Wednesday eased rules on mask-wearing and the need to provide proof of vaccination at some venues, allowing the unvaccinated to participate more fully in social events.
The Indian-manufactured vaccine Covovax received emergency approval from the World Health Organization. The shot, produced by the Serum Institute of India under license from the US-based Novavax, will now be distributed as part of global vaccine-sharing system Covax, "giving a much-needed boost to ongoing efforts to vaccinate more people in lower-income countries," the WHO said in a statement.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Friday that his government is accelerating the distribution of booster shots and securing oral medicines, in the face of the omicron variant. Japan, which lacks home-developed vaccines, has so far approved booster shots from Pfizer and Moderna.
Japan is also moving to shorten the interval between the second jab and boosters. Kishida said the government will start giving booster shots to elderly people seven months after their second shot starting February.
Infection rates are soaring across South Africa as a result of the omicron variant, but fewer people have died or required hospital treatment compared to previous waves of COVID, health officials said.
On Wednesday, South Africa recorded the highest number of infections the nation has ever seen, but "the hospitalizations are not increasing at such a dramatic rate," said Michelle Groome of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
Health Minister Joe Phaahla said that the data do not mean that Omicron is less virulent, but rather than vaccines are preventing serious illness.
"It's probably due to significant vaccine coverage," particularly among older people, he said.
All US military services have now begun taking disciplinary action and discharging troops who have refused to get the mandated coronavirus vaccine, officials said, with as many as 20,000 unvaccinated forces at risk of being removed from service.
On Thursday, the Marine Corps said it had discharged 103 Marines so far for refusing the vaccine, and the Army said it had reprimanded more than 2,700 soldiers and will begin discharge proceedings in January. The Air Force said earlier this week that 27 airmen had been discharged for refusing the vaccine order.
According to the services, at least 30,000 service members are not yet vaccinated, but several thousand of those have gotten temporary or permanent medical or administrative exemptions approved.
US President Joe Biden warned Thursday of a "winter of severe illness and death" for those unvaccinated against COVID-19, as the G7 called the omicron variant the biggest threat to global public health.
Biden's warning about the winter came as he urged Americans who have already had two shots to get boosters, and vaccine sceptics to step up and get jabbed.
"The only real protection is to get your shot," he said, with the White House saying the administration did not intend to take specific restrictive measures but would instead focus on vaccination.
The World Health Organization said earlier this week that the variant has been reported in 77 countries and has "probably" spread to most nations undetected at a higher rate than any previous variant of the virus.
Canada's province of Quebec will reinstate measures in bars, restaurants and stores to slow the spread of the omicron variant, the province's premier Francois Legault announced.
Citing a "critical" situation, he also asked provincial residents to limit private gatherings during the holidays to a maximum of 10 people. After the winter vacations, high schools and universities will switch to virtual learning for at least a week.
Meanwhile, from Monday, stores, bars, restaurants, theaters, places of worship and sports venues will have to reduce crowds to 50% of capacity. Sports competitions in the province will be put on hold, while dance clubs and karaoke bars will have to close, only a few weeks after they were allowed to reopen.
At least 3,700 new cases were recorded on Thursday, surpassing the previous daily caseload record set in January, authorities said.
lc/sms (AFP, Reuters, dpa, AP)