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Coronavirus digest: South Africa eases COVID isolation rules

Curbs on contacts of people infected with the virus are to be reduced, amid hopes that the omicron variant has already peaked. Meanwhile, China has punished officials for the Xi'an outbreak. Follow DW for the latest.

A woman in Soweto receives her COVID shot

South African researchers are hopeful that the omicron variant has peaked, just weeks after it emerged

South Africa has told contacts of positive COVID cases that they will no longer need to test or self-isolate if they're not showing symptoms.

People who develop mild symptoms need to isolate for eight days, while those with severe symptoms should do so for 10 days, the Health Ministry said.

The ministry added that it would end quarantine in facilities outside the home and scrap contact tracing efforts, except for in cases of cluster outbreaks.

The move was "based on advice from our scientists that it [isolation] is not really having an impact anymore," Deputy Health Minister Sibongiseni Dhlomo told local broadcaster SABC.

The decision comes as some researchers believe cases of the highly-transmissible omicron variant may have peaked in South Africa, where it first emerged last month.

Also on Friday, South Africa began offering booster shots to the general public for the first time.

Both Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer shots have been authorized as boosters by the country's health regulator.

So far, only J&J booster shots have been available for health workers. Pfizer booster shots will be available in early January.

Watch video 02:30

Johannesburg struggles under omicron surge

Europe

In Germany, every second person is unhappy with the country's COVID vaccination campaign, according to a new survey published Friday.

The YouGov poll on behalf of DPA news agency showed that 19% of respondents were "very dissatisfied," and another 31% were "dissatisfied" with how the campaign has been conducted over the past 12 months.

Some 21.8 million people (26.3% of the population) have not yet been vaccinated.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has pushed vaccination efforts over the holidays, calling for 80% of the population to be vaccinated at least once by January 7.

The government is concerned about the spread of the omicron variant and Scholz's new coalition plans to introduce legislation in the New Year that makes vaccinations mandatory — a move supported by most Germans.

According to the YouGov survey, 62% of respondents are in favor of the plan. Only 29% are against it, and 9% declined to answer.

Meanwhile, a senior German health official warned that several states have halted the tracing of contacts of infected people, due to staff shortages.

On Friday, Germany reported 35,431 new cases and 370 new deaths, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute for disease control.

Omicron is now present in all 16 German states, although delta remains the dominant variant.

The number of omicron cases has risen by a quarter in a day, up 810 to 3,198.

In his Christmas address, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will say responsibility for beating the pandemic lies with each citizen, as well as the state. His speech will air on Christmas Day but the text has been published a day early.

Meanwhile, Germany's national carrier Lufthansa plans to cut 33,000 flights from mid-January until February, as the spread of the Omicron variant fuels uncertainty about travel.

Chief Executive Carsten Spohr said Europe's largest airline group - which includes Eurowings, Austrian, Swiss and Brussels Airlines - was currently running "about 60%" of flights compared with the pre-pandemic year 2019, carrying "roughly half" the number of passengers.

Earlier this week, Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair said it would cut its planned January schedule by 33% due to fears about the omicron variant hurting bookings.

Watch video 03:04

COVID Christmas: DW correspondents report from Paris and Warsaw

France has reported 91,608 new daily cases on Thursday, the highest number since the beginning of the pandemic.

The seven-day incidence rate, of cases per 100,000 people, has risen to 565, prompting some countries to classify France as a high-risk area.

The government is now planning to restrict unvaccinated people from visiting restaurants and cultural institutions from mid-January.

Currently, people must prove they are vaccinated, recovered or have tested negative before entering.

Meanwhile, France's health regulator says COVID-19 boosters could be administered three months after the first full course of shots.

In another move, France said Friday that negative COVID tests will be required to travel to its overseas territories from December 28.

France's overseas territories include Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, La Reunion island, and New Caledonia, whose economies often depend heavily on tourists from the mainland.

The French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe have been hit by protests over the last month, partly sparked by anger over COVID protocols.

In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte has admitted to making communication "mistakes" in handling the pandemic, as his country braced for second Christmas under lockdown.

"We could have started the vaccinations earlier," Rutte told De Telegraaf newspaper Friday, adding that he had also "failed to convince people about the basic measures" necessary to stem the virus's spread.

Last week, Rutte ordered Europe's toughest winter curbs, closing all non-essential shops, restaurants, bars, cinemas, museums and theatres until January 14.

Guests at home are limited to just two people except for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, December 26, and four over the New Year period.

Austria should offer some healthcare staff and other key workers a fourth COVID-19 jab, the country's vaccination board said late Thursday.

But it added that there was not enough scientific data for it to recommend fourth shots be given more widely.

"In view of an imminent omicron wave, (a fourth vaccination) can be offered in high-risk areas (e.g., exposed health care personnel) and in systemically critical areas from six months after the third vaccination," the board said.

Watch video 02:38

Christmas on the front line of a Belgian hospital ward

Bulgaria has promised cash rewards to elderly people who receive their vaccines.

Retirees will receive 75 levs (€38, $43) for getting inoculated. The one-off incentive will run until the end of June, local news outlets reported.

The Eastern European country has the lowest vaccination rate in the European Union.

Only 27% of residents have received two doses. Only 3% have had a third booster shot.

Ireland on Friday reported its highest number of daily COVID-19 cases. The health department reported 11,182 positive cases, topping the 8,248 on January 8 during the country's deadliest wave.

However, there are currently 393 coronavirus patients in hospital, 89 of whom were in intensive care. That compares to 2,020 in mid-January, with a barely manageable 221 requiring critical care.

Last week, the government ordered bars and restaurants to close at 8 p.m. and reduced the capacity in all public events to try to curb the spread of omicron.

Americas

The United States will lift travel restrictions against eight southern African countries on New Year's Eve.

The White House said on Friday curbs affecting South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini and Malawi will be lifted.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden's plan to distribute COVID test kitsis too little too late to stem a surge of omicron cases over Christmas, health experts have said.

Anne Rimoin, a UCLA professor of epidemiology, said the plan for 500 million at-home test kits "will be a small drop in the bucket compared to the tsunami of cases on the horizon."

The tests equate to just one or two per US resident. Households need far more to make daily decisions about exposure, Rimoin said.

Breakthrough omicron infections are rising among the country's fully vaccinated population and only 30% have received booster shots, which are said to provide more protection.

Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale University professor of epidemiology, wrote on Twitter that Biden should have made clear a booster shot was key to protecting against the omicron variant.

On Friday, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines said they have canceled dozens of Christmas Eve flights, as the spreading COVID-19 Omicron variant takes a toll on its flight crews and other workers.

Chicago-based United canceled 120 flights for Friday, while Atlanta-based Delta said it has canceled about 90.

On Tuesday, Delta asked the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to shrink quarantine guidelines from 10 to 5 days for fully vaccinated individuals who experience breakthrough COVID infections, citing the impact on the carrier's workforce.

Chile will offer its citizens a fourth coronavirus vaccine dose from February, starting with high-risk categories, including health workers.

President Sebastian Pinera made the announcement Thursday at an event to mark a year since the country launched its COVID vaccination campaign.

Chile joins Israel and Brazil in announcing plans for a fourth shot.

Asia

In Japan, a health ministry panel has recommended approval of the Merck antiviral pill against COVID.

The decision sets the stage for shipments of 200,000 doses across the country from this weekend, based on a pledge by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Japan is betting heavily on oral treatments to keep serious infections and deaths at bay should a feared sixth wave of the pandemic emerge.

The government agreed last month to pay Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics about $1.2 billion (€1.06 billion) for 1.6 million courses of their drug molnupiravir.

China has punished dozens of officials over a virus outbreak in the locked-down city of Xi'an.

The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said Friday that 26 Communist Party officials had been reprimanded for "insufficient rigor in preventing and controlling the outbreak".

China, where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019, is on high alert for new infections as it prepares to hold the Winter Olympics in February in the capital Beijing.

Xi'an reported another 49 cases on Friday, bringing the total outbreak to more than 250 in recent weeks.

Watch video 02:46

China ups efforts to curb virus as Winter Olympics near

 

Thailand reported its first domestic cluster omicron cases Friday.

Officials said 21 infections had been recorded in Kalasin province in the northeast of the country.

The infections stem from a couple who traveled from Belgium in early December through the country's Test & Go scheme that waived quarantine for vaccinated arrivals.

The announcement comes as the capital, Bangkok, canceled government-sponsored New Year celebrations, including midnight prayers

So far, Thailand has recorded 205 infections of the omicron variant, mostly in foreign arrivals.

Bhutan has started giving COVID booster shots to senior citizens and priority groups.

Those aged 65 and older, overseas travelers, health workers, sufferers from chronic medical woes, and all adults living in "high risk" areas were eligible, the health ministry said.

Nestled between China and India, Bhutan has slowed the spread of the virus through early screening and monitoring at entry points, testing and sealing its borders.

Its deaths rank among the world's lowest, with just three people dying since the pandemic began.

Oceania

Australia on Friday narrowed the wait time for people to receive COVID booster shots.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said from January 4, booster shots would be offered at a four-month interval and by the end of the month, the interval would be reduced further to three months.

Australia is one of the world's most-vaccinated countries, with more than 90% of people over the age of 16 having received two doses.

Omicron cases reached 9,100 on Friday, up from the previous day's record of 8,200.

While most new cases were previously in New South Wales and Victoria states, neighboring Queensland and South Australia recently clocked sharp increases.

mm/aw (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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