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UK’s Johnson says people without COVID-19 boosters ending up in hospital

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people to come forward to have a COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday, saying the overwhelming majority of people in intensive care in hospital with the disease had not received their booster.

Johnson also said people should celebrate on New Year’s Eve cautiously after he decided not to bring in tougher restrictions to limit the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant of the virus.

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“I’m sorry to say this, but the overwhelming majority of people who are currently ending up in intensive care in our hospitals are people who are not boosted,” he told reporters on a visit to a vaccine center. “I’ve talked to doctors who say the numbers are running up to 90 percent of people in intensive care.”

“The omicron variant continues to cause real problems, you’re seeing cases rising in hospitals, but it is obviously milder than the delta variant.”

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UK records 14 omicron-related deaths, 129 hospitalized with new COVID-19 variant

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COVID-19 pandemic ‘nowhere near over’: WHO chief

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The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, the World Health Organization chief said Tuesday, cautioning against a narrative that the fast-spreading omicron variant is risk-free.

“This pandemic is nowhere near over,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters from WHO’s headquarters in Geneva.

Tedros warned against dismissing as mild the coronavirus variant omicron, which has spread like wildfire around the globe since it was first detected in southern Africa in November.

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The omicron variant of COVID-19 is much more contagious than previous strains but seems to cause less serious disease.

That has triggered a debate on the virus passing from being a pandemic to becoming endemic – with the implication that the danger will have passed.
But the WHO has warned that the sheer numbers of people infected will mean many vulnerable people are still falling seriously ill and dying.

“Omicron may be less severe, on average, but the narrative that it is a mild disease is misleading,” Tedros said.

“Make no mistake: Omicron is causing hospitalizations and deaths, and even the less severe cases are inundating health facilities.”

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He said there were indications that the omicron-fueled surge of COVID-19 cases may have peaked in some countries.

This, he said, “gives hope that the worst of this latest wave is done with, but no country is out of the woods yet.”

Tedros said there was an urgent need to remove the pressure building on health systems, especially in countries that still have low vaccination coverage.

“Now is not the time to give up and wave the white flag,” he said.

“We can still significantly reduce the impact of the current wave by sharing and using health tools effectively, and implementing public health and social measures that we know work.”

Data indicate that existing COVID-19 vaccines are less effective in protecting against omicron transmission than against previous strains.

But Tedros stressed it remained vital to ensure broader, more equitable access to the jabs.

“Vaccines may be less effective at preventing infection and transmission of omicron than they were for previous variants, but they still are exceptionally good at preventing serious disease and death,” he said.

Health experts warn that allowing COVID-19 to spread unabated in some places dramatically increases the chance of new, more dangerous variants emerging.

“With the incredible growth of omicron globally, new variants are likely to emerge,” Tedros cautioned.

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US faces wave of omicron deaths in coming weeks: Pandemic models

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The fast-moving omicron variant may cause less severe disease on average, but COVID-19 deaths in the US are climbing and modelers forecast 50,000 to 300,000 more Americans could die by the time the wave subsides in mid-March.

The seven-day rolling average for daily new COVID-19 deaths in the US has been trending upward since mid-November, reaching nearly 1,700 on Jan. 17 — still below the peak of 3,300 in January 2021. COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents started rising slightly two weeks ago, although still at a rate 10 times less than last year before most residents were vaccinated.

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Despite signs omicron causes milder disease on average, the unprecedented level of infection spreading through the country, with cases still soaring in many states, means many vulnerable people will become severely sick. If the higher end of projections comes to pass, that would push total US deaths from COVID-19 over 1 million by early spring.

“A lot of people are still going to die because of how transmissible omicron has been,” said University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi. “It unfortunately is going to get worse before it gets better.”

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Morgues are starting to run out of space in Johnson County, Kansas, said Dr. Sanmi Areola, director of the health department. More than 30 residents have died in the county this year, the vast majority of them unvaccinated.

But the notion that a generally less severe variant could still take the lives of thousands of people has been difficult for health experts to convey. The math of it — that a small percentage of a very high number of infections can yield a very high number of deaths — is difficult to visualize.

“Overall, you’re going to see more sick people even if you as an individual have a lower chance of being sick,” said Katriona Shea of Pennsylvania State University, who co-leads a team that pulls together several pandemic models and shares the combined projections with the White House.

The wave of deaths heading for the United States will crest in late January or early February, Shea said. In early February, weekly deaths could equal or exceed the delta peak, and possibly even surpass the previous US peak in deaths last year.

Some unknown portion of these deaths are among people infected with the delta variant, but experts say omicron is also claiming lives.

“This is omicron driven,” Shea said of the coming wave of deaths. The combined models project 1.5 million Americans will be hospitalized and 191,000 will die from mid-December through mid-March. Taking into account the uncertainty in the models, US deaths during the omicron wave could range from 58,000 to 305,000.

Yet, it’s become increasingly clear that the risk from omicron is lower than from previous variants. New evidence from nearly 70,000 patients in Southern California suggests omicron is causing milder illness than delta.

A study, posted online and cited during a recent White House briefing, found patients with omicron had a 53 percent lower risk of hospitalization with respiratory symptoms, a 74 percent lower risk of ICU admission, and a 91 percent lower risk of death. The study, which has not yet been peer reviewed, comes from researchers at Kaiser Permanente and University of California, Berkeley.

“It’s hard for me to say straight out it’s good news,” said study co-author Sara Y. Tartof, a Kaiser Permanente research scientist. “Maybe there’s good news in the sense that if you are infected your chance of becoming severely ill are decreased, but from a societal perspective it’s a very heavy burden for us. It remains a serious situation, and we need to maintain practices and behaviors we know protect us.”

Overburdened hospitals could also contribute to more deaths, said Marc Lipsitch of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and scientific director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s forecasting center.

“In places with extremely short staffing and overloads of patients, as the medical professionals have been telling us, the quality of care begins to suffer,” Lipsitch said. “That may also lead to higher death rates, but that’s not in any of the models that I’m aware of.”

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UK to scale back COVID measures introduced to limit omicron spread: Health minister

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UK to scale back COVID measures introduced to limit omicron spread: Health minister

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British health minister Sajid Javid said on Tuesday he was optimistic that COVID-19 measures introduced to reduce the spread of omicron will be scaled back next week as cases and hospitalizations look to have peaked.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduced so-called “Plan B” measures for England in December in a bid to slow the spread of the omicron coronavirus variant.

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The measures, which include advice to work from home where possible, greater mask-wearing and the use of vaccine passes, are due to be reviewed on January 26.

The government said in December the plan was designed to buy time for people to get booster shots, and also find out more about omicron, which has proven highly transmissible but less severe than previous variants.

“I have always said that these restrictions should not stay in place a day longer than they are absolutely necessary,” Javid said in parliament, adding Britain was the most boosted country in Europe and had the most COVID-19 antivirals in Europe.

“Due to these pharmaceutical defenses and the likelihood that we have already reached the peak of the case numbers and hospitalizations, I'm cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to substantially reduce measures next week.”

Johnson faces the gravest crisis of his tenure after revelations about gatherings during COVID-19 lockdowns, some when British people could not even bid farewell in person to dying relatives and the Queen was mourning her husband.

The removal of “Plan B” measures would please many in his party who want to return to something more akin to normal life.

Javid said that a third of Britain’s 15 million cases had been reported since the onset of omicron.

However, while Britain has reported 152,075 deaths from COVID-19 in total, less than 10,000 of these have been since omicron was identified in late November.

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