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Experts warn of US omicron ‘blizzard’ in weeks ahead

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US health experts on Thursday urged Americans to prepare for severe disruptions in coming weeks as the rising wave of COVID-19 cases led by the omicron variant threatened hospitals, schools and other sectors impacting their daily lives.

The warning came amid record US COVID-19 cases, while federal officials issued more travel warnings and reportedly prepared to authorize booster shots for 12 to 15-year-olds next week.

For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.

For the second day in a row, the United States had a record number of new cases based on the seven-day average, with more than 290,000 new infections reported each day, a Reuters tally showed.

At least 18 states and Puerto Rico have set pandemic records for new cases, according to the tally. Maryland, Ohio and Washington, D.C., also saw record hospitalizations as overall US COVID-19 hospitalizations rose 27 percent.

The surge comes amid increased holiday travel, with New Year’s celebrations still to come, and as schools grapple with students’ return to classrooms following winter breaks.

“We are going to see the number of cases in this country rise so dramatically, we are going to have a hard time keeping everyday life operating,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, told MSNBC.

“The next month is going to be a viral blizzard,” he said. “All of society is going to be pressured by this.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official, on Wednesday said cases will likely rise throughout January.

He and other US health officials have said early data show Omicron appears less severe but have continued to push vaccinations, masks and physical distancing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also issued new guidelines shortening isolation and quarantine periods, which have been criticized by some disease experts.

The New York Times reported on Thursday that US health regulators planned to approve a third vaccine dose for 12 to 15-year-olds next week.

Boosters are already approved for those 16 and older.

With testing shortages and breakthrough cases, experts warn the surge will still upend hospitals, emergency response services, schools and retailers, among others, in coming weeks.

“We have to be really careful about being too dismissive of Omicron,” Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease expert at Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN.

Rising hospitalizations as healthcare workers are sidelined with their own COVID-19 infections is also concerning, as are fewer effective therapeutics, Hotez said. “We’re in for a pretty serious time.”

Already, 825,663 people have died in the United States from COVID-19 since early 2020, data showed, with the latest wave of hospitalizations driven by those not vaccinated.

President Joe Biden this month announced new plans to combat Omicron, including federal reinforcements for hospitals and more tests. But some experts have said it is too little, too late.

‘Better tools’

So far, however, the economy appears steady even as some economists express caution.

While airline travel has been widely disrupted and some hard-hit areas have seen shuttered businesses and canceled events, other measures of activity – such as holiday sales – have held up.

The labor market also is holding its ground. New claims for state unemployment benefits fell last week to their lowest level of the pandemic, the Labor Department said on Thursday.

Cruise operators took a hit on Thursday, however, after the CDC warned people to avoid cruises regardless of their vaccination status amid a growing number of outbreaks onboard.

Still, Jason Greenberg, head of economics at Homebase, which tracks data for about 50,000 small businesses, told Reuters he expects the first week of January to be slower than projected before Omicron but that the rest of the month “will likely depend” on what policies states and cities enact and how cases unfold.

How schools handle the surge is also key, especially for working parents, with systems in Washington and New York vowing to stay open with more testing.

“We can’t shut down our city again,” New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams said while unveiling his plan on Thursday to fight COVID-19 while keeping the country’s most populous city open for business.

US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona acknowledged staffing woes but urged schools to keep kids in classrooms.

Unlike last year’s shutdowns, “we have better tools now.

They should remain open,” he told MSNBC, adding that federal funds remain available to bolster staffing and testing.

Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers union, separately told MSNBC schools should remain open but some localities may not be able to do so and may need remote options.

Meanwhile, some US colleges have delayed their next semesters or shifted online.

Things should thaw after January, as testing shortages ease and recently-approved medicines become more widely available, experts said.

“We do have light at the end of the tunnel,” Osterholm said.

“But for right now, you’re going to have to hunker down.”

Read more: US hits highest ever record for daily COVID-19 cases: Johns Hopkins

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Abbas rival Dahlan delivers one mln COVID-19 vaccine doses to Gaza

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One million doses of coronavirus vaccine arrived in Gaza from the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday, the latest donation facilitated by an exiled rival of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Mohammed Dahlan, a Gaza native now based in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, was once a top Palestinian Authority official who served as Abbas’s security chief in the territory before its takeover by the Islamist Hamas movement in 2007.

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Gaza health ministry spokesman Mahmud Hammad told journalists that the consignment of one million doses of the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine marked the largest single shipment of COVID-19 vaccines to the Israeli-blockaded territory.

The vaccines were delivered through Gaza’s Rafah crossing with Egypt, the only one not controlled by Israel.

The same route was used for previous shipments organized by Dahlan, who has increasingly sought to position himself as a benefactor for the Palestinian people.

Dahlan had been expected to emerge as a key player from Palestinian elections scheduled for last year but the polls were postponed indefinitely by Abbas in a move that also infuriated Hamas.

The ministry’s head of preventive medicine, Magdy Duhair, warned that Gaza’s health system was under increased strain due to the fast-spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus.

While Gaza’s beleaguered medical system has struggled at times during the pandemic, coronavirus transmission has been limited by the tight controls Israel and Egypt enforce on travel in and out of the coastal enclave.

Gaza, which has a population of roughly 2.3 million, has recorded 196,578 COVID-19 cases and 1,744 deaths. So far, 578,000 residents have received two doses of a vaccine.

Read more:

First omicron variant case detected in Gaza, says Palestinian health ministry

Israel’s president to make first-ever state visit to UAE

Egypt pushes for calm after flare-up in Gaza hostilities

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Saudi Arabia records 4,526 COVID-19 cases, three deaths in 24 hours

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Saudi Arabia has recorded another minor dip in COVID-19 transmissions with 4,526 cases and three virus-related deaths in the last 24 hours, according to the Kingdom’s Ministry of Health.

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In that time, 5,772 recoveries were also recorded.

There have now been 666,259 COVID-19 infections and 8,927 deaths in Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the pandemic.

Case numbers have risen sharply in January amid global reports of the omicron variant spreading.

Saudi Arabia detected its first case of the more transmissible variant in early December.

It was thought to have been transmitted by a traveler from an undisclosed north African country.

Daily case numbers reached an all-time high of 5,928 on January 19.

Read more:

Omicron risk remains very high: WHO

Abu Dhabi says vaccinated tourists need no boosters to enter

Saudi Arabia sees slight increase with 4,838 new COVID-19 cases

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COVID-infected Australian navy unloads aid in virus-free Tonga

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The Australian navy’s largest ship docked at disaster-stricken Tonga on Wednesday and was allowed to unload humanitarian supplies in the South Pacific nation despite crew members being infected with COVID-19, officials said.

Nearly two dozen sailors aboard the HMAS Adelaide were reported infected on Tuesday, raising fears the mercy mission could bring the coronavirus to the small archipelago devasted by an undersea volcanic eruption and a tsunami on January 15.

For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.

Since the pandemic began, Tonga has reported just a single case of COVID-19 and has avoided any outbreaks. It’s one of the few countries in the world currently completely virus free. About 61 percent of Tongans are fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data.

The 27,500 metric ton ship had completed the 3,300-kilometer voyage from Brisbane and would deliver supplies without contact with the local population to avoid infections, the Australian government said in a statement.

“We appreciate the decision of the government of Tonga to enable HMAS Adelaide to dock and offload the humanitarian and medical supplies, and the high priority it has placed on COVID safety throughout the recovery process,” the statement said. “The ship is undertaking an entirely contactless delivery of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief supplies.”

With restoration of the drinking water supply a major priority, the ship brings a desalination plant. It’s also carrying helicopters and engineering equipment.

Australia said it was widening its disaster support to include restoration of power and communications.

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Tonga usually requires visitors to quarantine for three weeks on arrival and the tough pandemic measures complicate the international disaster response. All international aid is to be delivered without local contact.

Tongan authorities have been wary that accepting international aid could usher in a bigger disaster than the huge eruption of the volcano. The tsunami has claimed three lives.

The ship is the second aid mission from Australia in which at least one crew member tested positive. A C-17 Globemaster military transport plane was earlier turned around midflight after a person aboard was diagnosed with the coronavirus.

Read more:

Why Tonga eruption was so big, how tsunami traveled far, what’s next

All homes on one Tonga island destroyed, three dead as government shares first update

Australia suffers deadliest day of pandemic as omicron drives up hospital cases

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