Covid Live Updates: Over Half of Europe Could Be Infected in Next 2 Months, W.H.O. Says

ImageA line for coronavirus tests in Paris on Sunday.
A line for coronavirus tests in Paris on Sunday.Credit…Francois Mori/Associated Press

More than half of people in Europe could be infected with the coronavirus in the next six to eight weeks, the World Health Organization warned on Tuesday, amid “a new west-to-east tidal wave sweeping across the region.”

“The region saw over seven million cases of Covid-19 in the first week of 2022, more than doubling over a two-week period,” Hans Kluge, the agency’s regional director for Europe, said at a news conference.

In a remarkable demonstration of how fast the virus is spreading, he said that 26 countries in the European region were reporting that more than 1 percent of their populations were catching the virus every week.

Although the W.H.O. has cautioned for months that booster shots could worsen vaccine equity around the world, Dr. Kluge said that they would play an essential role in protecting the most vulnerable people from severe disease and should also be used to protect health workers and other essential employees, including teachers.

He said that a wave of infection spreading from west to east was starting to hit nations with lower vaccination rates in the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

Despite the widespread level of infection, Dr. Kluge said that coronavirus vaccines remained remarkably effective at preventing severe illness and death. He cited data from Denmark showing that the number of unvaccinated people who needed hospital care in the latest wave was sixfold higher than among vaccinated people.

“For countries not yet hit with the omicron surge, there is a closing window to act now and plan for contingencies,” he said.

One of the central struggles of governments across Europe has been trying to keep schools open, and Dr. Kluge described those efforts as essential.

“Schools should be the last places to close and the first to reopen,” he said.

“The numbers of infected people are going to be so high in many places that schools in many countries are going to be unable to keep all classes open” because of illness and staff shortages, he added.

An example of that pressure could be seen this week in France, where 10,452 classes were canceled on Monday, according to the French government. Prime Minister Jean Castex said that, going forward, schoolchildren in the country would be allowed to do self-tests instead of a P.C.R. test if one of their classmates tested positive, in an attempt to keep the education system functioning.

“If we were to shut down classes as soon as there is one first case, bearing in mind the explosion of Omicron, all French schools would be closed in a matter of days,” Mr. Castex told France 2 television.

While much of the public discussion has revolved around whether this was the moment when governments should shift policies and restrictions to treat the coronavirus as an endemic disease — removing most restrictions and allowing people to manage risk in a way similar to the way they do with influenza — the W.H.O. said it was too early to call this virus endemic.

Catherine Smallwood, a W.H.O. senior emergencies officer, said that one of the key factors in declaring the virus to be endemic was some sense of predictability.

“We are still ways off,” she said. “We still have a huge amount of uncertainty.”

Dr. Kluge added that there were simply too many unknown factors, including exactly how severe Omicron is for unvaccinated people and how high the risk is of infection leading to “long Covid” symptoms.

Students at Mt. Greenwood Elementary School in Chicago returned on Monday, when the school had enough staff to defy the union’s directive to teachers to stay home amid negotiations over safety protocols.Credit…Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a deal with the Chicago Teachers Union on Monday that would return students to classrooms on Wednesday after a dispute over coronavirus safeguards canceled a week of classes in the country’s third-largest school district.

“No one is more frustrated than I am,” Ms. Lightfoot said after the deal was reached. She added: “I’m glad that we’re hopefully putting this behind us and looking forward. But there does come a point when enough is enough.”

The deal, which city officials said included provisions for additional testing and metrics that would close schools with major virus outbreaks, was approved by the union’s House of Delegates on Monday night and was expected to be voted on later in the week by rank-and-file teachers.

Teachers were expected to return to school buildings on Tuesday, with students joining them the next day. Leaders of the union described the agreement as imperfect and were highly critical of Ms. Lightfoot, but they said the deal was needed given the conditions teachers are facing in the pandemic.

“This agreement is the only modicum of safety that is available for anyone that steps foot in the Chicago Public Schools, especially in the places in the city where testing is low and where vaccination rates are low,” said Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s vice president.

School leaders across the United States have scrambled to adjust to the highly infectious Omicron variant, which has pushed the country’s daily case totals to record levels and led to record hospitalizations. Most school districts have forged ahead with in-person instruction, as the Biden administration has urged, sometimes quarantining individual students or classrooms as outbreaks emerge. Some large districts, including in Milwaukee and Cleveland, have moved class online.

But the debate in Chicago proved uniquely bitter and unpredictable, with hundreds of thousands of children pulled out of class two days after winter break when teachers voted to stop reporting to their classrooms. Rather than teach online, as the union proposed, the school district canceled class altogether.

Chicago Public Schools leaders have insisted that virus precautions were in place and that pausing in-person instruction would unfairly burden parents and harm students’ academic and social progress. Union members said that the schools were not safe, that more testing was needed and that classes should be temporarily moved online.

The Chicago area, like much of the country, is averaging far more new cases each day than at any previous point in the pandemic. The Omicron variant is believed to cause less severe illness than prior forms of the virus, with vaccinated people unlikely to face severe outcomes. Still, coronavirus hospitalizations in Illinois have exceeded their peak levels from last winter and continue to rise sharply.

Members of Ms. Lightfoot’s administration have defended the school system’s efforts to make classrooms safe and have emphasized that children rarely face severe outcomes from Covid-19. But their efforts to reassure parents and teachers have sometimes faltered. The district instituted an optional testing plan over winter break, but most of the 150,000 or so mail-in P.C.R. tests given to students were never returned; of the ones that were, a majority produced invalid results.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain confronted a fresh blizzard of questions on Tuesday about a garden party at 10 Downing Street in May 2020 that violated his government’s lockdown regulations, the latest in a skein of scandals that are sowing doubts about his long-term political survival.

The British news media reported that as many as 100 staff members were invited to a “bring your own booze” party in the backyard of Mr. Johnson’s residence, at a time when the government was instructing people not to socialize with more than a single person outside their families, to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Mr. Johnson has not denied that he and his wife, Carrie, attended the gathering, which drew about 30 guests. If true, that would belie his statement in Parliament last year that he was told there were no Downing Street parties that broke social-distancing rules. The Metropolitan Police have indicated that they may investigate.

For Mr. Johnson, who had hoped to put a turbulent period of political setbacks and ethical questions behind him, the latest furor all but guarantees that the politically damaging issue of parties will continue to haunt him in 2022.

In December, nearly 100 lawmakers of his Conservative Party rebelled over new Covid restrictions, fueling speculation that his leadership was in danger. But that crisis ebbed somewhat over Christmas, and last week many Conservative lawmakers praised Mr. Johnson for resisting calls for tighter curbs.

Analysts concluded that he had bought himself breathing space until local elections in May, which will be a big test of how much the outcry over the parties and other ethical issues has damaged electoral support for the Conservatives.

The accusations are being investigated by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, who replaced the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, after he was forced to step aside following claims that he had breached the rules himself.

Even before Ms. Gray wraps up her report, however, the public seems to have made up its mind. Opinion polls indicate that the stream of disclosures about Downing Street parties during the lockdown have drained support for the Conservative Party, and for Mr. Johnson in particular.

“Hardly anybody believes what Boris Johnson has to say on the matter,” Chris Curtis, the head of political polling at Opinium Research, wrote on Twitter. “In fact, more people think the moon landings were faked than think the prime minister is telling the truth.”

Novak Djokovic at a practice session in Melbourne, Australia, on Tuesday.Credit…Pool photo by Kelly Defina

The immigration authorities in Australia said on Tuesday that they were investigating whether Novak Djokovic could be charged with making a false statement on his visa entry form as the controversy over the Serbian tennis star’s Covid vaccination exemption continued.

Mr. Djokovic, who had to gain an exemption to enter Australia because he has shunned Covid vaccines, stated on his entry form that he had not traveled internationally in the 14 days before his flight on Jan. 4 from Spain, via Dubai, to Australia, where he plans to compete in the Australian Open starting on Monday.

That appeared to be contradicted by social media posts that showed him in Serbia on Christmas Day, hitting tennis balls in the streets of Belgrade in one video, and posing with handball player Petar Djordjic, in a picture posted to Twitter by Jos? Morgado, a Portuguese sports journalist.

Mr. Djokovic was detained upon arrival at the airport in Melbourne last week, questioned over his exemption and had his visa canceled. The nine-time Australian Open champion spent four nights in immigration detention until a judge ruled on Monday that he had been treated unfairly and reinstated his visa, allowing him to enter the country.

But Alex Hawke, Australia’s immigration minister, said on Monday that he was still considering whether to rescind the tennis star’s visa for a second time.

Australia, which is in the grip of a large coronavirus surge, and where 78 percent of people are fully vaccinated, requires all visitors to be fully inoculated against Covid-19. Immigration laws also allow the government to deport Mr. Djokovic or any other visa holder for even the smallest of violations: a slight risk to public health, an incorrect statement on immigration forms or a perceived deficit of character.

The controversy over Mr. Djokovic, one of many sports figures increasingly scorned for vaccine skepticism, has created a political headache for Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison. A proponent of tough border enforcement, Mr. Morrison is facing questions over whether his government has tried to make an example of Mr. Djokovic, who entered the country with documents proving that he had obtained an exemption based on a recent coronavirus infection.

The exemption had been endorsed by a doctor and an independent panel from the state of Victoria, where the Australian Open is held.

On Tuesday, Mr. Morrison’s office said that he had spoken by phone with Prime Minister Ana Brnabic of Serbia to discuss Australia’s border policies. Serbian officials have previously accused Australia of trying to humiliate Mr. Djokovic, who is revered in his home country.

Medical staff treated Frank Clark for Covid-19 at Western Reserve Hospital in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, last week.Credit…Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The number of Americans hospitalized with Covid-19 has surpassed last winter’s peak, underscoring the severity of the threat the virus continues to pose as the extremely contagious Omicron variant tears through the United States.

As of Sunday, 142,388 people with the virus were hospitalized nationwide, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, surpassing the peak of 142,315 reported on Jan. 14 of last year. The seven-day average of daily hospitalizations was 132,086, an increase of 83 percent from two weeks ago.

The Omicron wave has overwhelmed hospitals and depleted staffs that were already worn out by the Delta variant. It has been driven in large part by people younger than 60. Among people older than 60, daily admissions are still lower than last winter.

The hospitalization totals also include people who test positive for the virus incidentally after being admitted for conditions unrelated to Covid-19; there is no national data showing how many people are in that category.

As cases soared over the past few weeks to an average of over 737,000 per day, far higher than last winter’s peak, public health officials have argued that caseloads were of limited significance because Omicron is less virulent than Delta and other variants, and that vaccines, and especially boosters, offered protection against severe illness.

But the surge’s sheer volume has overwhelmed hospitals across the country. And outside cities like New York, where Omicron hit early and has pushed hospitals to the brink, it is unlikely to have peaked.

Current hospitalizations are one of the most reliable measures of the severity of the pandemic over time, because they are not influenced by testing availability or by spikes in minor cases.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious diseases expert, told ABC News last week that it was “much more relevant to focus on the hospitalizations,” which lag behind cases.

About a quarter of U.S. hospitals are experiencing critical staffing shortages, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Some states, like Oregon, have deployed the National Guard to help. Others, like Illinois and Massachusetts, are delaying elective surgeries — meaning surgeries that are scheduled, as opposed to an emergency, a category that can include procedures like a mastectomy for a cancer patient. In some cases, employees with asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic coronavirus infections have been working, potentially putting patients at risk.

After nearly two years, “even the most dedicated individuals are going to be tired and worn out, if not burned out and dealing with mental health issues as a consequence,” said Dr. Mahshid Abir, an emergency physician at the University of Michigan who is a researcher at the RAND Corporation.

Data in some of the first cities hit by Omicron also show deaths spiking sharply — not as fast as case rates, but fast enough to warn of more devastation to come.

Doctors, nurses and other medical personnel are also falling ill themselves, and while most are vaccinated and have not needed hospitalization, their illness still keeps them out of work. Now, hospitals overwhelmed by coronavirus patients are ill equipped to handle other emergencies like heart attacks, appendicitis and traumatic injuries.

“The demand is going up and the supply is going down, and that basically doesn’t paint a good picture for people and communities — not just for Covid, but for everything else,” Dr. Abir said.

Students were back in class at Chiu Sheung School in Hong Kong in September, but kindergarten and elementary classes will be suspended until after the Lunar New Year next month because of coronavirus concerns.Credit…Anthony Kwan for The New York Times

Hong Kong will suspend in-person teaching for kindergarten and elementary schools from the end of the week until the end of Lunar New Year holiday in early February as the city tries to control the spread of the Omicron variant.

The city will also begin vaccinating children ages 5 to 11 with the Chinese-made Sinovac doses.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said that she was reluctant to close schools because of the harm to child development, but that concerns about the hidden transmission of the coronavirus made it necessary. Online learning will continue, she said.

Face-to-face classes will continue for older schoolchildren, as they are better able to take protective measures, Mrs. Lam said.

In other news from around the globe:

  • China locked down a third city — Anyang, with a population of 5.5 million — because of a coronavirus outbreak, according to news reports. A notice said that officials would conduct mass testing in the city. About 13 million people are also locked down in the city of Xi’an and 1.1 million in Yuzhou, raising the number of Chinese resident confined to their homes to about 20 million.

  • Japan will maintain its ban on nonresident foreigners entering the country until the end of February to help curb the spread of the Omicron variant, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Tuesday, though some exceptions for humanitarian reasons may be considered. Cases of the virus in the country have increased by more than 2,000 percent in the past two weeks, according to data from The New York Times. But they remain far below the country’s peak in August. That trend, Mr. Kishida told reporters, was “thanks to the toughest border control measures among G7 countries.”

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has a reputation for causing mild illness, yet it is fueling a staggering rise in hospitalizations across the United States.

In some of the early hot spots for the variant, such as New York and New Jersey, emergency rooms are filling up and hospitals are being flooded with more new patients than they have staff to care for.

This episode of “The Daily” explores why the Omicron surge is leading to hospitalizations. It also hears from doctors on the front lines about what they are seeing and why this surge feels different from the ones that came before.

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