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News24.com | ‘Tidal Wave’: Omicron Could Put US Covid-19 Surge Into Overdrive

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US health officials predict the Omicron variant will lead to a deadly surge in Covid-19 infections this winter.
The nation has had two years of massive waves, with experts predicting that it might increase the current rate of daily deaths. 
Some Americans are said to have reconsidered their holiday plans, but the wave of travel cancellation is yet to emerge. 

Two years into the coronavirus pandemic, the United States is confronting another dark winter, with the red-hot Omicron variant threatening to worsen an already dangerous surge of cases.

Hospitalisations for Covid-19 have jumped 45% over the last month, and confirmed cases have increased 40% to a week-long average of 123 000 new US infections a day, according to a Reuters tally.

Pfizer, one of the chief vaccine makers, on Friday predicted the pandemic would last until 2024 and said a lower-dose version of its vaccine for children ages 2 to 4 generated a weaker-than-expected immune response, which could delay authorisation.

The National Football League rescheduled three weekend games after multiple teams were hard hit by outbreaks.

The National Hockey League added another game to its recent list of postponements, heightening doubts about the league’s plan to send the world’s top players to the Beijing Olympics in February.

In New York City, Radio City Music Hall announced it has cancelled all remaining dates of the Rockettes’ annual Christmas Spectacular “due to increasing challenges from the pandemic,” after staging more than 100 shows over the past seven weeks.

LIVE | All the latest news about Covid-19 in South Africa and the rest of the world

The Michael Jackson musical “MJ” on Broadway canceled performances through 27 December, joining other Broadway productions that have called off shows after cast and crew members tested positive.

The Omicron variant appears to be far more transmissible than previous iterations of the virus, and more agile in evading immune defences, according to early studies.

Public health officials say it is likely to become the dominant variant in the country, following fast-moving spreads in countries such as South Africa and the United Kingdom, and could strain hospitals still struggling to contain this summer’s Delta variant surge.

“GET BOOSTED NOW. Tidal wave of Omicron likely coming to a hospital near you soon,” Dr Tom Frieden, former chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), posted on Twitter.

Preliminary data in South Africa suggests Omicron leads to milder illness than the Delta variant, which is still driving much of the current wave of infections. But a British study released on Friday found no difference in severity between the two variants.

Either way, Omicron’s extraordinary level of infectiousness means it could cause many additional deaths, the top US infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, said on Friday.

“When you have a larger number of people getting infected, the total amount of hospitalisations is going to be more. That’s just simple math,” Fauci told CNBC.

Fauci also said officials are discussing whether to redefine what it means to be “fully vaccinated” to include booster shots.

Pulling the plug?

The latest surge is creating yet another round of disruptions to daily life, though widespread lockdowns of workplaces and social gatherings have not been put in place.

A federal appeals court on Friday reinstated a nationwide vaccine-or-testing Covid-19 mandate for large businesses – an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rule that covers 80 million American workers.

Some Americans have reconsidered holiday plans. Winifred Donoghue, a New York City advertising writer, cancelled an 8 January disco party at her family’s vacation home in Highland Lakes, New Jersey, that was intended to be a joint celebration of her 60th birthday and the new year.

She added: 

Two weeks ago, everyone was boosted. Then the infections went up exponentially. By January, who is going to feel safe? I just pulled the plug on it

Eric Hrubant, the chief executive of CIRE Travel, said he hadn’t yet seen a wave of cancellations, as he did in August when the Delta variant swept the country. But worried clients have inundated the agency with calls about new Covid-19 protocols, such as mandatory travel quarantines.

“People aren’t panicking,” he said. “People are making educated decisions.”

Several states have hit alarming levels of cases and hospitalisations. The US states reporting the highest seven-day average of infections were New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan, according to a Reuters tally.

In Ohio, exhausted hospital workers will be getting some help starting on Monday from 1 050 National Guard troops – including 150 nurses, emergency medical technicians and others with medical training, Governor Mike DeWine said on Friday.

The CDC released a new “test-to-stay” strategy on Friday that allows unvaccinated children to remain in school even if they are exposed to the virus.

The protocol is intended to replace automatic quarantines, which have required tens of thousands of students to miss school days this fall.

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News24.com | Thousands Protest in Madrid Against NATO Summit

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A crowd demonstrates against NATO.

Photo by Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto

Carrying the hammer and sickle flags of the former Soviet Union, thousands protested in Madrid on Sunday against a NATO summit which will take place in the Spanish capital next week.

Amid tight security, leaders of the member countries will meet in Madrid between 29-30 June as the organisation faces the unprecedented challenge of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

NATO is expected to consider the bid, opposed by alliance-member Turkey, for Finland and Sweden to join.

The Nordic nations applied in the wake of the Russian assault on Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin calls the war a special military operation he says in part responds to the accession to NATO of other countries near post-Soviet Russia’s borders since the 1990s.

READ | Biden said Putin’s goal of weakening NATO by invading Ukraine backfired spectacularly

“Tanks yes, but of beer with tapas,” sang demonstrators, who claimed an increase in defence spending in Europe urged by NATO was a threat to peace.

“I am fed up (with) this business of arms and killing people. The solution they propose is more arms and wars and we always pay for it. So, no NATO, no (army) bases, let the Americans go and leave us alone without wars and weapons,” said Concha Hoyos, a retired Madrid resident, told Reuters.

Another protester, Jaled, 29, said NATO was not the solution to the war in Ukraine.

Organisers claimed 5,000 people joined the march, but authorities in Madrid put the number at 2 200.

READ | Pandor says Finland’s bid to join NATO indicates a decline in international security

Spain’s Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares said in a newspaper interview published on Sunday that the summit would also focus on the threat from Europe’s southern flank in Africa, in which he said Russia posed a threat to Europe.

“The foreign ministers’ dinner on the 29th will be centred on the southern flank,” he told El Pais newspaper.

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News24.com | Turkey Police Break up Istanbul Pride March, Detain Dozens: AFP

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Hakan Akgun/dia images

Turkish police on Sunday forcibly intervened in a Pride march in Istanbul, detaining dozens of demonstrators and an AFP photographer, AFP journalists on the ground said.

The governor’s office had banned the march around Taksim square in the heart of Istanbul but protesters gathered nearby under heavy police presence earlier than scheduled.

Police detained protesters, loading them into buses. AFP journalists saw two buses of people who had been held, including AFP’s chief photographer Bulent Kilic, who had been handcuffed from the back.

Kilic, who was also detained last year during the Pride march, is currently in police custody.

Hundreds of protesters carrying rainbow flags pressed ahead with the rally in defiance of police.

Although homosexuality has been legal throughout the period of the modern Turkish republic, LGBTQ individuals point to regular harassment and abuse.

Istanbul Pride has taken place every year since 2003.

The last march which took place without a ban – in 2014 – drew tens of thousands of participants in one of the biggest LGBTQ events in the majority Muslim region.

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News24.com | NASA Blasts Off From Australian Outback in ‘historic’ Launch

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NASA’s first-ever launch from a commercial site outside of the United States blasted off from Australia’s Outback late Sunday, in a “historic” moment for the country’s space industry.

In the first of three planned launches from the Arnhem Space Centre, the rocket, carrying technology likened to a “mini Hubble” telescope, lifted off — blasted about 350 kilometres (218 miles) into the night sky.

“It is a momentous occasion for us as a company in particular, but it’s historic for Australia,” Equatorial Launch Australia CEO Michael Jones told AFP ahead of the lift-off.

Jones, whose company owns and operates the launch site in the far north of Australia, described it as a “coming out” party for the country’s space industry and said the chance to work with NASA was a milestone for commercial space firms in the country.

After a series of rain and wind delays, the suborbital sounding rocket soared into the sky to study x-rays emanating from the Alpha Centauri A and B systems.

After reaching its apogee, the rocket’s payload was to capture data on the star systems before parachuting back to earth.

READ | NASA is slowly powering down the Voyager probes. Here are 18 photos from its 45-year mission.

According to NASA, the launch offers a unique glimpse of the distant systems and unlocked fresh possibilities for scientists.

“We’re excited to be able to launch important science missions from the Southern Hemisphere and see targets that we can’t from the United States,” Nicky Fox, NASA’s Heliophysics Division director in Washington, said on announcing the mission.

Jones said the unique location had made preparations hard, with years of work to get regulatory approval and the need to haul rockets on barges to the launch site – about 28 hours drive from Darwin in northern Australia.

“I think for the team, it’s gonna be, you know, a huge relief that it’s done,” he said.

READ | ‘Giant leap forward’ – South Korea space rocket launch puts satellites in orbit

But with the next launch already looming on July 4, the break would be short-lived.

“We need to, you know, dust ourselves off, take a day off and then get back into it in readiness for the next launch because it’s just as important.”

It is the first NASA rocket to launch from Australia since 1995, and the project was hailed as the start of a “new era” for the country’s space industry by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

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