Members of the public are seen at Bondi Beach in Sydney on Dec 15, 2021. (BIANCA MARCHI /AAP IMAGE VIA AP)
GAZA / DUBAI / TOKYO / SEOUL / SYDNEY / JERUSALEM – Australia on Monday reported its first confirmed death from the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 amid another surge in daily infections, but the authorities refrained from imposing new restrictions saying hospitalization rates remained low.
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The death, a man in his 80s with underlying health conditions, marked a grim milestone for the country which has had to pause some parts of a staged reopening after nearly two years of stop-start lockdowns, due to the fresh outbreak.
The death, a man in his 80s with underlying health conditions, marked a grim milestone for Australia which has had to pause some parts of a staged reopening after nearly two years of stop-start lockdowns, due to the fresh outbreak
Omicron, which health experts say appears more contagious but less virulent than previous strains, began to spread in the country just as it lifted restrictions on most domestic borders and allowed Australians to return from overseas without quarantine, driving case numbers to the highest of the pandemic.
The authorities gave no additional details about the Omicron death, except to say that the man caught the virus at an aged care facility and died in a Sydney hospital.
"This was the first known death in New South Wales (state) linked to the Omicron variant of concern," said NSW Health epidemiologist Christine Selvey in a video released by the government.
The man was among six COVID-19 deaths reported in Australia the previous day, all in the most populous states of NSW and Victoria, which are home to more than half the country's 25 million population.
NSW, Victoria and Queensland states reported a combined 9,107 new cases on Monday, putting the country on track for another peak in new infections. The five other states and territories were yet to report daily case numbers.
"Although we are seeing increased case numbers… we are not seeing the impacts on our hospital system," said Annastacia Palaszczuk, premier of Queensland which reported 784 new cases with four people in hospital.
With reports of six-hour wait times for COVID testing for people hoping to meet requirements for interstate holiday travel, Palaszczuk defended the tourism-friendly state for mandatory testing, saying "everyone knew when they booked a ticket that if they wanted to come here they would have to do a PCR test".
"We need to make sure that we're protecting (Queenslanders)," she said.
Australian authorities have so far resisted a return to lockdown in the face of surging case numbers but have reinstated some restrictions. On Monday, NSW again made it compulsory to check into public venues with QR codes, while many states have brought back mandatory mask-wearing in indoor public places.
A Palestinian medic gives a shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine during a campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated, in Rafah, Gaza, on Dec 2, 2021. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)
The Palestinian health ministry said on Sunday it had identified the first case of the Omicron coronavirus variant in the Gaza Strip.
The carrier is a Gaza resident who was infected within the coastal territory, ministry official Majdi Dhair told a news conference.
Dhair said this meant the variant, first identified in southern Africa last month, existed in Gaza and was now spreading among the population. The discovery poses a new challenge to the enclave's under-developed health system.
"We are ahead of difficult days. It is expected that the Omicron variant will spread fast," he told reporters.
Gaza, with a population of 2.2 million people, has registered 189,837 COVID-19 infections and 1,691 deaths.
Dhair urged Gazans to get vaccinated, putting the percentage of those who had already received shots at around 40 percent.
In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, three cases of Omicron variant had been detected among Palestinians on Dec 16 and the number had since risen to 23 among the 3.1 million population, Palestinian health authorities said.
Iran has banned the entry of travelers from Britain, France, Denmark and Norway for 15 days as part of curbs following the discovery of the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19 in the Middle East's worst-hit country.
State television said on Sunday a similar ban imposed in late November on travelers from South Africa and seven neighboring countries was also extended for 15 days.
Health authorities also indefinitely halted land travel to neighboring Turkey, a popular tourist destination, the broadcaster said.
Iran, the pandemic's epicenter in the Middle East, has reported just 14 confirmed Omicron cases so far but media reports said detection kits were not widely available and officials have warned of a possible rapid spread within weeks.
A major Israeli hospital will begin administering a fourth COVID-19 vaccine shot to 150 staff on Monday in a trial aimed at gauging whether a second booster is necessary nationwide, the facility said on Sunday.
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Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv said its trial would shed light on the efficacy of a fourth dose and help decision-makers set health policy in Israel and abroad. Israel has reported 1,118 confirmed cases of the fast-spreading Omicron coronavirus variant, with the number of people infected by it doubling every two days.
A Health Ministry panel of experts has recommended offering a fourth dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to Israelis aged 60 and over who received a booster shot at least four months ago.
But final approval by the ministry's director-general is still pending amid public debate as to whether sufficient scientific information is available to justify a new booster drive.
Separately, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's office said he tested negative on Sunday for COVID-19 after his 14-year-old daughter was infected. It said he would self-isolate. Bennett's wife and other children tested negative, the statement added.
Central Japan's Aichi prefecture has confirmed two cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 resulting from community spread, Aichi Governor Hideaki Omura said on Sunday.
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The infections were found in a teenage girl and her mother, neither of whom had recently traveled abroad, while the transmission route was unclear, Omura told a news conference.
South Korea authorised for emergency use Pfizer's antiviral pills targeting COVID-19 as the first of its kind to be introduced in South Korea, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said on Monday.
Pfizer's oral antiviral treatment, called Paxlovid, is "expected to help prevent serious deterioration of patients admitted to residential treatment centers or being treated at home," by diversifying coronavirus treatments beyond injections currently used in the field, drug safety minister Kim Gang-lip told a press briefing.
The drug will be used for adults or children 12 years or older weighing over 40 kilograms with mild to moderate symptoms with a high risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus due to causes such as underlying diseases.
Another oral coronavirus treatment called molnupiravir, developed by Merck known as MSD outside of the United States and Canada, applied for emergency use earlier this month, but the ministry is still reviewing as they need additional info on efficacy, Kim said.