LONDON — Britain surpassed 100,000 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday for the first time since the start of the pandemic, as the England’s government announced an easing of isolation restrictions.
The new toll of 106,122 new infections — the highest ever — comes as the highly transmissible Omicron variant continues to surge across the country. The uptick is a 50 percent increase over the past week, according to government data.
A surge in coronavirus cases has winnowed the staffs of hospitals, clinics, rail services, fire departments and ambulance services across England, where most pandemic restrictions have been lifted since the summer. Before the new case numbers were released on Wednesday, England’s announced that it was reducing the number of days that people are required to isolate for after showing Covid-19 symptoms to seven days from 10 days — a change that officials said was based on updated guidance from health experts, and that could help alleviate the staffing shortages.
Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said the move was based on guidance from the government’s Health Security Agencys that a weeklong isolation period along with two negative test results had “nearly the same protective effect as a 10-day isolation period.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has resisted adding new restrictions before Christmas, although he has said that he “would not hesitate to act” after the holiday if needed.
People in England will be allowed to end their quarantines if they can produce negative tests on days six and seven. That creates a more lenient policy than in the United States, where people can end their isolation periods 10 days after showing symptoms if they have not had a fever for 24 hours and if their other Covid-19 symptoms are improving.
“This new guidance will help break chains of transmission and minimize the impact on lives and livelihoods,” Dr. Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the government’s Health Security Agency, said in a statement. She emphasized that people must continue to follow public health advice.
People who are not fully vaccinated are still required to isolate for 10 days if they come into contact with an infected person.
Elsewhere in Europe, governments have been divided in their responses to widening outbreaks of the Omicron variant.
The Netherlands has closed nonessential shops, bars, restaurants, gyms, outdoor sports, cultural venues and schools. Sweden said this week that it was adding new restrictions on gatherings, and Finland is instructing restaurants to close early starting on Friday.
Other countries have held off introducing further restrictions before Christmas. New rules in Germany will come into effect on Tuesday, and in Portugal, nightclubs and bars will close from midnight on Saturday for at least two weeks.
In France, proof of vaccination is required for entry into bars and restaurants. The government has said it does not plan to add further restrictions. Health Minister Olivier Véran said on Wednesday that the focus was on the speedy rollout of booster shots.
In Britain, Scotland and Wales are adding restrictions starting on Sunday. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not ruled out further restrictions in England, where a wave of infections is putting severe pressure on the National Health Service, which was already under strain from worker shortages caused by funding cuts, Brexit and the exhaustion from nearly two years of facing the pandemic.
Britain is not experiencing the kind of dire shortage of beds that hospitals faced during earlier peaks of the pandemic, but the pressure on the system caused by staff illnesses is evident across the country.
Data projections from the Health Service Journal, a trade publication, indicated that one in three workers in the National Health Service could be absent from work by New Year’s Eve if the current case rate continues.
Although some evidence suggests that the Omicron variant may produce less severe symptoms than Delta, it also appears to be up to twice as transmissible.
The purchase of at-home coronavirus tests will be capped at Walgreens and CVS locations nationwide as demand for kits continues to surge amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
CVS announced in a statement on Tuesday that the pharmacy had added a limit of six test kits per purchase both in stores and online. The company, which has more than 4,800 locations, said that kits sold online might become temporarily out of stock as it tries to make them available in stores to meet demand.
Walgreens also announced on Tuesday that the company would limit purchases of at-home test kits to four. The pharmacy chain said some stores might experience a temporary shortage in rapid over-the-counter testing kits.
“We ask that our customers please show patience and understanding,” John Standley, the president of Walgreens, said in a statement.
The caps come as Omicron’s rapid spread — the fastest of any variant yet — has customers flocking to testing sites and pharmacies. At-home tests are flying off shelves, and Americans are sometimes waiting in line for hours at testing sites.
Virus cases in the United States have risen 27 percent in the past 14 days, and hospitalizations have climbed 13 percent in the same period, according to a New York Times coronavirus tracker. President Biden said on Tuesday that said the government would buy 500 million rapid coronavirus tests and distribute them free to Americans, as well as create new vaccination and testing sites and send 1,000 military medical professionals to help hospitals nationwide.
Walgreens and CVS offer several brands of coronavirus tests, including Abbott BinaxNOW, Acon FlowFlex, Quidel Quickvue, Ellume and Pixel by LabCorp. The pharmacies also offer lab-based testing with a one- to two-day turnaround.
A record number of Americans have signed up for health plans through the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces for 2022, after Congress lowered the cost of Obamacare insurance and the pandemic rocked many Americans’ employer-provided coverage.
The Department of Health and Human Services said on Wednesday that 13.6 million people had enrolled in coverage that will begin on Jan. 1, more than in any previous year of the program. Enrollment remains open until Jan. 15 for those who want coverage that would begin in February.
“What a great day it is to really see how the programs are working as they are intended,” Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which manages the marketplaces, told reporters on a conference call.
The Biden administration has invested heavily in promoting the availability of insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, and expanded the network of professionals available to help people enroll. But Ms. Brooks-LaSure said she thinks the main driver of the enrollment increase was the lower prices most Americans would pay.
A stimulus bill passed by Congress in March made many more Americans eligible for financial assistance in buying Obamacare plans. For most people with low incomes, comprehensive coverage is available for no premium.
Health officials said that enrollment gains were the largest in states that have not expanded their Medicaid programs, where Americans with incomes just above the poverty level qualify for Obamacare plans instead of Medicaid. Enrollment in Georgia grew by a third from last year, and enrollment in Texas increased by more than a quarter.
Other factors probably helped drive the enrollment boom as well. The economic disruptions of the pandemic mean that some Americans who lost job-based coverage may be purchasing their own plans now. And the Biden administration substantially increased its spending on advertising and other forms of outreach to make people aware of their options.
“The messaging angle here is also really important to even get people to the door,” said Cynthia Cox, the director of the program on the Affordable Care Act at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “And the subsidies make it more appealing to walk through the door to actually sign up.”
The administration also established a long “special enrollment period” related to the pandemic through the spring and summer. Millions of new customers signed up for insurance then and are renewing now.
The enhanced subsidies are scheduled to expire at the end of 2022. Democrats in Congress hope to extend them through 2025 as part of their large social spending and climate bill, but that legislation is currently stalled in the Senate.
JERUSALEM — Israel, which late last year was an early trailblazer in its efforts to administer a first coronavirus vaccine dose to its citizens, now plans to offer fourth doses in a bid to curb the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, officials said on Tuesday.
It is believed to be the first country to offer a fourth round of doses. And as with its earlier inoculation efforts, countries around the world will be looking to Israel for clues about how their own campaigns might fare.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett hailed the move as “wonderful news that will assist us in getting through the Omicron wave that is engulfing the world.” He added, “The state of Israel is continuing to stand at the forefront of the global effort to deal with the pandemic.”
At least one person in the country is confirmed to have died from the Omicron variant — an older man who had received two vaccine doses but not a third one, health officials said on Tuesday.
The United States has also reported at least one death from the variant. Health officials in Texas said that an unvaccinated Houston-area man who died on Monday had Omicron. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in October that some adults with compromised immune systems would be eligible for a fourth shot of the vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.
Mr. Bennett, who succeeded Benjamin Netanyahu in June, was then among the first world leaders to approve third vaccine doses this summer. He also allowed for the vaccination of children aged 5 and up last month, and held a “war game” in which the government tested out possible state responses to a hypothetical new virus variant.
On Tuesday, he said that medical teams would begin giving fourth vaccine doses to people over 60 and to medical workers. Mr. Bennett did not cite any scientific evidence in support of administering fourth shots to a broad population.
His other efforts to slow the rise of Omicron have included enforcing more stringent entry requirements for incoming travelers, banning the entry of all foreigners without a special exemption and barring Israelis from traveling without special permission to 58 countries, including the United States, Canada and Britain.
The number of Omicron cases in Israel doubled on Tuesday to 340, the health ministry said, while the total number of coronavirus cases rose to 1,306 — the highest daily figure in nearly two months, though still proportionally lower than in many developed countries.
Mr. Bennett has said that Israel is at the beginning of a fifth virus wave, and has called on people in the country to vaccinate themselves and their children, to work from home and to increase their wearing of masks.
Mayor-elect Eric Adams will keep New York City’s health commissioner in his position for several months to provide continuity to the city’s pandemic response, Mr. Adams said on Wednesday.
The current commissioner, Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, will continue to run the health department after Mr. Adams takes office on Jan. 1. In mid-March, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, the president of Fountain House, a New York-based mental health and public health charity, will take over the job.
New York City has seen an alarming rise in coronavirus cases this month as the Omicron variant spreads. Case numbers were much lower when Mr. Adams was elected in November, and the new surge will present an immediate challenge for him. He decided on Tuesday to cancel his planned indoor inauguration ceremony over safety reasons.
Mr. Adams has made a flurry of appointments to his new administration this month, including a schools chancellor, police commissioner and deputy mayors. He has praised Dr. Chokshi, whom Mayor Bill de Blasio named to be health commissioner in August 2020.
“For the next three months as we get through this surge, Dr. Chokshi will continue the excellent work he is doing now to increase testing capacity, promote vaccinations and boosters, and stop the spread of this virus,” Mr. Adams said in a statement.
Dr. Vasan, a professor of public health at Columbia University, will serve as a senior adviser in the Adams administration until he becomes health commissioner. He said in a statement that he would focus both on the pandemic and on other health problems plaguing the city.
“Make no mistake: We will stop the spread of this virus,” Dr. Vasan said. “We will also deliver on the mayor-elect’s public health priorities by fixing our broken mental health system and ensuring equitable access to clean air, clean water, healthy food, and affordable health care.”
After President Biden laid out his administration’s new plan Tuesday to take on the Omicron variant, The New York Times’s DealBook team spoke with medical and policy professionals about what he got right — and where he could have gone farther.
And then, inspired by a post by Dr. Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute and drawing on insights from Dr. Joseph Allen of Harvard University and Dr. Ashish Jha of Brown University, DealBook calculated the cost of what health experts think might be necessary to help end the pandemic.
Rapid tests. While experts welcomed Mr. Biden’s plan to distribute 500 million free tests, many think far more are needed. The cost of producing the tests is less than $1, but scarcity has driven up their retail price. (Mr. Biden said he would invoke the Defense Production Act to augment the manufacturing of tests to help address supply issues.)
Let’s assume the White House can meet demand, and that the U.S. can buy the tests at $1 each. Paying for all 330 million Americans to have one rapid test a day for the next six months would cost about $60 billion, though that includes tests for infants and the like who don’t necessarily need them.
Antiviral treatments. The Times’s case tracker estimates that the U.S. is currently averaging about 155,000 cases a day, or roughly a million a week. If that pace stays constant, that would bring the nation to roughly 26 million cases over the next six months.
But with experts warning of a rise in the rate of infection, let’s double that to 50 million cases. Assuming every infected person is given a $530 course of antiviral medicine, the cost of treatment is about $27 billion.
Masks. While Americans have gotten used to wearing cloth or surgical masks, N95 and KN95 ones are more effective at protecting both wearers and those around them.
If the U.S. gave every American two KN95 masks a week over the next six months, and the government can buy them for $1 each, that comes out to $17 billion. (If you assume only 60 percent of Americans need them, by excluding infants and the like, that amounts to $10 billion.)
The total comes to a little over $100 billion. But there are plenty of caveats: This doesn’t include the costs of other measures that Mr. Biden has announced, like resources for more vaccination sites, nor does it account for manufacturing mishaps or the reality that some Americans won’t, for whatever reason, follow medical advice.
But the U.S. has already spent trillions on pandemic aid, which may still not be enough. The medical system is strained by the expense of treating the sick: Delta Air Lines has reported that the average cost of hospital treatment for an employee with Covid is $50,000. And then there is the pandemic’s effect on mental health. Even if these measures may not succeed, would failure outweigh the cost of not trying?
France said on Wednesday that it would offer Covid vaccinations for children aged 5-11 — but not make it mandatory — as the country braces for a new wave of infections stemming from the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
“We must, really, start this vaccination of children,” Health Minister Olivier Véran said on RMC radio.
The news came the same day that a vaccine advisory committee in Britain recommended inoculation for children aged 5-11 who are in a clinical risk group or who live with someone who is immunocompromised. That could cover about 300,000 children, according to the group, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization.
European nations such as Germany, Greece and Spain already offer vaccination for younger children, as does the United States.
Mr. Véran said that France had waited out of caution, and that officials had consulted U.S. data on childhood vaccination that suggested a very low risk of side effects. “The data coming from the U.S. are very reassuring, and the vaccine is effective,” he said.
In Britain, the government scientists advised giving the children doses that are a third of an adult dose. They said information for children who are not high risk would be assessed next year.
France and Britain have refrained from imposing the type of lockdowns and closures that other European countries are resorting to as the Omicron variant spreads. Instead, Paris and London are betting that high vaccine and booster coverage, along with the restrictions already in place, will be enough to manage the variant.
The push in France for the vaccination of children stems from recent data suggesting that cases were being partly driven by cases among unvaccinated children. The incidence rate among children aged 6-10 is on the rise and is twice that of the total population, according to a study published last week by the French health authorities.
“Vaccination of children is a necessity,” Prime Minister Jean Castex said this month, adding: “I am a living example of that: It was my 11-year-old daughter who gave me the virus a few weeks ago.”
It is unclear how many parents will have their eligible children vaccinated against the virus, however. Surveys have shown that most French parents oppose the idea.
With days to go before Christmas, Americans are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Of reworking plans to adapt to the latest virus risks. Of searching for at-home tests and not finding them. Of wondering whether after two years of avoiding Covid-19, or surviving it, or getting vaccinated and maybe even boosted, Omicron is the variant they inevitably catch.
A sense of dread about Omicron’s rapid spread — the fastest of any variant yet — has swept through the Northeast and Upper Midwest, which were already swamped with Delta variant cases and hospitalizations. And unease has burgeoned even in states and territories like Florida, Hawaii and Puerto Rico that had moved past a terrible summer of Delta and, until recently, experienced a relative virus lull.
“I’m mad,” said Mabel De Beunza, a publicist in her early 40s who spent 90 minutes at a drive-through testing line in downtown Miami on Monday after experiencing cold symptoms. No matter what her test result, she had decided against seeing her mother, who is immunocompromised, on Christmas.
Conversations with more than two dozen people across the country revealed that, more than panicked, Americans are exhausted by the emotional pandemic roller coaster and confused by mixed messages from experts and leaders about appropriate precautions.
“We’ve done so much, and still have this,” said Ms. De Beunza, whose family is vaccinated and boosted. “It’s been such a rough year.”
Turkey granted emergency-use approval for a domestically developed Covid vaccine on Wednesday, adding a third inoculation option for its citizens, as the Omicron variant increasingly fuels outbreaks in Europe and beyond.
Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said the vaccine, called Turkovac, was expected to be ready for widespread use by the end of December. It joins the two vaccines already being administered in Turkey: the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, which has been shown initial success at stopping Omicron infections among people who have received booster shots, and the CoronaVac vaccine produced by the Chinese company Sinovac.
The Turkish authorities said they hoped the Turkish-developed vaccine could both bolster the country’s vaccination campaign at home and be exported.
“We are not a country miser on drugs or vaccines,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a televised address Wednesday. “We will be happy to share our vaccine with the world.”
Phase III trials for Turkovac began in June, and the government has offered it as an option for a booster shot as part of the vaccine development trials.
Turkey is currently reporting about 19,000 daily coronavirus cases and about 200 Covid deaths. The country announced its first Omicron cases on Dec. 11.
About 82 percent of the country’s adult population is vaccinated with two doses of either the Sinovac or Pfizer-BioNtech vaccines, according to official figures.
While other European countries have recently imposed lockdowns and other restrictions as the spread of the virus has accelerated, Turkey has declined to do so. Instead, the authorities are calling on people to wear masks, maintain social distance and get booster shots.
— The New York Times
Singapore said on Wednesday that it would halt flight and bus ticket sales for passengers coming from two dozen countries with which it had established vaccinated travel lanes — a setback for a program that the island nation had hoped would rev up its pandemic-battered economy.
It joined other countries in the Asia-Pacific region in suspending quarantine-free entry amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The pause will start on Thursday and last until Jan. 20, Singapore’s Civil Aviation Authority said. Travelers who already hold tickets will be exempt from the freeze, but others must follow current border rules, including 14-day quarantines, the agency said. After Jan. 20, the government said, it will cap the number of ticket sales at half of current levels.
Under the program, fully vaccinated travelers from countries including Australia, Britain, India, Malaysia and the United States have been allowed into Singapore via flights or buses and have been required to have regular Covid tests. But Malaysia, too, on Wednesday announced a freeze until Jan. 20 on ticket sales to vaccinated travelers hoping to enter from Singapore.
Singapore was a leader in establishing vaccinated travel lanes to help restart tourism, but the program has had fits and starts. Last year, Singapore’s travel bubble with Hong Kong was halted amid a spike in virus infections.
Thailand suspended a program begun last month to attract tourists when it reinstated its quarantine requirement for foreign visitors, effectively from Wednesday. The government said that for everywhere except the island of Phuket, it would temporarily halt new applications for the so-called sandbox program, which has allowed visitors to move around freely as long as they stayed within the island or region where they had arrived.
Cambodia is still allowing quarantine-free entry for travelers who are fully vaccinated. It also removed a travel ban it had imposed on countries in southern Africa.
In other global news:
Japan said on Wednesday that it had detected the first community cases of the Omicron variant. Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura of Osaka said at a news conference that the three residents of the prefecture who had tested positive for the variant had no history of traveling abroad.
In Australia, which has recorded more than 500 Omicron cases, Prime Minister Scott Morrison stopped short on Wednesday of mandating mask wearing in indoor spaces, as some medical experts had urged. Instead, he said at a news conference that it was “highly recommended” and “common sense.” Western Australia became the first Australian state to announce that workers in industries with vaccine mandates — including health care, retail and mining — must receive a booster shot to be considered fully vaccinated.
Even as the number of coronavirus cases is skyrocketing in some parts of the United States, largely driven by the Omicron variant, the holiday travel rush appears unstoppable. On Friday, Los Angeles International Airport reported its busiest day since early 2020, and on Sunday, 2.1 million people passed through airports in the United States, nearly twice as many as at this time last year.
For people who are determined to keep their travel plans, figuring out how to do so responsibly remains confusing. So what can travelers do?
Get a booster. Only one in six Americans have received a booster, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fully vaccinated people without a booster are at least twice as likely to test positive as those who received a booster.
Consider the worst-case scenario. When deciding what is responsible in terms of holiday travel, Kelly Hills, a co-founder of Rogue Bioethics, a consulting firm in Boston, advises thinking about “moral injury” and asking whether you are mentally prepared for the consequences if you infect a vulnerable person.
Test as close to the gathering as possible. Many pharmacies and online retailers have sold out of at-home tests. The White House plans to make 500 million free at-home tests available, but that won’t happen until January. For those who do manage to get a kit, use it as close to your departure date as possible, several experts said.
JERUSALEM — In an effort to contain the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus, the Israeli authorities have barred most international travelers from entering Israel or the West Bank until at least the end of December, leaving holy sites in Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Old City of Jerusalem devoid of foreign visitors for a second Christmas.
But those who depend on tourism or whose relatives are unable to visit have been frustrated by the Israeli government, which they have accused of inconsistency, and even discrimination, in applying travel restrictions. The government allowed entry to international beauty pageant contestants and young Jews on trips meant to strengthen their ties to Israel — while barring Christian pilgrims.
Israel had largely barred foreign visitors since the pandemic first hit in March 2020, and had only begun admitting fully vaccinated foreign tourists in early November. The gates abruptly closed again four weeks later with the emergence of Omicron.
More than 4.5 million foreigners visited Israel in 2019, a bumper year for tourism, and Christian pilgrims accounted for roughly a quarter of the total. But the figure plunged to a few hundred thousand in 2020, when both Israel and the occupied territories were hit with waves of coronavirus infections, and foreign visitors were mostly barred last Christmas.
With new restrictions imposed because of the Omicron surge this season, most shops in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City are shuttered for lack of business. Hotels in Jerusalem, Tiberias and Nazareth have far fewer guests than usual. And Bethlehem, venerated as the traditional birthplace of Jesus, is looking at another gloomy season.
Despite the complications of travel and economic hardship wrought by the virus, Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land, said there had been hopes this year that up to 15,000 pilgrims would come for Christmas.
“For people in Bethlehem, that would have been important oxygen,” he said. “The community is suffering.”
Amazon reinstated a mask mandate for all employees in its U.S. warehouses starting on Wednesday, as the Omicron variant spreads nationwide and the company makes a final shipping push before Christmas.
Amazon previously had mask mandates at its U.S. warehouses but most recently required masks only for employees who were not fully vaccinated, unless local authorities said otherwise.
About two-thirds of Amazon’s workers were vaccinated as of November, according to data compiled by the Shift Project at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The company has about 750,000 warehouse workers in the United States.
Amazon told workers in a notification on the employee app on Tuesday that it changed the mask policy “in response to the rapid spread of the Covid-19 Omicron variant in the U.S. and guidance from public health authorities and our own medical experts.” It told workers it hoped the mandate would be necessary only in the winter and would be lifted “further into 2022.”
The company also told workers in New York on Tuesday that they needed to provide a proof of at least one dose of vaccination by Dec. 27, when the city’s vaccine mandate takes effect. It was unclear what would happen to workers who did not comply.
“We are working through the process now for any individual who hasn’t received their first dose or submitted a request for accommodation,” the notification said.
Amazon declined to comment beyond the notifications to workers.