By The Associated Press
PARIS — The French government is grappling with ways to slow the surging omicron variant, while French travelers and families are flocking to virus testing tents ahead of the holidays.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex spent the day Tuesday meeting with mayors and lawmakers to persuade them to support tougher vaccine rules.
France’s virus hospitalization numbers have shot up in recent weeks, with some 16,000 people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 and 60% of the country’s ICU beds occupied by virus patients. Confirmed weekly virus infections are at the highest level in France since the pandemic began.
Most are infected with the delta variant but more than one in three new cases in the Paris region is the fast-spreading omicron variant, French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said.
The French government wants a law passed by the end of next month requiring vaccination to enter restaurants and many public venues. Currently a “health pass” is required to enter all such spaces in France, but people can get the pass with either a vaccination certificate, a negative virus test or proof of recent recovery from COVID-19.
France is ramping up vaccination and booster efforts, with doses made available to all children 5-11 starting Wednesday. More than 89% of French people 12 and over have had at least two doses, and about a third have had three doses.
HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TODAY ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC:
— Biden to urge Americans to get vaccinated as Christmas nears
— Explainer: Boosters key to fight omicron, lot still to learn
— Feeling powerless, families bring elderly home in pandemic
— Britain to give financial support to businesses hurt by the omicron surge
— German military gives hospital an edge in treating COVID-19 patients
Go to https://APNews.com/coronavirus-pandemic for updates throughout the day.
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING TODAY:
PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s status of having one of the lowest burdens of COVID-19 cases in the country is being challenged by a surge in cases.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Maine has risen over the past two weeks from about 624 new cases per day on Dec. 5 to about 915 new cases per day on Dec. 19. The state has one of the highest immunization rates in the country at more than 70%, but public health authorities have said lower rates in rural areas have led to outbreaks.
The state has been the site of more than 137,000 positive cases of the virus since the start of the pandemic. There have also been more than 1,400 deaths, and 11 more deaths were recorded on Tuesday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said.
LONDON — Scotland is effectively barring spectators from professional soccer matches and canceling Edinburgh’s big New Year’s bash as part of tighter restrictions to slow the spread of the omicron variant.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says that for three weeks starting Dec. 26, public events will be limited to 200 people indoors and 500 outdoors. She said that means pro sports will be “effectively spectator-free.”
It also means the cancellation for a second year of Hogmanay, Edinburgh’s New Year’s Eve street party.
Sturgeon says social distancing and table service-only rules will return to bars and alcohol-serving restaurants Dec. 27.
The rapid spread of omicron means Britain is spending its second Christmas under restrictions. Sturgeon told Scottish lawmakers that “although it might not feel like it, we are in a much stronger position than last year.”
The four parts of the U.K. — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — set their own health policies and have slightly different restrictions in place.
NEW YORK — The omicron variant is creating havoc on Broadway, with more shows temporarily shutting their doors during the busy Christmas week and one giving up for good.
“Jagged Little Pill,” a musical built on Alanis Morissette’s landmark rock album, will not reopen after it suspended performances when COVID-19 cases were recently detected within the company.
Producers cited the virus in part for the decision to permanently shut down the show, noting “extreme uncertainty ahead of us this winter.” Since individual musical and plays do not currently reveal box office data, it is hard to tell how much the virus is to blame or a dip in interest.
“Aladdin,” “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Ain’t Too Proud,” “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and “MJ The Musical” have all announced multi-day cancellations due to the virus. Previews of “Skeleton Crew,” a play by Dominique Morisseau, have been pushed back into next week and the off-Broadway musical “Trevor” canceled its last two weeks of performances.
BOSTON — Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday he will activate up to 500 members of the National Guard to support understaffed hospitals across the state facing a surge of COVID-19 patients and to bolster non-emergency medical transportation needs.
Up to 300 Guard members will begin training this week to provide nonclinical support at 55 acute care hospitals and 12 ambulance service providers, the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services said. They will be deployed Dec. 27.
The goal is to ensure that hospitals have sufficient capacity to care for both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients.
The Guard members will provide support in five critical areas identified by hospitals and ambulance services: non-emergency transportion between health care facilities; observing patients at risk for harming themselves; security and helping to maintain a safe workplace; moving patients within hospitals, such as bringing them from their rooms to tests; and delivering meals to patients in their rooms.
In addition, the state Department of Public Health on Tuesday directed all hospitals effective Dec. 27 to postpone or cancel all nonessential elective procedures.
THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The director of the European Union’s drug regulator says that the COVID-19 situation “remains extremely worrying across Europe” with high levels of transmission of the delta variant and the swift spread of the omicron mutation and it remains to be seen if vaccines will have to be tweaked to deal with omicron.
European Medicines Agency director Emer Cooke said Tuesday that “there’s no answer yet on whether we will need an adapted vaccine with a different composition to tackle this or any other emerging variants.”
Over the past year, the Amsterdam-based agency has given the green light to five vaccines for use in the 27-nation bloc.
Cooke says the agency issued guidance in February to drug makers in case they need to alter vaccines and has changed legislation to speed up evaluation of any newly tweaked vaccines, should they become necessary to tackle the pandemic.
She says, “we as regulators were well aware that viruses mutate and this is a situation that we are prepared for from a regulatory perspective.”
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Sweden on Tuesday said patrons must be seated in bars and restaurants and tables must be separated by one meter (over 3 feet).
“This means that there will be no nightclub partying on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told a press conference as she announced 10 new restrictions that begin Thursday.
She added that they also will be rules to prevent congestion in shops, a maximum of 50 people at private gatherings and urged people to work from home when possible. The government also said participation in sports tournaments and camps is not recommended until Jan. 16.
Sweden has previously stood out among European nations for its comparatively hands-off response to the pandemic.
In neighboring Norway, Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol said 86% of those aged over 65 have gotten the booster shot and said the “good news” means they are “well protected should they be infected.”
Norway has seen the number of virus cases quadruple in recent days.
LONDON — Britain has announced 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) in grants and loans to help the hospitality industry survive the onslaught of the omicron variant, bowing to days of pressure from pubs, restaurants and other businesses that have seen their income plunge following public health warnings.
Businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors in England will be eligible for one-time grants of up to 6,000 pounds ($7,900) each. An additional 100 million pounds ($132 million) will be given to local governments to support businesses in their areas hit by the sudden spike in COVID-19 infections driven by the highly transmissible new variant.
Pubs and restaurants have reported a wave of cancellations during the crucial Christmas season as people shun public events and workers are forced to self-isolate, leaving venues short of staff. Many theaters and museums also have closed their doors.
“With the surge in omicron cases, people are rightly exercising more caution as they go about their lives, which is impacting our hospitality, leisure and cultural sectors at what is typically the busiest time of the year,’’ Prime Minister Boris Johnson said. “That’s why we’re taking immediate action.”
MIAMI — Omicron has overtaken the delta variant in Miami-Dade County as the dominant strain of the coronavirus in a matter of weeks, according to genomic surveillance data.
Genetic sequencing of the virus showed omicron grew from a tiny fraction of hundreds of samples taken the first week of December to nearly three of every four samples taken last week.
“It is absolutely astonishing how contagious this variant has proven to be,” Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told the Miami Herald.
The county contracts with NOMI Health to conduct testing, vaccination and sequencing. The company found that 76% of 504 COVID-19 samples taken Dec. 14-15 were the omicron variant. That compared to 64% of 378 samples collected Dec. 10-13, and 1.3% of the 373 samples collected Dec. 1-5, county records showed.
The variant is also sweeping the nation, accounting for 73% of new infections last week, federal health officials said.
The county is also seeing a spike in positive COVID-19 cases, which stand at 10% after dropping to about 1% a month ago, according to data.
“It’s on us to protect ourselves and still the most important thing we can do is vaccinate,” the mayor said.
WASHINGTON — The White House says President Joe Biden had close contact with a staff member who later tested positive for the coronavirus and is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.
Press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Monday night that the staff member tested positive earlier in the day. Psaki says the staff member spent about 30 minutes around the president on Air Force One on Friday during a trip from Orangeburg, South Carolina, to Philadelphia.
Psaki says the staff member is fully vaccinated and boosted and tested negative before boarding Air Force One. She says the staffer began experiencing symptoms Sunday night.
Psaki says the 79-year-old Biden is tested regularly for the virus and has had two negative tests since Sunday. She says he will be tested again Wednesday.
The NFL’s decision to reduce COVID-19 testing for asymptomatic, vaccinated players could signal a trend for pro sports leagues and provide an example for society to follow heading into 2022.
Despite a rising number of positive cases that forced three games to be rescheduled over the weekend, the NFL, in cooperation with the players’ union, agreed on Saturday to scale back testing for vaccinated players. The move aligns with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC recommends “diagnostic testing” only for symptomatic or close-contact vaccinated people, and “screening tests” only for unvaccinated people.
The NFL previously required vaccinated players to get tested weekly before amending the protocols. The NFLPA had advocated for daily testing for vaccinated players but eventually agreed to “target” testing.
The NBA didn’t require vaccinated players to get tested during the season but revised its policy to increase testing for a two-week period starting Dec. 26.
The NHL tested players every third day but returned to daily testing through at least Jan. 7.
BRUSSELS — The European Union’s executive announced Tuesday that its COVID-19 passport must remain valid for intra-EU travel for nine months after full vaccination. The rule takes effect on Feb. 1.
The announcement came only days after last week’s E summit stressed the importance of coordinated action to avoid a confusing cacophony of rules in the bloc’s 27 member states, and ensure that COVID-19 certificates continue to guarantee unrestricted travel.
“A harmonized validity period for EU Digital COVID certificate is a necessity for safe free movement and EU level coordination,” said EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides.
If member states could all impose their own deadlines, it would sharply hamper travel within the bloc.
The nine-month target had already garnered wide backing at a recent summit but still needed to be legally backed by the EU Commission.
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