Chicago ICUs Fill; Alaska Airlines Cuts Flights: Virus Update
(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. shortage of at-home tests is forcing choices: New York City health officials say they will prioritize keeping schools open, while Florida will focus testing on nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Chicago’s viral surge is filling the city’s intensive care units, with almost 90% of beds occupied.
Alaska Airlines cut 120 flights Thursday, or about 16% of its total, according to FlightAware.com, as more than 1,980 flights were canceled across the industry because of winter weather and employee illness.
The omicron variant appears less serious than previous strains but shouldn’t be considered mild, the director general of the World Health Organization said.
Tennis star Novak Djokovic remained in a legal limbo in Australia after a dispute over his request to get exempted from vaccination requirements on entering the country for a tournament.
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Alaska Airlines Cuts Flights on Sick Calls (4:26 p.m. NY)
Alaska Airlines cut 10% of its remaining January flight schedule Thursday as an “unprecedented” level of employees unable to work because of the omicron variant undercut its ability to operate reliably.
Alaska cut 120 flights Thursday, or about 16% of its total, according to FlightAware.com, as more than 1,980 flights were canceled across the industry because of winter weather and employee illness. Alaska grounded nearly 15% of its flights from Dec. 24 through Wednesday, FlightAware data showed. Another 38% were delayed.
Indiana Medical Worker Quarantines Soar (4:08 p.m. NY)
Indiana’s largest health-care system reported 1,728 employees in quarantine, almost 50% more than the previous week.
“We are truly leveraging all of our available resources to support caring for our patients,” said Lisa Tellus, a spokeswoman for Indiana University Health. The system has a total of 36,000 employees, supplemented by a medical team from the U.S. Navy and personnel from the Indiana National Guard.
Daily infections hit a state record on Thursday of more than 15,200, with a positive test rate almost of 36%, according to state data.
Third of NYC Small Businesses Mandate Shots (3:33 p.m. NY)
A third of small firms in New York City, which put in place one of the strictest private-sector mandates of the country at the end of last month, are asking their workers to get the shots in the latest weekly U.S. Census Bureau Small Business Pulse Survey. That’s up from 28% the week of Christmas and less than a quarter three months ago.
Walmart Cuts Paid Leave After CDC Shift (2:28 p.m. NY)
Walmart Inc. is cutting paid leave in half for workers who test positive or have to quarantine after exposure to the virus, offering only one week through March 31 rather than two.
The change is “in alignment” with current guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Walmart said in a memo to employees. The reduction in paid leave was reported earlier by Reuters.
Twitter PlayStation Hunter Now Finds Tests (2:24 p.m. NY)
A Twitter account followed by more than a million people looking for rare PlayStation 5 game consoles is now helping them find Covid-19 tests.
The account known as Wario64 tweeted on Thursday that BinaxNOW rapid tests were in stock from Amazon.com Inc. On Wednesday evening, it alerted followers when the test became available on Walmart Inc.’s website in some regions, generating thousands of likes and hundreds of quotes and retweets.
The new focus for Wario64, who predominantly tweets about the availability of video games and restocking of game consoles, underscores just how much trouble Americans are having finding Covid-19 tests.
In Quebec, No Shot, No Pot (1:16 p.m. NY)
Quebec has tried everything from restaurant closures to a curfew to slow down hospitalizations as the omicron variant rages on. It’s now adding a more draconian measure to its arsenal: Requiring vaccination proof to enter government-owned alcohol and pot stores.
From Jan. 18, residents will need a vaccine passport to enter Societe des alcools du Quebec (SAQ) and Societe quebecoise du cannabis stores, Health Minister Christian Dube said Thursday. Other restrictions targeting unvaccinated people will follow, he said.
“I hope it will be an additional incentive for some to go get their first dose,” Dube said.
Omicron Not Mild, WHO Says (11:25 a.m. NY)
The omicron variant of the Covid-19 virus appears less serious than previous strains but shouldn’t be considered mild, the director general of the World Health Organization said.
“Omicron is hospitalizing and killing people,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters at a briefing in Geneva Thursday.
While global cases have soared to record numbers with the new highly transmissible variant, early studies have suggested the strain causes less severe disease and fewer hospitalizations.
Chicago ICU Beds Fill (11:15 a.m. NY)
Chicago’s surge is filling up its intensive care unit beds. The city’s positivity rate is 23%, and 89% of its 1,026 ICU beds were in use Jan. 5, according to the city’s dashboard. Patients with the virus make up about 30% of the overall ICU bed use, according to the data.
Belgium Hospitals Set for Surge (10:40 a.m. NY)
Belgium’s hospitals should be able to cope with the current surge of omicron even as new cases may as much as quadruple by mid-January, experts said on Thursday.
Hospitals will likely have enough beds available in intensive-care units to handle the peak of infections expected by the end of the month, virologist Steven Van Gucht told reporters following Thursday’s meeting by the federal government and regions.
Portugal’s Bars to Stay Shut (10:38 a.m. NY)
Portugal’s schools will reopen on Jan. 10 as planned, while nightclubs will stay shut for another week, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said. Remote working will also remain mandatory until Jan. 14, and will be recommended after that.
According to the latest rules, only people who test positive for Covid-19 or those who live in the same home have to self-isolate. People who have already received a third vaccine dose won’t have to self-isolate.
Florida Prioritizes Testing Seniors (10:33 a.m. NY)
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said the state will send out up to a million home Covid-19 tests, prioritizing nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
Speaking in West Palm Beach Thursday, he said the second priority would be the state’s seniors generally.
DeSantis also reiterated his administration’s plan to release new testing guidelines, which will emphasize testing for those with risk factors. The Florida Republican has argued that widespread testing, including of asymptomatic low-risk people, is no longer needed and contributes to long lines and bottlenecks.
NYC’s Tests Aimed at Schools (10:32 a.m. NY)
New York City health officials say they plan to receive 2.5 million additional at-home tests on Thursday and Friday, but that a national test shortage means the city is prioritizing the tests for the reopening of schools.
Since Dec. 28, New York City’s Test & Trace said it has distributed nearly 3.5 million tests, including over 2 million tests to schools.
The city is opening another 20 sites over the course of the next week and has tripled the number of tests it’s conducting since Dec. 6. However, the roughly 200 city-run sites are only able to perform about 50,000 tests a day for a city of more than 8 million people. Roughly 65% of the PCR and rapid testing is done by private testing facilities or at-home tests.
Africa Needs to Step Up Shots: Expert (10:30 a.m. NY)
Africa has to focus on getting Covid-19 shots into people’s arms, especially those who are immunosuppressed, if it’s to avoid the long-term spread of the disease, according to John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sub-Saharan Africa is home to about 70% of the total number of people globally infected with HIV, which causes the immune disease AIDS. A study of an HIV positive 36-year-old woman in South Africa showed that the Covid-19 virus stayed in her body for 216 days and mutated rapidly. South Africa alone has 8.2 million people infected with HIV, according to the national statistics agency.
Hong Kong Officials Under Fire for Partying (8:10 a.m. NY)
Hong Kong’s push to reimpose strict Covid-control measures suffered an embarrassing setback after it emerged 10 government officials had gone to a large party attended by a person believed to have Covid.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the probe into a party of more than 100 people -- including some of her government’s top officials -- a day after outlining new measures to curb an omicron outbreak in the city. Home Affairs Secretary Caspar Tsui apologized on Facebook after being sent to a quarantine camp, while health authorities sought to determine whether another cabinet official, Immigration Director Au Ka-wang, was also a close contact to the infected party-goer.
Germany Downplays Risk of Lockdown (7:40 a.m. NY)
Germany can avoid a sweeping lockdown even if the omicron strain of Covid-19 fuels a “drastic increase” in infections in the coming weeks, according to Finance Minister Christian Lindner.
Speaking ahead of Friday’s talks to decide on the government’s pandemic strategy, Lindner said that Germany can tackle the virus and prevent overloading the health system with “reasonable” measures that avoid closing businesses and schools.
Latvia Extends Curbs (7:09 a.m. NY)
The Latvian government extended a lockdown until the end of February to slow a surge in cases.
Authorities prolonged the current restrictions before their expiration on Jan. 11, the Baltic country’s public broadcaster reported on Thursday.
Djokovic Remains in Limbo in Australia (6:19 p.m. HK)
Lawyers for Novak Djokovic mounted a legal challenge against Australia’s decision to deport him after federal officials overruled a state vaccine exemption for the tennis star that sparked a national uproar.
The player, due to contest the Australian Open this month, offered insufficient proof to enter the country under current pandemic rules, the Australian Border Force said Thursday. While he was earlier granted a medical exemption to enter the state of Victoria, the federal government revoked that after officials questioned the athlete for hours at Melbourne Airport.
Djokovic will remain in Australian immigration detention following a court’s decision to adjourn his appeal to a visa cancellation, Associated Press reported on Thursday.
Billionaire Branson Catches Omicron (5:22 p.m. HK)
Richard Branson is recovering from a “mild” case of coronavirus, the Virgin Group founder said in a tweet Thursday, adding that he and his wife both caught the omicron variant.
Branson used the occasion to urge those eligible to get a booster.
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