People wearing protective masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walk along a shopping street, Dec 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (EUGENE HOSHIKO / AP)
BANGKOK / BEIRUT / DHAKA / ISTANBUL / MELBOURNE / SEOUL / TOKYO / SINGAPORE / SYDNEY / SUVA / DUBAI / WELLINGTON / YANGON - Japan braced for a feared rebound in coronavirus cases as the highways and airports filled with travelers at the start of New Year's holidays on Wednesday.
The governors of the metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka urged residents to keep end-of-year gatherings small, as more cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 come to light, including a suspected cluster at an Osaka nursing home.
The governors of the metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka urged residents to keep end-of-year gatherings small, as more cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 come to light
Health officials advised travelers to avail themselves of free coronavirus tests before departure, amid fears that an outpouring of city dwellers could spread infections to the countryside.
"The highest risk is meeting people without taking adequate measures to prevent infection," said Norio Ohmagari, director of the Disease Control and Prevention Center and a top health advisor to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
The consecutive New Year's holidays mark one of the busiest travel seasons in Japan. Footage from public broadcaster NHK showed Tokyo's main airports were packed, while public highway data showed a 39 km traffic jam heading southwest of the capital.
Officials in Osaka confirmed five Omicron cases at a nursing home, believed to be the first cluster of the variant in Japan, Kyodo news agency reported on Tuesday.
New COVID-19 infections have ticked up in recent weeks, reaching 385 nationwide on Tuesday. Even so, serious cases and deaths have stayed low, aided by a vaccination push that has fully inoculated almost 80 percent of the population.
Members of the public queue to take COVID-19 tests in Sydney, Dec 28, 2021. (BRENDON THORNE / AAP IMAGE VIA AP)
Australia will seek to make urgent changes to COVID-19 testing rules to ease pressure on test sites as infections surged and the country's most populous state reported a near doubling in daily cases.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday Australia needed "a gear change" to manage testing requirements, redefine who qualifies as a close contact and the furlough of virus-exposed workers. He called a snap meeting of the national cabinet on Thursday.
"We just can't have everybody just being taken out of circulation because they just happen to be at a particular place at a particular time," Morrison said during a media briefing.
Morrison's proposed rules on close contacts could mean most people do not have to get PCR tests or isolate themselves, cutting long lines at test sites and 72-to-96-hour waits for lab results.
The proposal on new testing requirements comes as Queensland promised to relax rules for interstate travelers with domestic arrivals needing only a negative rapid antigen test result to gain entry from Jan 1 rather than the PCR test. Morrison said A$375 million ($271 million) will be used to buy millions of additional rapid antigen test kits.
Queensland's so-called "tourism tests" came under severe criticism from New South Wales after holiday travelers crowded its testing hubs, causing delays in results of several days.
Even with soaring infections, some testing centers in Sydney were closed following the public holidays and those that were open had long walk-in and drive-in queues.
Bangladesh began administering coronavirus vaccine booster shots on Tuesday as the South Asian country tries to fend off the highly contagious Omicron variant.
The country detected two Omicron cases variant in cricketers who returned home from Zimbabwe this month but has yet to see community transmission, the health ministry says.
The booster shots are being given to frontline workers and people over 60 who have taken the second dose at least six months ago, health officials said.
The booster drive started in the capital, Dhaka, while the government aims to start administering shots outside the capital soon, the officials said.
Bangladesh has administered about 132 million vaccine doses in total, with 27 percent of the population having had two shots.
Fiji announced on Wednesday that it will again tighten its border restrictions for all foreign travelers from Jan 1 next year as more COVID-19 cases continue to be confirmed among foreign travelers coming to the island nation.
According to a statement by Fiji's Health Ministry, effective from Jan 1, all foreign travelers from the travel partner countries and non-travel partner countries must produce a negative PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test taken no more than 2 calendar days prior to the scheduled day of departure.
Prior to this, foreign travelers had to return a negative PCR test 72 hours before leaving for Fiji.
The changes apply to all travelers disembarking in and transiting through Fiji which re-opened its international borders for tourists from its travel partner countries such as Australia and the United States.
In addition, all eligible foreign travelers will now be required to take an approved Rapid Antigen Test after 24 hours of their arrival into the island nation.
Fiji's Permanent Secretary for Health James Fong said the changes came as more COVID-19 cases continue to be recorded among the foreign travelers coming to the country.
All these cases were of fully vaccinated individuals who tested negative on their three-day pre-departure PCR test and are currently in isolation within Fijian hotels.
He said that they anticipated an increasing number of cases from border quarantine facilities.
Lebanon registered on Tuesday 2,280 new COVID-19 cases, the highest daily increase since Aug 11, raising the total number of infections in the country to 715,950, the health ministry said.
Meanwhile, the death toll from the virus went up by 15 to 9,072, it added.
According to the ministry, 43.1 percent of the Lebanese population have received the COVID-19 vaccine, 35.5 percent two doses and 14.5 percent third booster shots.
Myanmar's Ministry of Health on Tuesday confirmed the first four cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
According to the release of Myanmar's Ministry of Health, SARS-CoV-2 variant Omicron was found in four samples of returnees from Dubai, the United Arab Emirates
According to the ministry's release, SARS-CoV-2 variant Omicron was found in four samples of returnees from Dubai, the United Arab Emirates after a total of 30 laboratory samples of returnees who have been infected with COVID-19 were performed with Omicron Real Time PCR Testing and Genomic Sequencing Testing.
Only one of the four infected people showed symptoms and all are in good condition, the release said.
Myanmar reported 530,000 COVID-19 infections with 19,260 deaths as of Tuesday, the ministry's figures said.
The figures showed that 187 new COVID-19 cases were reported with three new deaths in the country over the past 24 hours.
New Zealand said on Wednesday that a person who tested positive for the Omicron variant of COVID-19 had briefly been active in the community in Auckland.
The person arrived in New Zealand from the United Kingdom on Dec 16 but only tested positive on Dec 17, the health ministry said in a statement.
The ministry said the person was in Auckland city on Dec 26 and Dec 27, but that they do not believe the individual was highly infectious at the time of exposure.
New Zealand has no Omicron cases in its community yet and has recorded 17 cases at its border quarantine facilities.
Singapore reported 365 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the total tally in the country to 278,409.
Of the new cases, 191 were in the community, one was in migrant worker dormitories and 173 were imported cases, according to the statistics released by the Ministry of Health.
Among the new cases, 134 were confirmed to have contracted the Omicron variant of COVID-19, with 40 local and 94 imported cases being confirmed respectively.
A total of 303 cases are currently warded in hospitals, with 17 cases being critically ill and intubated in the ICU. The current overall ICU utilization rate is 49.1 percent.
A man wearing a face mask walks in front of Christmas decorations and the display of South Korea's capital Seoul logo in Seoul, South Korea, Dec 1, 2021. ( LEE JIN-MAN / AP)
South Korea reported 5,409 more cases of COVID-19 as of midnight Tuesday, compared to 24 hours ago, raising the total number of infections to 620,938.
The daily caseload was up from 3,865 in the previous day, rising above 5,000 in consecutive three days.
The recent resurgence was attributable to small cluster infections in the Seoul metropolitan area.
The number of the Omicron variant infections was 558, including 252 imported cases and 306 local transmissions, up 109 from the prior day.
A total of 126 cases were imported, lifting the combined figure to 17,119.
The number of infected people who were in a serious condition stood at 1,151, up 49 from the previous day.
Thirty-six more deaths were confirmed, leaving the death toll at 5,382. The total fatality rate was 0.87 percent.
The country has administered COVID-19 vaccines to 44,115,185 people, or 85.9 percent of the total population, and the number of fully inoculated people was 42,432,990, or 82.6 percent, of the population.
Thai health authorities warned on Wednesday that residents should brace themselves for a potential jump in coronavirus cases after classifying the country's first cluster of the Omicron variant as a super-spreader incident.
The Omicron cluster identified in the northeastern province of Kalasin on Christmas eve has been linked to a couple who had traveled from Belgium and visited bars, concerts and markets.
The ensuing cluster had infected hundreds, with cases spreading to 11 other provinces, said senior health official Opas Karnkawinpong, citing how one of the bars linked to the cluster had been packed and did not have good ventilation.
Up to now, Thailand has reported 740 cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, including 251 in people who had come into contact with foreign arrivals, said Opas.
After coronavirus infections peaked in August above 20,000, daily case numbers have fallen to around 2,500 in the past week.
But the health ministry's planning scenario indicated that by March daily infections could hit 30,000, with more than 160 deaths, without a faster rollout of measures like vaccinations and testing, as well as greater social distancing.
In the first two weeks of January, government employees have been advised they can work from home, coronavirus taskforce spokesman Taweesin Wisanuyothin told a separate briefing, where he urged the private sector to follow suit.
Commuters, wearing protective face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, get out of a streetcar in Istanbul, Turkey, Dec 27, 2021. (FRANCISCO SECO / AP)
Daily new coronavirus cases in Turkey jumped beyond 30,000 on Tuesday for the first time since Oct 19, data showed, as the health minister warned of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
Turkey recorded 32,176 cases and 184 deaths on Tuesday, health ministry data showed. Tuesday's cases are the highest since Oct 12.
Turkey's daily case levels have been below or about 20,000 in December, down from about 30,000 in October. New infections surged 30 percent on Monday to above 25,000.
"Due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, it can be seen we are now entering a rising trend," Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said on Twitter, urging Turks to get vaccinated and receive their booster shots.
At the weekend, Koca said that more than 10 percent of COVID-19 cases in Turkey were caused by Omicron. It announced its first six Omicron cases on Dec 11.
Last week, Turkey's domestically developed COVID-19 vaccine, Turkovac, received emergency use authorization from Turkish authorities.
Daily coronavirus infections in the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf region's tourism and commercial hub, have risen above 2,000 for the first time since June.
Authorities on Wednesday recorded 2,234 new infections in the past 24 hours, without breaking down the cases by variant.
The UAE, which is hosting the Dubai Expo 2020 world fair, announced its first known case of the coronavirus variant Omicron earlier this month.
Daily cases had fallen below 100 in October but started to climb again in December as tourists flocked to Dubai in the holiday period.
Abu Dhabi this week reimposed restrictions requiring those entering the emirate from within the UAE to show proof of vaccination and negative PCR results, as of Thursday. It also instituted remote learning for the first two weeks of the new school term.
Dubai, which is hosting the Expo until the end of March and whose economy relies heavily on the travel industry, has not yet reintroduced restrictions that were largely lifted in mid-2020.
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