SYDNEY — Australia’s New South Wales state is reporting more than 5,000 new coronavirus cases in 24 hours for the second straight day as the state and federal governments roll out measures meant to curb the spread of the virus.
The Federal health minister also said experts have recommended the gap between second vaccine doses and boosters be shortened from five months to four starting Jan. 4 and down to three beginning Jan. 31.
State Premier Dominic Perrottet had resisted mandating mask-wearing indoors until Thursday’s record caseload led him to reconsider.
Testing centers have been swamped by people seeking tests before traveling for family Christmas gatherings. People are now being advised to seek tests only if they are symptomatic or are close contacts of existing cases.
HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TODAY ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC:
— Ever-morphing coronavirus requires holiday calculus for 2nd winter
— Omicron less likely to put you in the hospital, British studies say
— US Supreme Court to hold special session on worker vaccine requirements
Go to https://APNews.com/coronavirus-pandemic for updates throughout the day.
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING TODAY:
DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa state officials anticipate spending $9.2 million in federal funds to shore up health care staffing at strained hospitals amid the latest surge in COVID-19 cases.
The Des Moines Register reports that 100 out-of-state nurses and respiratory therapists began arriving in Iowa earlier this month. They are being placed in 17 facilities in Davenport, Des Moines, Iowa City, Mason City, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Waterloo, Council Bluffs, Ames and Sioux City.
The state will spend about $15,000 per nurse for each of the next six weeks. The state is paying $220 per regular hour to a Kansas staffing company for each supplemental nurse and $330 for each of the overtime hours that the nurses are expected to work reach week.
HONOLULU — Hawaii has reported 1,511 new coronavirus cases for the latest 24-hour period as officials say the omicron variant is likely spreading widely throughout the islands.
Hawaii’s single-day record of 1,678 infections was recorded at the height of the delta surge at the end of August.
The case count announced Thursday is the latest in a week of high infection numbers for the state, which had been averaging about 100 daily cases in early December. Hawaii has had among the most rapid increases in new cases nationally over the past 14 days.
More than 370,000 of Hawaii’s 1.5 million residents have not been vaccinated. The state also has a low rate of people getting booster shots.
QUITO, Ecuador — Ecuador is making vaccination against the coronavirus mandatory.
The government said Thursday that only Ecuadorians with a medical condition that could be complicated by vaccination will be exempt. Those people must provide documentation.
Officials say the order comes because of an increase in coronavirus infections and the circulation of new variants such as omicron.
Ecuador says it has enough vaccine to immunize the entire population. As of Tuesday, about 77% of Ecuador’s 17.3 million people had been vaccinated. About 33,600 people in Ecuador have died from COVID-19.
Earlier this week, the body overseeing health policies to combat the pandemic decreed that vaccination certificates must be shown to enter restaurants, cinemas and other public areas.
SANTIAGO, Chile -- Chile plans to offer a fourth dose of the coronavirus vaccine to its citizens.
President Sebastián Piñera said Thursday that the fourth dose is expected to start in February.
Health Secretary Enrique París says the shot will be different than the one people got previously.
Chile has reported almost 86% of its population fully vaccinated. That makes it the country with the highest level of immunization against the coronavirus in Latin America, and puts it among the best ones in the world, according to online research website Our World in Data.
Piñera says 10,2 million out of Chile’s 19 million people have received a third dose as a booster.
Almost 39,000 people in Chile are confirmed to have died from COVID-19.
RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services says that although its testing supply chain “remains tight,” the uptick in demand since Thanksgiving has not reached the levels the state saw in past peaks, such as the delta surge during the summer.
The agency said Thursday that it “is working with laboratory partners to continuously assess testing demand and supply throughout the state and at this time most laboratories have additional testing capacity available."
Health officials in the state's Wake County announced Wednesday night that they will double the number of appointments and expand rapid testing at five locations. They say results for 13,000 people each day will come back in less than 12 hours.
MADRID — Spain has set a new daily infection record as citizens seeking to determine whether they are contagious ahead of Christmas gatherings endured long queues amid a shortage of tests.
The nearly 73,000 new cases recorded Thursday were Spain’s third consecutive record high in three days.
The national 14-day contagion rate rose to its highest level this year: 911 new cases per 100,000 residents.
The Spanish government has ordered mandatory mask-wearing outdoors, with few exceptions, starting from Friday.
But authorities have ruled out measures that would hurt the economy — such as bar and restaurant closures — or caps on gatherings that would be unpopular during the festive period.
Instead, they are mainly relying on masks, social-distancing and vaccines, which have relatively few detractors in Spain and that experts credit for a lower hospital admission rate of COVID-19 patients than in previous virus surges.
The northeastern Catalonia region has reinstated curfews and limited to a maximum of ten the number of people allowed to meet indoors.
PODGORICA, Montenegro — Montenegro’s President Milo Djukanovic has tested positive for the new coronavirus.
His office on Thursday said Djukanovic has light symptoms, feels well and will “continue to perform his regular presidential duties” from self-isolation. The state RTCG television report says Djukanovic has cancelled his meetings.
The report did not specify the variant of the virus Djukanovic has contracted. Montenegro has reported several cases this month of the fast-spreading omicron variant.
Djukanovic, who is 59, is known as the longest-serving official in the Balkans and has held top positions in Montenegro since 1990s.
Djukanovic was vaccinated last August. Montenegro has registered nearly 162,000 and 2,385 deaths from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic in the Balkan nation of some 620,000 people.
ROME — Italy has again tightened COVID restrictions, including barring the unvaccinated from more public spaces, as it registered a record high of new coronavirus infections.
Under the new rules announced Thursday, masks must be worn outdoors nationwide, and only more-protective FFP2 masks may be worn on public transport, in cinemas, theaters and stadiums. Outdoor New Year’s Eve celebrations have been banned, and discos will be closed until Jan. 31.
Already unvaccinated people are barred from restaurants, museums and other indoor activities, but now they also are deprived of the typical Italian coffee standing at a bar.
Italy in the last 24 hours recorded nearly 44,600 new cases of COVID infection, the highest number of new cases in any 24-hour period, and 168 deaths. Omicron represents nearly one-third of the new cases.
CLAYTON, Mo. — St. Louis area health officials have urged the public to avoid travel and gatherings amid a new spike in COVID-19 infections.
“The community is not as safe as it was a month ago, and you should consider that as you plan your activities,” the St. Louis County health department said Thursday in a news release that encouraged vaccinations, booster shots and masking.
The state’s first confirmed case of the omicron coronavirus variant was detected earlier this month in a St. Louis resident.
The county recorded 774 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, the largest one-day total since early January. Another 593 new cases were recorded Tuesday.
The recent surge has driven the average daily count of new cases to 398, a 15.6% increase over the past week and a count well into the CDC’s high transmission threshold, the news release said.
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — With hospitalizations and infections on the rise in Alabama, the state will have a limited number of doses of a new drug that can be used to treat COVID-19, health officials say.
The state’s initial supply of 780 courses of the Pfizer oral drug Paxlovid, which the Food and Drug Administration approved for emergency use as the omicron variant spreads rapidly, will be distributed through pharmacies, the Department of Public Health said Thursday.
Dr. Scott Harris, the state health officer, said the drug will be available to people who aren’t hospitalized with the illness but isn’t a substitute for vaccinations.
Less than half of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. Alabama has the nation’s second-highest death rate from the illness caused by the coronavirus, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University.
COLUMBIA, S.C. — In South Carolina, where COVID-19 cases are again rising and less than 52% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated, hospitals are concerned that an oncoming omicron surge would worsen a staffing crunch among doctors, nurses and other frontline workers.
In the state’s Grand Strand region, hospitals are already contending with high vacancy rates, especially among specialty nurses and lower-wage jobs like emergency room registration clerks, said Gayle Resetar, the chief operating officer of Tidelands Health, which runs four hospitals in the coastal area.
“Any amount of additional workforce out with omicron is pretty catastrophic,” she said.
Hospitals are still busy catching up on other surgeries and procedures delayed by the pandemic, Resetar added: “It won’t take many hospitalized patients to throw us into the overwhelmed state. It’s really more about the availability of staff than it is rooms.”
Dr. Christine Carr, an emergency department physician at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, said her ER has closed an entire 12-bed pod because there is no one to staff it.
PHOENIX — Arizona’s top public health official is urging residents to be “influencers” who “gently encourage” their families and friends to get COVID-19 vaccinations and booster shots for the sake of themselves and others.
“The importance of influencers can’t be overstated when it comes to encouraging people to protect themselves from COVID,” Department of Health Services interim Director Don Herrington said in a blog post Wednesday.
LONDON — Britain’s public health agency says preliminary data suggest that people with the omicron variant of the coronavirus are between 50% and 70% less likely to need hospitalization than those with the delta strain.
The U.K. Health Security Agency findings add to emerging evidence that omicron produces milder illness than other variants -- but also spreads faster and better evades vaccines.
The agency said Thursday that, based on cases in the U.K., an individual with omicron is estimated to be between 31% and 45% less likely to attend a hospital emergency department compared to delta, “and 50 to 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital.”
It cautioned that the analysis is “preliminary and highly uncertain” because of the small number of omicron patients in hospitals and the fact that most were in younger age groups. As of Dec. 20, 132 people had been admitted to U.K. hospitals with confirmed omicron, of whom 14 -- aged between 52 and 96 -- died.
SOFIA, Bulgaria — Bulgarians aged over 65 are being offered a one-off payment of 75 levs ($43) in addition to their monthly pensions if they get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said Thursday that pensioners who have not received a jab will get the payment after the first dose. Those who have had one dose will get the money after receiving a second dose and those getting a booster dose when the program kicks off.
The program, scheduled to begin in January and to last until the end of June, is part of the new government’s campaign to encourage the vaccination process
The Balkan country of 7 million remains the least vaccinated in the 27-nation European Union, with less than one-third of its adults fully vaccinated.