Pelosi Open to Covid Aid; London May Be Past Peak: Virus Update

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said there’s an “opportunity” to add coronavirus relief aid to a package of federal legislation. New York City Mayor Eric Adams said he’s considering whether to follow California’s lead and mandate vaccines for the city’s schoolchildren.

London may be past the peak of the fast-spreading omicron variant, the city’s regional health director told Sky News. A separate study shows the U.K. still faces a possible $48 billion hit to its economy due to staff absenteeism.

China posted its first community-spread omicron cases in Tianjin as the northern port city moved to begin mass testing. Hong Kong is detecting more infections that it can’t trace back to an origin. A Melbourne court rejected the government’s request to delay a hearing on whether tennis star Novak Djokovic’s recent Covid infection will give him an exemption from Australia’s vaccine requirements so he can play in the Australian Open. 

Key Developments: 

Hungary Braces for 200 Daily Deaths (3:45 p.m. NY)

Hungary expects more than 13,000 daily infections and about 200 daily deaths during the omicron-variant-fueled latest wave, the country’s health chief told Inforadio.

The number of Covid-related hospitalized patients may peak at between 8,000 to 9,000 during the fifth wave in Hungary, which is expected to last until May, Human Resources Minister Miklos Kasler, who’s in charge of healthcare, said.

Hungary’s daily Covid infections almost doubled in a week to 6,524 on Friday, while daily Covid-related deaths rose to 101 from 82 a week earlier.

Asymptomatic Driving Omicron, Gottlieb Says (2:33 p.m. NY)

The main driver of the omicron outbreak is “the fact that we’re probably only diagnosing somewhere between one and five and one in 10 actual infections,” said Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

It’s “a lot of people walking around with mild illness or asymptomatic infection who don’t know it, who are spreading it,” Gottlieb said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Gottlieb, a board member of Pfizer Inc., said that that young children not eligible for vaccines are most at risk now, with more than half of all pediatric hospitalizations in New York City age 4 and younger. He said the outbreak in the Northeast and “probably Florida” appears to be peaking but is building in other parts of the U.S. 

Israel Not Planning Widespread Virus Aid (1:25 p.m. NY)

Israel isn’t planning widespread new coronavirus assistance for businesses during the current omicron-driven wave of cases, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman said Sunday. 

As many as 4 million Israelis, roughly 42% of the population, will be infected in the current wave, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday, citing data presented to his government. As recently as mid-December, daily cases were in the hundreds.  

Meantime, an Israeli government-appointed committee will consider on Sunday evening whether to extend the offer of a fourth vaccine dose to additional groups, including school employees and security personnel, the Kan News reported. 

Europe Protests Continue (1:08 p.m. NY)

Protests against virus rules continued in Europe on Sunday, with demonstrations in Belgium and the Czech Republic. 

Some 5,000 people demonstrated in central Brussels, police said, far fewer than a November protest that drew 35,000. Christmas trees were set on fire, and projectiles were thrown at police, according to news service Belga. Another 750 people joined a protest in Antwerp.

Thousands marched in Prague against new compulsory vaccinations, the Associated Press reported. Czechs 60 and older, as well as medical personnel and students, police and firefighters will be required to get vaccinated starting in March. 

Pelosi Opens Door to More Virus Aid (12:16 p.m. NY)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said there’s an “opportunity” to add federal coronavirus relief aid to a package of legislation funding the government as a February deadline looms. 

“It is clear from the opportunity that is there and the challenge that is there,” Pelosi said in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” noting that President Joe Biden’s administration “has not made a formal request for more funding.”

Additional funds to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic could be added to a bill that’s needed to fund the government after a stopgap spending measure runs out Feb. 18, she said. 

Walensky Defends CDC Response (10:26 a.m. NY)

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defended the agency from criticism that it has issued confusing guidance on how Americans should protect themselves from Covid-19. 

“This is hard,” Rochelle Walensky said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We have ever-evolving science with an ever-evolving variant. And my job is to provide updated guidance in the context of rapidly rising cases. And that is what we’ve done.”

Walensky has faced widespread criticism most recently on a shortening in late December of the recommended quarantine as U.S. infections caused by the omicron variant soar. The quarantine was cut to five days from 10 but without a recommendation for testing before returning to activities like work or school. 

She also said initial reports are that about 40% of hospitalizations are among people who sought care for something other than Covid-19 but tested positive. She said that while omicron appears milder individually, the large number of people infected means “we very may well see death rates rise dramatically.”

NYC Weighs School Vaccines Mandate (9:45 a.m. NY)

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said he’s considering whether to follow California’s lead and mandate vaccines for the city’s schoolchildren.

Adams, talking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” noted that the U.S. already vaccinates children for smallpox, measles and other diseases, and he will work to educate parents about the importance of vaccination against Covid-19.

“We’re going to sit down and determine if we’re going to roll that out as well,” the mayor said, adding that he is now discussing the issue with his health advisers. 

London May Be Past Omicron Peak (8:12 a.m. NY)

London “may well be past the peak” of its omicron wave, Kevin Fenton, London’s regional director for public health, said on Sunday.

“The peak may have occurred at or just about the new year period,” Fenton told Sky News, citing data from the Office for National Statistics. “We’re seeing reductions in overall case rates across the city, and the prevalence within the community.”

While new cases may be slowing, nearly one in ten Londoners are still infected, Fenton said. London was the first U.K. epicenter for the omicron variant, but other parts of the country now have higher and still-rising seven-day case rates.

U.K. Minister Wants Shorter Isolation Times (7:21 a.m. NY)

Britain’s education secretary is calling for a cut in isolation times.

Speaking on the BBC and Sky News, Nadhim Zahawi said reducing virus-linked isolation times to five days from seven would be “helpful” for managing rising staff absences in English schools and businesses, and that any final decision should be driven by scientists, namely the U.K. Health Security Agency.

Djokovic Hearing Set for Monday (7:18 a.m. NY)

A bid by the Australian government to postpone a court hearing for Novak Djokovic was rejected, but officials stuck to their position that the tennis star violated immigration law and should be deported before the Australian Open.

The vaccine-skeptical world No. 1 tennis player has been confined to a Melbourne hotel used to detain refugees and asylum seekers, after being rejected by border authorities when he arrived on Jan. 5 to compete in this year’s first Grand Slam tournament. 

Djokovic’s lawyers argued on Saturday that he was granted a valid medical exemption from Australia’s strict vaccination rules following a positive Covid-19 test on Dec. 16. The government rejected that position in a response posted on Sunday. A virtual court hearing is scheduled for Monday.

German Freight Association Warns of Bottlenecks (6:39 a.m. NY)

Some trucking supply routes are at risk of failing because of the impending wave of infections, German logistics association BGL said.

“Omicron has the potential to increase supply bottlenecks,” BGL President Dirk Engelhardt told newspaper Bild am Sonntag. Germany’s seven-day incidence rate climbed further and reached 362.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest since Dec. 14, according to Robert Koch Institute data Sunday. That compares with the nation’s pandemic record high of 452.4 reached on Nov. 29.

U.K. Economy Faces $48 Billion Hit (5:49 p.m. HK)

The U.K. economy could face a 35-billion pound ($48 billion) loss in output over January and February, because of staff shortages caused by Covid-19 illness and mandatory isolation, according to The Sunday Times.

The projected loss is equivalent to 8.8% of gross domestic product and based on government planning assumptions of a 25% absenteeism rate, the study conducted by the Centre for Economics and Business Research showed. Much of the lost output could be made up during the rest of the year, the CEBR said.

More Untraceable Cases in Hong Kong (5:10 p.m. HK)

Hong Kong reported 33 confirmed positive infections Sunday -- of which 6 were local and the rest imported -- most of which carry the omicron variant, health official Chuang Shuk-kwan said at a briefing Sunday. Chuang raised concern about silent chains of community transmission in a separate list of 20 preliminary positive cases, one of them a 20-year-old part-time saleswoman at Sogo department store in Causeway Bay whose source of infection is unknown. 

That’s a worrying trend for city officials who have upheld a zero tolerance approach to Covid since the pandemic began, and typically trace each new case or cluster. Since Friday, the city has returned to the strictest social distancing measures as a fifth wave sparked by the omicron variant takes hold: evening dining-in is banned and leisure venues like bars, gyms and museums have been ordered to close.

Italy Expands Pass Requirement (3:44 p.m. HK)

Italy will only allow people showing a so-called reinforced green pass to board trains, planes, boats and to access to hotels, open air restaurants and swimming pools from Jan. 10.

The reinforced certification is already mandatory in the country for many leisure activities, including eating inside restaurants, and going to theaters, cinemas, sporting and other public events. Unlike the original green pass, the reinforced version doesn’t grant access to the unvaccinated even if they have had a negative test.

China Reports First Community Spread (10:29 a.m. HK)

China reported its first community-spread omicron cases on Sunday, with two people confirmed with the variant in the northern city of Tianjin, according to a report by state broadcaster CCTV on Sunday. Community spread is where a disease is spread within a group of people who have no known contact with a person infected or exposed to the disease.

The cases were confirmed as being omicron by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, after its local branch completed the genome sequencing, CCTV reported. The two new cases were found to be from the same transmission chain but officials have yet to establish if the strain is the same as imported omicron cases reported earlier in the city, according to the report. 

The city announced that it would start mass testing from 7 a.m. Sunday, in order to “effectively prevent the further spread of the omicron variant,” state news agency Xinhua reported.

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