Countries around the world are anticipating or already facing a new surge in cases, fuelled by the emergence of the highly contagious Omicron variant. Some are opting to reinstate restrictions on movement, others are expanding testing and other resources, while still others are holding firm to their current strategies.
Cases had been low in Florida since the summer resurgence of the pandemic, during which nearly 20,000 residents died of covid-19. As in much of the country, cases are starting to rise again in the state, and healthcare workers are pleading for people to take precautions during family holiday get-togethers and outings.
New York City
Following the explosive first wave of the pandemic that left 30,000 New Yorkers dead by summer 2020, New York’s levels of infection have remained relatively low, with far fewer deaths reported during subsequent peaks. But the state has faced a record surge in reported cases in the past week. In response to the Omicron variant’s emergence, New York City officials announced last week that the city would provide a half-million at-home rapid tests along with a million masks, both of which will be distributed through community groups. City-run testing sites are also having their hours extended.
South Korea has long been one of the few success stories throughout the pandemic, having achieved low case and death rates since even before the advent of available vaccines. This fall, the highly vaccinated country announced it would lift some of its strictest pandemic-related regulations as part of its plan to live with the virus. But the rapid jump in cases recently, likely fuelled by Omicron, has led to the return of restricted hours for restaurants and other public places.
Over the weekend, Health Minister Greg Hunt stated that Australia is unlikely to follow in the example of the Netherlands and other European countries and reinstitute a lockdown on non-essential businesses. Our Australian editor Asha just waited two hours for a test, which isn’t ideal leading up to Christmas.
Despite having fewer resources than much of the U.S., Puerto Rico has managed a much higher vaccination rate than the mainland on average, with over 75% of all residents vaccinated. But the emergence of Omicron and rising cases has led the territory’s leaders to enact stronger regulations lately, such as requiring a vaccination card and recent negative tests to attend large public events.
Many countries in Europe are experiencing a rapid surge in cases, with Omicron quickly becoming the dominant variant over Delta. Spain is now at very high risk after recording an incidence of 511 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the past 14 days. But unlike countries such as the Netherlands, its leaders have hesitated so far to take stronger measures to contain the pandemic.
India experienced likely the most horrific surge of the pandemic earlier this year from March to May, with case levels so high that millions of deaths are thought to have gone unreported. Since then, reported cases have remained low, but Omicron has been spotted in the country and there are early signs that it may be spreading faster than previous variants had as well.
In the wake of Omicron, China may yet enforce even stricter restrictions, such as limits on gatherings and increased testing.
The Omicron variant was first discovered by scientists in South Africa and neighbouring countries in November, though it is not clear where in the world the variant actually emerged. Following its discovery, cases in South Africa precipitously climbed, though they’ve recently started to decline. Covid-related hospitalizations and deaths in the country have been lower than seen in previous peaks, perhaps a sign that Omicron may be milder than past strains, but many experts are still cautious about the threat that the highly contagious variant may pose to healthcare systems around the world.